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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Ralph MacDonald, 1944-2011

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 18, 2011

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

Ralph MacDonald (KickMag.net)

I learned this morning from the “Limers” discussion group that percussionist, composer, and arranger Ralph MacDonald had passed–too soon–at age 67.  MacDonald may be best known to the wider world as the co-writer of two R&B classics, the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is The Love” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us,” with vocals by Bill Withers.  Denizens of the dancefloor and citizens of the hip-hop nation, meanwhile, will remember him for the old-school breakbeat sample from “Jam on the Groove” and for Saturday Night Fever’s Calypso Breakdown.”

Calypso Carnival

Calypso Carnival (RCA, 1971)

MacDonald didn’t come by his “calypso” credentials casually.  The son of Trini-born, New York-based calypsonian MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), he was an accomplished pannist who at age 17 started a decade-long stint as Harry Belafonte’s arranger and music director, eventually writing much of the latter’s Calypso Carnival album.  With pan master Robert Greenidge, he also brought a touch of authenticity to Jimmy Buffett’s “Coral Reefer” band.  (Greenidge, MacDonald, and fellow Reefers also performed and recorded independently as “Club Trini,” while MacDonald himself released eleven albums as a leader.)

“Extensive” doesn’t do justice to MacDonald’s list of sideman credits.  As the New York Times noted, he was “the ghost” behind dozens of 1970s radio hits.  His percussion flavors albums by everyone from jazz lions like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, and Ron Carter; pop stars Bette Midler, Don McLean, and Paul Simon; and R&B icons Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson.  (As for his calypso bona fides: he also answered calls from David Rudder and the Mighty Sparrow.)

More recent collaborators include the late Amy Winehouse; “When Steel Talks” caught a 2008 appearance with the Caribbean All Stars on video (HQ version here).  But my favorite recent performance of MacDonald’s is on Kaiso, the splendid album that Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles released earlier this year.  He’s featured prominently on this sweet, soaring cover of Kitch’s “Sugar Bum Bum”:

Now he’s beating percussion with the ancestors.  Rest in peace, Ralph MacDonald.

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