Remembering Ralph...

by Etienne Charles

Global -  On Sunday December 18th around 1 o’clock in the morning I received the news that my dear friend Ralph MacDonald passed away at home in Connecticut.  He will forever have a special place in my heart. 

Some of the original crew of Ralph MacDonald
Etienne  Charles (in hat) with some of Ralph MacDonald’s ‘original crew’
at the Harlem, New York service celebrating the life of MacDonald

I first met Ralph in Trinidad on Carnival Tuesday in the late 90’s while he was jumping with Phase II, the band in which I was playing (even though he was a die-hard Desperadoes fan).  He hopped up on the float and started playing congas, grooving hard.  We next met in November 2005 when I was playing in Stamford, Connecticut with Roberta Flack.  Ralph came out to the sound check and took Turo (Arturo Tappin) and myself out to dinner after.   We talked about the random encounter in Phase II years before and I immediately found a friend.  We then went back to his house where Gold and Platinum records covered every wall of the living room and three Grammys sat on the table.  After the gig with Roberta, we promised to keep in touch.  In January 2006 we did our first gig, traveling to Barbados to do the Jazz Festival with Arturo Tappin.  Ralph and I sat next to each other on the flight.  We laughed and joked the whole way down.  I was glad to find someone who appreciated Trini humour (there weren’t many Trinis in Tallahassee, Florida where I was living at the time). 

Ralph was glad to hear that I was studying music and that I was about to graduate.  He told me his whole story about leaving school to hit the road with Belafonte and never looking back.  The gig was a blast in Bim (Barbados), we had a few days to chill and from then I knew I’d be learning lots from the master.  

I called Ralph out of the blue after the 2 sessions for my first record, “Culture Shock.”  He decided that he wanted to put percussion on “Culture Shock” and “Old School.”  That began our recording relationship which grew over 5 years (5 records between the two of us).  He always brought that special touch, the groove to the studio and to the stage.

Ralph encouraged me to move to New York, which I did in late August 2006.  I called him as soon as I got in and he said “you’re here, GOOD! we’re recording at Avatar tomorrow, bring your horn and the cuatro.”  Talk about baptism by fire, first full day in NYC and I was in the studio recording tracks for his record “Mixty Motions.”  Will Lee was on Bass, Rob Mounsey on Keys, Dave Spinozza on Guitar, Buddy Williams on Drums and big brother Ralph on congas.  Also at the studio were Ralph’s longtime songwriting partners, Bill Eaton (Uncle Buster) and William Salter.  Elliot Scheiner was at the mixing board. Ralph always said that the cuatro reminded him of his father MacBeth and made me bring it to each session that we did.  

Ellie Mannette, Dr. Dawn Batson & Ralph MacDonald
Ellie Mannette, Dr. Dawn Batson & Ralph MacDonald

The rest of 2006 was a blast, I was getting my formal education at Juilliard and on weekends I was getting life training from Ralph.  He’d be playing in the city on occasions with Buffett and Coral Reefer or with TophE & the Pussycats and I’d always find myself at the gig to watch and learn.  Through Ralph at these gigs, I saw how so many musicians had GREAT respect for him.  I remember meeting Ron Carter and Bernard Purdie at the Sugar Bar; they had both come to check him out.      

Ralph loved his heritage and it showed in his musical character.  Most of his records (I believe all except the first one “Sound of a Drum”) have steel pan as a melody instrument.  I remember the first time I heard the driving rhythm section on “Calypso Breakdown” I said to myself “Holy Sh*t this man is a beast!”  Then I heard “the Path,” one of the most inspiring compositions I’ve ever encountered.  It still resonates in my mind today.  We all know his classics, “Just the Two of Us,” “Where is the Love,” “Mr. Magic” and so many others, “Discolypso” (where he’s singing), “Trippin’,” “Remember Kitchener,” “Jam on the Groove,” the list goes on and on.  He loved steel pan and calypso:  he could sing every lyric to his favorite calypsos including “Russian Satellite,” “Rose,” “Benwood Dick” among many others.  He told so many stories;  about growing up [in Harlem] on 117th Street between 5th and Lenox Avenues, getting in Belafonte’s band, about Grace and his children, his grand-children, his father MacBeth, Uncle Bougs, Gary, his love for Trini and Korean foods and his colleagues Robert Greenidge (Robot), Joe Brown, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Steve Gadd, Rick Marotta, Abraham Laboriel Sr., Hugh McCracken, Frankie Francis, Joey Lewis, Spinozza, the Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Rudolph Charles and so many others.  He was proud of his activism during the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  His stories always put you right in the middle and as such I ended up knowing these people just through his stories.  He was very proud of the world that he had built.

(l-r) Ralph MacDonald, David Rudder, Robert Greenidge
Ralph MacDonald, David Rudder, Robert Greenidge

July 4th at Ralph’s was something to look forward to every year.  Seeing the family grow, the musicians who’d show up, swimming in the pool, the food, the music, basketball with Anthony and Teebs, they all added to the good times.  It was inspiring to see the warm gentle side of someone who I knew to be such a no-nonsense, dedicated worker in the studio where  he’d always tell me “we’re here to work!” just to keep me in line.  He adored his family and was always boasting about his children and grandchildren and their accomplishments.  I remember him beaming with pride and satisfaction when Nef graduated from UM and then when Atiba graduated from Full Sail.  

Etienne Charles with Ralph MacDonald at Lincoln Center
Etienne Charles with Ralph MacDonald at Lincoln Center

Though I only knew Ralph for a few years, we had a lifetime of fun on stage, in the studio, at his home in Stamford, in Trinidad, New York, Antigua, New Orleans, Atlanta, Barbados and many other places.  Wherever he went he was the life of the party.  I’m deeply grateful to God for bringing Ralph to us and especially for the valuable life lessons he bestowed on me time after time.  There was always something to learn from the legend.  One thing is certain……Heaven just got a LOT funkier.  I’m  sure he’s up there now making heavenly sounds out of two spoons, chilling out in a white t-shirt, shorts, a baseball cap and of course his crocs (with socks) making the angels jam on the groove.  He’s probably getting Hammer (Rudolph Charles) to make him a new dudup, singing is favourite tunes with Kitchener, Spoiler, Melody, Lion & MacBeth (his favourite calypsonians), writing a duet for Michael Jackson and Donny Hathaway and being reunited with his Parents, Uncle Bougs, his siblings and his A-Team rhythm section partners Richard Tee and Eric Gale who he talked about frequently with admiration. 

Ralph my brother, thank you for all the good times. 

Until we meet again, I’ll try to hold down the groove here.    


checkout Etienne Charles’ website

published with the expressed permission of Etienne Charles ©2011 All rights reserved

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