Clarence “Mac” McDonald, the keyboard player, producer, writer and arranger whose countless credits included playing on the Jackson 5’s debut smash “I Want You Back” and albums by James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and many others, died on July 21 in Las Vegas. He was 76 and, as Variety reports, had suffered complications related to cancer.
Born in Los Angeles on February 24, 1945, McDonald served in the US Army in Vietnam and went on to a career of more than 50 years in music. He played keyboards on recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, the Temptations, and other soul notables such as Marlena Shaw and Al Wilson. As a producer, his best-known successes were with the huge 1970s crossover hits “Best Of My Love” by the Emotions and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.”
Jazz pianist and producer Mike Lipskin commented: “Producing fusion albums at RCA in the 1970s [was when] I first had the fine pleasure of working with and getting to know Clarence McDonald, a very adept session keyboard player and arranger. We were close friends for the next 45 years, allowing me to appreciate his warmth, musicality and deep intelligence. This is a profound loss for me and music.”
McDonald’s keyboards played the familiar opening flourish on “I Want You Back,” which shot the Jackson 5 to chart-topping glory in early 1970. His playing also graced Daryl Hall and John Oates’ self-titled album of 1975, on which he featured on grand piano on the much-loved “Sara Smile.” He was part of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams, James Taylor’s Gorilla, In The Pocket, and JT, Seals & Crofts’ Summer Breeze, and many others.
McDonald had four co-writes on Deniece Williams’ 1976 debut This Is Niecy, including on the single “That’s What Friends Are For,” and also worked with a vast range of other artists including the Fifth Dimension, the Whispers, Patti LaBelle, Johnny Mathis, and Ray Charles. The latter’s duet with Gladys Knight on “Heaven Help Us All” for his last album Genius Loves Company was arranged by McDonald, who also played keyboards, and the track won a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance.