Global - A sombre but stunning goldtone program greeted those who came to celebrate and pay homage to the vibrant life and achievements of Grammy-winner and overall steelband supporter - especially of Desperadoes Steel Orchestra - Ralph MacDonald, at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, USA on the morning of Thursday December 22. In a service which began a little after 10:00 a.m. Ralph MacDonald was celebrated in music and the spoken word, and honored with the presence of the likes of panist extraordinaire Robert Greenidge, Grammy award winner Roberta Flack, bassist Will Lee (David Letterman Show), vocalist Dennis Collins, jazz flutist Bobbi Humphrey, Etienne Charles, record exec Jerome Gasper and so many others.
Of proud Trinidad & Tobago parentage (Ralph and Evelyn MacDonald) Ralph maintained close ties with his heritage. Trinidad & Tobago’s Minister of Culture Winston Peters was in attendance, greeting fellow countryman ace steelpan musician Robert Greenidge just before the service began.
As a master percussionist, one of Ralph’s great loves and passion was steelpan music and the steel orchestra. He was a regular participant in the annual Trinidad and Tobago national steelband music panorama competition, taking the stage as a member of the legendary Desperadoes Steel Orchestra.
The steelpan music fraternity was well represented at Ralph’s send off. Steelband notables on hand included Franklyn “Joseph” Gerald (Desperadoes), Roger Greenidge (Desperadoes & PanMasters), Hueloy Lila Yip Young (Solo Harmonites), Sheldon Thwaites, Sherma Thomas and several others. Robert Greenidge on the double second steelpan instrument shared stages across the world alongside Ralph as part of Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefer band. A great panist and arranger, Robert serenaded Ralph in a farewell performance on the steel pan. “The only pan player for me!” Ralph would always say of Robert Greenidge.
As an artist, Ralph MacDonald played to audiences for the majority of his life, having started out professionally with Harry Belafonte when he was a mere teen in Harlem where he grew up. Since then Ralph graced stages in many countries, garnering accolades as the best percussionist in the world, especially when he teamed up with the likes of Steve Gadd, one of the best drummers in the world, and one of the best panists on the face of the planet, Robert Greenidge.
It was fitting, therefore, that the last audience gathered in Ralph’s honor reflected friendships and relationships forged over the decades in both his personal and professional journeys. Family, friends and colleagues from the music industry came together to share in the final opportunity to be in his presence in a service presided over by Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts. Nearest and dearest to him were wife Grace, children, and grandchildren.
Two of the most touching moments during the service came when Ralph’s daughter from his first marriage, Jovonni MacDonald Patrick, and later on his granddaughter Jaelyn Patrick, stepped forward to share on their life with and thoughts on, the man Ralph MacDonald.
Before Jovonni spoke of her father, she articulated eloquently on the total devotion of Grace, Ralph’s wife and companion of twenty-five years, to his every need at every turn, in every way, tirelessly caring for him at home, to the point that when the professional health care nurses arrived, there was very little for them to do. Jovonni thanked Grace saying simply, “She was phenomenal.”
Young Jaelyn epitomized today’s generation, reading her ‘Letter to Papa’ directly off her smartphone. Thinking back on the great barbecues at his Stamford, Connecticut home hosted by her “awesome” grandfather, there was laughter when, in detail, she thanked “Papa” for gifting her with several items, including her XBox 360! Her letter was to the point - and she unabashedly spoke of her appreciation and love for “Papa” - Ralph MacDonald.
Denis Niles, one of Ralph’s very best friends delivered the scripture reading while another longtime friend and associate, also Dennis (Collins) - described by Ralph as his “all-time favorite vocalist” - sang Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Moments of levity broke out when Collins aptly modified a line of the iconic song in keeping with Ralph’s strong, no-nonsense persona, a trait readily related to by many in the congregation. The line ‘When I bit off more than I could chew’ instead personified Ralph as Collins (accompanied by Rob Mounsey on piano) sang “He pissed off more than just a few,” eliciting knowing laughter from those in attendance.
Fellow musicians and decades-long friends flutist Bobbi Humphrey and Roberta Flack also paid musical tribute. “I wish I could have just one more chorus with him” said Bobbi in part before she turned in an emotional interpretation of Amazing Grace in her own inimitable style. Roberta Flack (1972 Grammy-winning Where Is the Love penned by Ralph and his co-writers) - spoke on her friendship and collaborations with the world-class percussionist and musician, and the importance of family to him, succinctly expressed in a track written for the album Generations Ralph had been working on. The singer-songwriter read aloud the lyrics before singing the track, We Are A Family.
As is always the case at someone’s passing, many who have not seen each other in years meet up, renewing acquaintances, and at the celebration of the life of Ralph MacDonald this was indeed the case. Before and after the service, both within and outside of Abyssinian, people greeted each other, remembering Ralph and catching up at the same time.
And then there were those who worked closely with Ralph like friends-for-life, acclaimed co-writers and business partners William Salter and William Eaton, with whom more than forty years ago, Ralph founded his publishing company Antisia Music Inc. Keyboardist Onaje Gumbs, percussionist Errol “Crusher” Bennett, drummer Buddy Williams, several other fellow performers, music industry executives and friends all came to bid adieu to Ralph.
In spite of his huge success and interaction with music business royalty, Ralph MacDonald never forgot where he came from and his humble Harlem beginnings. Ralph was a “people person” whose music and themes touched the lives of millions. The many internet postings since his passing and the recalls at his send off reiterated what everyone from Roberta Flack to his grand daughter experienced and knew about Ralph - he was dedicated and loyal.
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