Ralph MacDonald v String Section
I heard a rumor from a close friend yesterday that another old friend, percussionist/songwriter/publisher Ralph MacDonald is fighting lung cancer. I have to check it out, and I will, and it will distress me if it’s true, because this is a towering musician who enriches the music world every time he hits a conga, slaps a tambourine or taps a cowbell.
I met Ralph about 40 years ago, in LA, when he was the traveling percussionist with Harry Belafonte and I was lucky enough to be in the band playing with him, et al, on the tracks of one of Harry’s many albums (vinyl days, you understand). So I have a few personal Ralph stories in my repertoire. Here’s one of them, briefly.
(This is Ralph and me at his home in Mt. Vernon, NY, July 4, 1975. Arthur Ashe is about to win at Wimbledon, and the crowd at Ralph’s is about to go wild)
Shortly after I came East to New York, in 1975, and Ralph was showing me the town, he got a call to go out to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Jersey to overlay percussion on some tracks Creed Taylor was producing of/for someone, I think it might have been Patty Austin, but it could also have been George Benson or neither of them. But when Ralph and another friend, Arthur Jenkins, and I got out to the studio Creed and Rudy told Ralph that actually they’d run out of all but one of 24 tracks and that was earmarked for (illegally) double-tracking the strings to further enlushen a sound that was already pretty rich, tho not necessarily very interesting.
They apologized to Ralph for promising him a gig when there wasn’t one, and Ralph was characteristically generous about letting them off the hook. But before he did, this is what went down:
“No problem, guys,” Ralph said, “don’t worry about it, shit happens. But I’d like to hear the track, anyway, long as I’m here.”
Creed said fine, asked Engineer Rudy to put up the track so we could hear it in the control booth. We listened for awhile, then Ralph said, “Gimme a headset and I’ll just play along with the track in the studio. What can it hurt?”
Creed shrugged, Rudy shrugged. I guess they figured they owed him something for the trip he’d made from Manhatten to Buttfuck, NJ, and maybe they figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to humor him, since they did use him on a lot of their product. Who knew? It would be good for the relationship, race relations, whatever.
“But you do know we’re out of tracks, Ralph,” Creed said, as Ralph was rummaging around in his percussion kit, “just so’s you don’t…” But Ralph was out of the control booth and onto the studio floor with his kit before Creed could finish. He grabbed a stool, took it to the to the center of the studio where there was a mic and a headset, put the headset on and motioned to Rudy with a twirling finger to run the tracks.
The tracks began to play, very big, lots of instruments. I don’t remember anything about them, which tells you something right there, I guess that there might not have been much to remember.
Anyway, Ralph put on the headset, perched up on the stool, seemed to listen ferociously, like an an air traffic controller might do as he lands three or four big liners at the same time. Then, after maybe the first verse, he picks a tambourine out of the kit and starts playing it. I don’t remember what he did with it–actually, I do, but it would be too hard to try to put into words, except maybe in a music arranging class–, but it suddenly got everyone in the control booth’s attention, like a hooker on a troop-train. The tracks came to life. Their whole focus changed. The string and horn figures seemed to now make more sense, now, like they actually belonged in the arrangement.
The playback stopped abruptly after another verse, and Creed or Rudy or both hit the talkback. “Uh, Ralph, why don’t we try a take? It might make some sense to have it in the can in case we need it.” For this, please read: “Shit, get this on tape, and fuck the strings.”
So they recorded Ralph and his tambourine in two takes, sent out for pizza and we all kissy-faced and talked shop or pussy or anything except the incredible show this ex-numbers-running street-ball point-guard from Harlem and his calypso rhythm tshatchki had just put on, which brought verve and soul to some tracks which were dying without them.
Ralph didn’t say anything about it on the way back home, which was in keeping with his style, but he had to be thinking something like: “MutherFUCKer! I just took out a big bad string section a bunch o’ white guys payed good money for and now can’t use and made it look like a blindfolded layup. Kiss my ass.”
Anyway, that’s my RMD story for today, and now I have to go to an AA mtng.