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While Ralph Macdonald Is Pounding His Array of Percussion Instruments, the Beat Goes on

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I remember doing one gig,” says Ralph MacDonald, “and a musician turned to me and said, ‘They brought you 3,000 miles to hit a cowbell?’ ”

Well, not quite. MacDonald also plays conga drums, bongos, African talking drums, vibra-slaps, castanets, go-go bells and calabashes. His sound is everywhere. In fact, MacDonald, who started out pounding steel drums on Manhattan sidewalks, may be the most widely heard musician in the U.S. today.

Heard, yes, but not heard of. MacDonald, 32, is the top “session,” or studio, musician in jazz. For most of his career he has worked anonymously on lucrative TV commercial sound tracks (Kentucky Fried Chicken, TWA. McDonald’s, Budweiser and Chevrolet, to name a few) and recordings by performers like Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte and Carly Simon. Astonishingly, MacDonald was keeping the beat on no less than six of last month’s top 20 jazz LPs.

Now that he’s no longer languishing at the back of the band, MacDonald last month headlined his first SRO concert at New York’s Lincoln Center, timed to boost his debut album, Sound of a Drum. “Ralph is one of the greatest percussionists in the world,” rhapsodizes singer George Benson, whose No. 1 Breezin’ features MacDonald on drums. “He’s delicate with the feel of music and not just someone banging out the rhythm.” MacDonald, in fact, disdains the percussionist’s traditional cymbals and timpani in favor of arcane equipment like the Brazilian cabasa, a beaded rattle. “I’m not one of those people who plays on cue,” he explains. “I’ve got my own cue.”

He grew up to calypso in Harlem, the youngest of five children in a four-room apartment. His father, a Trinidadian who called himself Macbeth the Great, led a 14-piece band and “used to take me on gigs,” Ralph recalls. “By midnight, there I was, asleep on top of the conga drums.”

MacDonald’s early ambition was to play basketball but, only 5’8″, he was cut from the high school squad. He promptly dropped out of school. His first job as a kitchen helper in a city hospital ended when he sliced his thumb on a meat cutter and needed 14 stitches. Jobless, he was hanging around with steel drummer friends in Harry Belafonte’s band. One day a musician was late and in the classic showbiz cliché, MacDonald recalls, “Harry said, ‘Hey, kid, can you play?’ ”

MacDonald traveled and recorded with Belafonte for 10 years, moving beyond the steel drum. He now owns and plays more than 100 instruments. “If a song didn’t have a conga drum in it, I would have to sit on the stage looking dumb,” MacDonald recalls. “So I pulled out my other instruments and after a while I was playing on every number.”

Leaving Belafonte, MacDonald almost went broke before he and collaborator Bill Salter wrote Where Is the Love? Roberta Flack’s recording (with Donny Hathaway) of the ballad sold 10 million. As MacDonald notes, “It will be making me money 50 years after I’m dead.” MacDonald’s subsequent hits—Grover Washington Jr.’s Mister Magic and Rod Stewart’s Trade Winds—have anchored his music publishing house, which has also produced six other gold records.

MacDonald, whose income exceeds $100,000 a year, now lives as a commuting squire with his wife, Gerry, 32, in suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y. Their son Anthony, 15, and daughter Jovonni, 7, are in private schools, and a full-time housekeeper and a gardener maintain their mission-style home. In the living room is a handsome baby grand; it is rarely played. The Ralph MacDonald sound may be everywhere but, as he cheerfully admits, he has only recently learned to read music.