Author: Johnson, Bashiri
Date published: May 1, 2012
I call the Grammy-winning percussionist, songwriter, and producer Ralph MacDonald "Mister Magic," not because he cowrote that classic hit for Grover Washington Jr., but because he left us a legacy of magical work and performances. Ralph, who played with, among many others, Harry Belafonte, George Benson, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Steely Dan, was one of the most influential artists I have ever encountered in my life and career, and he unknowingly provided me with a trio of incredible lessons in greatness.
LESSON 1: THE STANDARD OF PERFECTION
I first met Ralph MacDonald over the airwaves and on records, which provided some of my first studies in recorded percussion. I studied percussion most intensely. I practiced my sound and technique first by imitating what I heard, then later with brash self-confidence, emulating and creating my own parts. The artistic standard of perfection and excellence I heard in Ralph's work set a very high bar that I would always strive to meet. Ralph's first lesson revealed to me that upon finding my own sound and voice, maybe one day I would get called to do what I loved to do: play percussion.
LESSON 2: "JUST DO YOU"
As my career grew over the decades, I was blessed to work for many amazing artists and play on numerous high-profile projects. Ralph was always there as an inspiration. One memorable day, the call came from Ralph himself, to play on a Japanese project he was doing. The four percussionists were me, Steve Croon, Crusher Bennett, and of course Ralph. All of the percussionists in the room were quite talented and adept. During the session I asked Ralph, "What would you like me to do?" Ralph replied, "Just do you! I want you to do what you hear." With that, Ralph provided me with my second lesson, which was to know yourself, trust yourself, and always be yourself. This lesson revealed to me that the reason why people seek out and hire you is because they want you to just do you.
LESSON 3: THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN TAKE WITH YOU, BUT THERE'S PLENTY YOU CAN LEAVE BEHIND
I attended and performed at the services for my beloved friend and mentor Ralph MacDonald. Roberta Flack, Jimmy Buffett, Valerie Simpson, Mayor Mike Pavia, and many others spoke and performed at Ralph's Memorial Concert in Stamford Connecticut on January 15. Ralph's family showed a video slide show of his life and work, which was very moving and spiritually sobering. I was humbled not only by the outpouring of love and tribute paid to Ralph but also by the quantity and quality of his professional legacy and body of work. Ralph touched so many people, contributed to so much music, and gave us all something to move to, groove to, and smile about.
Thus Ralph provided me with my third lesson, which is that when you pass on there isn't anything you can take with you, but there's plenty you can leave behind. Ralph MacDonald taught me that you should always be honest, be excellent, give love, and be yourself. Thank you, Ralph. Rest in peace, my friend.