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Session Musician Spotlight: Clarence McDonald

The keys player has played on thousands of records, including hits by James Taylor, Lionel Richie, and more.

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Close-up of piano keys
Photo: Afiq Hamid / EyeEm / Getty Images

“All great music is a combination of what came before it,” musician/songwriter/arranger/producer Clarence McDonald once said. He spent his life mastering gospel, soul, jazz, blues, funk, and pop and blending them together in magic moments with artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Barbra Streisand, Carole King, James Taylor, and Johnny Mathis.

“My original background was from the church,” he explained to Jake Feinberg. “That’s where you got musical training you couldn’t get anywhere else.” McDonald learned piano and organ there, and by the age of sixteen, he was backing jazz artists in a Los Angeles nightclub.

When he began college, he worked as musical director for The Vocals (which later became the Fifth Dimension), a group that was subsequently invited to go on tour with Ray Charles. “Lots of what I play today, I learned directly from him. If it doesn’t feel good, don’t play it. Playing the notes is not the function. Making people feel them when you play them is the function.”

In 1966 just as his musical career was beginning to gain traction, he was drafted by the US Army to fight in the Vietnam War. In a 2009 interview, he said, “You learn what terror really is. There’s no glory in war, and it never proves who’s right or wrong.” When he returned home in 1968, he began getting calls for session work. “The fun of it was getting to meet so many different kinds of people, playing different kinds of music, and learning a lot,” he reminisced.

McDonald died in the summer of 2021, having lent his skills to thousands of recordings and live performances. As he told InterviewWorld, “The joy is knowing when you walk out of the studio, what we just did, everyone was on the same accord. That’s really what a hit record is. It’s not the technique. It’s the magic moment where everything aligns.”

Billy Preston – Will It Go Round In Circles

Preston and McDonald were connected in their youths by way of being musicians in the Los Angeles church world. They came together in 1972 for Preston’s Music Is My Life album, which McDonald arranged. “Will It Go Round In Circles” went to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 and sold over a million copies.

Will It Go Round In Circles

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The Emotions – Best Of My Love

In 1976, McDonald submitted a tune for the project The Emotions were beginning with Maurice White and Charles Stepney. Stepney invited him to the studio where he was introduced to Earth, Wind & Fire. They made plans to work together, but Stepney died of a heart attack days after their meeting. “That was a man I wanted to study and learn from,” McDonald recalled. White brought McDonald into the EW&F squad, and they co-produced Rejoice, the album that delivered this #1 smash in 1977.

Lionel Richie – Wandering Stranger

On this track from Lionel Richie’s solo debut, McDonald plays electric piano, accenting Gene Page’s moody orchestral arrangement. Lionel Richie sold over four million copies in the United States and topped Billboard’s R&B Albums chart in the winter of 1982.

Wandering Stranger

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James Taylor – How Sweet It Is

Taylor’s cover of this Holland-Dozier-Holland composition hit the top five of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1975, featuring McDonald on piano and Fender Rhodes. McDonald had fond memories of touring with Taylor: “The best shows we had with James Taylor were when we were playing smaller theaters. I miss [performing] where people are close enough that you can relate to them as opposed to piping it out to them in the 2000th row at an arena.”

Justin Timberlake – Another Song (All Over Again)

Produced by Rick Rubin, this track closed Justin Timberlake’s 2006 FutureSex/LoveSounds. McDonald played organ on this Timberlake/Matt Morris composition that one critic called “a lovely, very old-fashioned soul ballad produced in an organic anti-Timbaland style.” “There’s a feeling you get when human beings interact that you can’t get following a click track or doing computer stuff,” McDonald said.

Patti LaBelle – Love Never Dies

McDonald and Sami McKinney co-wrote and co-produced this ballad from Patti LaBelle’s Grammy Award-winning album Burnin’. The tune’s inspirational message and uplifting mood affirmed one of McDonald’s core beliefs about music: “Music is just fun. Play it, make people smile, you’ve done your job.”

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Looking for more? Check out our series of articles on the greatest sessions musicians ever.

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