Most recently McDonald performed on the all-star benefit album entitled Jazz For Japan (Avatar Records).
Born in Los Angeles, California on February 24, to Curtis and Ocie McDonald, Clarence showed an early interest in music.
Clarence McDonald started playing music at a very young age. McDonald’s first instrument was the soprano saxophone followed by the trombone, euphonium, sousaphone and piano. He chose the piano as his primary instrument because he found it to be the most challenging. Both his parents encouraged his early instincts.
Alma Julia Hightower, a prominent music teacher at the time taught Clarence to play the piano, The combination of early exposure and unconditional support launched the young man on his journey to becoming a great musician, songwriter and producer. By the age of 12, Clarence was playing the piano for Angeles Funeral Home, then located on Jefferson Boulevard and Central Avenue.
By the age of 16 McDonald was playing at the local nightclub, Memory Lane, accompanying American jazz & gospel singer Lorez Alexandria. On the weekends, he played with the Chico Hamilton Quintet through an invitation from the Musical Director and jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd. McDonald understood the guitar voicing’s required for the quartet and was able to play them on the piano. He often worked till dawn, before heading straight to school on Monday mornings.
Upon graduation from Dorsey High School, he attended Cal State, Los Angeles. He completed his college schooling, graduating with honors in 1964. After college, Clarence was introduced to the art and business of session recording, immediately contributing to some of music’s all-time favorite pop tunes, still played today.
In the early 1960s, McDonald began working with the Los Angeles-based vocal group called the Hi-Fi’s. He replaced Rex Middleton as the Musical Director. They changed their name to The Vocals and began working with American soul singer Lonnie Sattin. The Vocals, changed their name to "The 5th Dimension" around 1964. Clarence lent his own special groove to classics like "Up Up and Away". While touring, they were contacted to be the opening act for Ray Charles and traveled with Charles in 1964-65.
In 1966, when his ascent in the music world appeared to anticipate no limit, he was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Vietnam, where he served for two years. His division was sent home on January 7, 1968, the day before the North Vietnamese overran and destroyed their base camp in a takeover known as the infamous "TET offensive". McDonald received an Honorable Discharge and was awarded a National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
McDonald returned to the music business contributing to thousands of songs as a session player. Some of his first sessions were for Motown (Los Angeles) recording with Diana Ross, Gladys Knight & The Pips and The Jackson Five leading him to play on many noteworthy songs throughout the years.
In 1975, while working with Carole King, McDonald met James Taylor. That meeting followed with an invitation from Warner Brothers Producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titleman who asked McDonald to record on Taylor’s album, Gorilla. McDonald ended up recording on three albums: Gorilla (1975), In the Pocket (1976) and JT (1977). McDonald toured with Taylor from 1975 to 1978.
McDonald’s produced The Emotions Platinum Album Rejoice with Maurice White. On the album was the No. 1 Hot 100 and R&B song, "The Best of My Love". The song won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals and an American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Single.
In 2004, McDonald recorded keyboards with Ray Charles on the song "Heaven Help Us All" for the Grammy Winning Best Gospel Song duet with Gladys Knight. McDonald arranged the song with David Blumberg and Randy Waldman. The song appears on Ray Charles’ last album, Genius Loves Company.
In 2007, Erykah Badu released "Honey", a song created with "I’m In Love" originally recorded by Nancy Wilson (Music on My Mind), produced by McDonald and co-written by McDonald, Fritz Baskett and David Shields. In 2008 the song was part of Badu’s CD New Amerykah Vol. 1. The lead single, "Honey" reached No. 22 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Charts.
In 2008, McDonald filmed and recorded a multi-media performance at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, California. McDonald documents stories of Los Angeles’ rich recording history with music classics he’s associated with: "Sara Smile"/ Hall & Oates (recorded at Larrabee Studios), "Summer Breeze"/Seals & Crofts (recorded at The Sound Factory), "Best Of My Love" / The Emotions (recorded at Hollywood Sound Recorders) and "How Sweet It Is (to be loved by you)"/ James Taylor (recorded at Warner Brothers Recording Studios).
In 2010, McDonald was co-writer and co-publisher of the No. 1 Billboard single "Everything To Me" recorded by Monica for her 2010 album Still Standing. The song remained at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip Hop Charts for seven consecutive weeks.
In 2011, in response to Japan’s natural disaster, McDonald recorded 3 songs for the Jazz for Japan music project. All proceeds from the recording project go directly to Japanese relief funds. McDonald was joined by a long list of Jazz luminaries including George Duke, Nathan East, Herman Jackson, Boney James, Ndugu Chancler, Billy Childs, Christian McBride, Marcus Miller, David T. Walker and others.
With Blue MitchellStratosonic Nuances (RCA, 1975)