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Clarence McDonald, Keyboard Player and Producer for James Taylor, the Emotions and Others, Dies at 75

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Clarence “Mac” McDonald, a keyboard player, producer, songwriter and arranger who worked with artists including James Taylor, Ray Charles, Bill Withers and the Emotions, died in Las Vegas July 21 from complications related to cancer, his friends and family reported. He was 76.

During a 50-year-plus career in the music business, McDonald had as among his biggest hits as a producer the 1977 No. 1 smash by the Emotions, “Best of My Love,” from the “Rejoice” album he produced with Maurice White. He was also a producer on Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day” and the rest of Withers’ “Menagerie” album.

Albums he played on as a keyboard player include Barbra Streisand’s “Butterfly,” James Taylor’s “JT,” “Gorilla” and “In the Pocket,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Prisoner in Disguise,” “Simple Dreams” and “Hasten Down the Wind,” Daryl Hall & John Oates’ self-titled LP, Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” Cheech & Chong’s “Big Bambu” and Rickie Lee Jones’ “Pirates.” Among the classic singles he played on were the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” and Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile.”

In 2004, he played keyboards on and arranged a duet between his friend Ray Charles and Gladys Knight, “Heaven Help Us All,” for Charles’ swan song, “Genius Loves Company.” The recording won a gospel Grammy.

Others McDonald worked with as a producer, arranger or writer included Patti LaBelle, Johnny Mathis, Freddie Hubbard, Friends of Distinction, the Fifth Dimension, Billy Preston, Stanley Turrentine, the Whispers, the Memphis Horns and Nancy Wilson. Some of his early success as a songwriter came as a co-writer on most of the songs on Deniece Williams’ debut album, “This Is Niecy.”

His keyboard credits also included recordings with Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Justin Timberlake, Marlena Shaw, the Temptations and Al Wilson.

Said jazz pianist and producer Mike Lipskin, “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 was born in Los Angeles on February 24, 1945 and settled in Toluca Lake, where he resided until moving to Las Vegas in 2013. He is survived by his wife of 18 years, Susan McDonald.

Memorial details are set to be revealed at a later date. McDonald, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, will be buried with full military honors.

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