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Ralph MacDonald, Pop Percussionist, Dies at 67

Published: 2011-12-21
Ralph MacDonald Ralph MacDonald, a Grammy Award-winning percussionist and composer whose understated Afro-Caribbean rhythms were known as “the ghost" behind the hit records of a multitude of 1970s and '80s pop stars and who was a co-writer on the hit songs “Where Is the Love?" and “Just the Two of Us," died on Sunday in Stamford, Conn. He was 67. The cause was lung cancer, his family said.

Mr. MacDonald's touch on the conga drums and dozens of other percussion instruments was ubiquitous for many years in pop music. It supplied the intimate undertow of Bette Midler's “Do You Want to Dance?" (1972), the drive behind David Bowie's “Young Americans" (1975) and the Caribbean lilt in Jimmy Buffett's “Margaritaville" (1977).

With a reputation in the industry as “the ghost behind the million-selling albums," as The New York Times recounted in 1977, he made similarly defining contributions to records by Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Phoebe Snow, Rod Stewart, George Benson, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Luther Vandross and Amy Winehouse. “My approach is to work with melody by simply enhancing it," he told The Times. Mr. Simon, with whom he made six albums, “sings such pretty songs," he said, that “it's a challenge to enhance that without overdoing it."

Mr. MacDonald began learning his craft at an early age. His father and five uncles, immigrants from Trinidad, all played professionally in calypso bands. It was one of his uncles, Urias Fritz, who taught him to play with his fingers, not his whole hand, and showed him where to hit the drum. “He didn't just hit the top of the drum," Mr. MacDonald said in an interview. “He'd hit it all over, for all types of sounds."

Mr. MacDonald was 17 when Harry Belafonte hired him for his touring orchestra. He worked with Mr. Belafonte for 10 years, and at some point informed him that despite his many gold records and despite being celebrated as the King of Calypso, Mr. Belafonte really didn't know what calypso was.


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