Michael McDonald’s rich, husky baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, one you’ve heard harmonizing with Steely Dan, Carly Simon, Elton John, Christopher Cross, Kenny Loggins and Amy Grant as well as fronting the Doobie Brothers and his own solo work. But chances are he had a slightly different sound the first time he performed in public.
"I first started singing when I was very young," he said when he called last week. "My dad was a singer, and I used to sing with him when I was as young as four. It was in a bar, and I started singing something ridiculous for a four-year old to sing, and they all started clapping. So I got the bug early."
McDonald, who’s here Tuesday night for a concert at the Ferguson Center, grew up in St. Louis. The guy who would become known for his soulful singing style was a soul man from the beginning.
"That was always my leanings as a singer," he admitted. "Growing up in St. Louis, in close proximity to Memphis, that was really the music of that region. So we were steeped in that tradition.
"Like a lot of kids, we started a band in one of my buddies’ basements, and we all plugged into one amp. The drummer had a snare drum and a cymbal. And we wreaked havoc—the poor guy’s mother, I’m amazed she survived!
"I played around St. Louis for quite a few years at the Castaway Club and the Club Imperial, and a lot of different haunts that are well known there. We were the house band at the Castaway, a 13-piece soul band with six horns."
He went to Los Angeles in 1970:
"I was 18. It was the year I would’ve graduated but I unfortunately didn’t; I wound up just going to California. I wasn’t very well educated, but at that point in time I was pretty certain what I wanted to do. I had a record deal with RCA Records; it wasn’t long before they dropped me, and then I wound up on Bell Records, which became Arista. All of it was just enough to keep me going. I played a lot of clubs out there, played sessions when I could get ‘em. I just kind of hung in there; I learned to make a living as a musician on whatever level I had to. That’s always what made me happy—I’d still be doing it today no matter what happened."
But a lot did happen for Michael McDonald. The first time I saw his name was on the back cover of Steely Dan’s 1975 album, Katy Lied.
"I had played on a few records before that," he told me, "a real diverse collection—a Jack Jones record, a David Cassidy record and a few in between. But the Steely Dan thing was the first time I’d ever gotten a photo on a record, and that was real exciting. It was funny—when I got the gig with the band as a touring musician, it came at one of those times when that was absolutely my favorite band in the world. To me, it was the most exciting stuff I had heard since hearing The Beatles for the first time."
It was through Steely Dan bandmate Jeff "Skunk" Baxter that he got hooked up with the Doobie Brothers. Baxter had joined the Doobies in 1974, and when lead singer and primary songwriter Tom Johnston was hospitalized with a stomach ailment the next year, he suggested his friend as a temporary replacement.
"I had no idea that I would even do a record with them," McDonald said. "I really only signed on to fill in while Tommy was absent from a tour because of health reasons, and I fully expected the gig to be over when we got back to town. When we got back, it was ‘well, we’ve gotta do a record.’ They invited me to participate, and I was amazed. The producer had heard a couple of things I’d written, and they certainly didn’t sound anything like Doobie Brothers songs!
"In the course of that album I wrote ‘Takin’ it to the Streets’ and ‘It Keeps You Runnin,’ and it just seemed like this record took on a life of its own. I remember the first time we sat and listened to some rough mixes, we were all looking at each other going, ‘This is kind of good but it’s kind of strange.’ But somehow it all fell into place and got another platinum record for the group."
Thus began a new chapter for the Doobie Brothers, one that led to even greater popularity and a bunch of 1980 Grammy awards for McDonald’s "What a Fool Believes" and the album Minute by Minute.
"The Doobie Brothers was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he said. "It was a good group of musicians, guys who would try anything. They are still my friends. It’s like something I’ll always be a part of."
Since leaving the band in 1982, Michael McDonald has done very well on his own, occasionally rejoining both his former bands on tour. His last two solo albums were Motown tributes. He has quite a back catalog to pull from when putting together setlists for concerts like Tuesday’s at the Ferguson.
"What we do in our show," he explained, "is pick a couple of songs from whatever period we were lucky enough to get on the radio with. We do some of the stuff I did with the Doobies, certain things from the early solo years, and we do a good share of the Motown stuff which is just fun to do. We’re careful to intersperse everything so the show represents all of those different periods. And we do one song from this new record coming up in February, a remake of an old song that Ray Charles did that was written by Eddy Arnold, a beautiful tune called ‘You Don’t Know Me.’ It’s one of those songs that you can’t help but remember, a piece of time in America from the late ’50s-early ’60s."
I asked if he thought Bruce Hornsby might pop in Tuesday night. Hornsby credits McDonald with "discovering" him at the Hampton Jolly Ox in 1978.
"The first time I heard Bruce Hornsby," he said, "I knew he was something special. I think the world really discovered Bruce Hornsby, not me. He’s a great guy. I wish that he would show up because we’ll get him up there and make him work!"
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.