Blue-Eyed Soul Singer Returns To Charleston As Part of Doobies' 50th Anniversary Tour
Jeff Walker, Entertainment Writer
Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer's The Doobie Brothers had been making a name for themselves for a few years before blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald joined the band in 1975. Having cut his teeth touring with Steely Dan, McDonald was originally scheduled as a short term replacement for lead vocalist and guitarist Tom Johnston who was out sick. McDonald fit so well with The Doobies he hung around seven years before embarking on a successful solo career.
"I have to give credit to Skunk Baxter (guitarist). We played together in Steely Dan, and he had joined the Doobies a year (1974) prior. When Tommy was sidelined due to a stomach ailment Skunk mentioned my name to the band. I think, originally I was supposed to just fill in for Tommy, but I guess we clicked and not long after I was asked to be a full time member. The rest as they say is history."
During his original stay with the Doobie Brothers, McDonald sang lead vocals on some of the band's most recognizable songs, such as 'Real Love', 'Takin' It to the Streets', 'It Keeps You Runnin', 'Minute by Minute', and 'What a Fool Believes'. "I think fans appreciate the catalog of songs Pat and Tommy wrote, and what I added when I joined them in 1975. Not surprisingly we bonded right away."
More than five decades later The Doobie Brothers are out celebrating their 50th anniversary tour which was set to kick off in 2020. However, the worldwide pandemic pushed the start date for the tour back until 2022. Founding members Johnston and Patrick Simmons (vocals, guitar), as well as long time guitarist John McFee (1979) are part of a Doobie Brothers lineup that have been touring on and off since the early days.
McDonald says he and his bandmates can't believe the reception they've been receiving. "It's amazing, and no one is more amazed than Pat, Tommy, and myself. How fortunate are we that we get to play these venues and the size crowds we've been playing to since the early 1970's."
The 50th anniversary tour included performances in Japan earlier this year. "They are a continually very gracious audience. In someways they are a little more literate society and extremely appreciative of American rock n' roll. I strongly believe rock n' roll music is the one great export we've ever given to other countries, especially Asia."
Among the bands early hits are 'Listen to the Music', 'Jesus is Just Alright', 'Long Train Runnin'', 'China Grove', and 'Black Water'. That arsenal of radio friendly songs helped The Doobie Brothers earn acceptance into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. The induction included living members Johnston, Simmons, McDonald, McFee, and former members Tiran Porter, John Hartman and Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, with Keith Knudsen and drummer Michael Hossack inducted posthumously.
Diehard fans agree their introduction into the HOF was long overdue, with the band becoming eligible back in 1996. With the pandemic still making headlines the band's induction ceremony was a viral celebration. "Not the way we wanted it to be. But it's nice to be honored, and while we're still here to appreciate it."
McDonald's own solo career took off a little more than four decades ago. As original members began to take different routes and the band was slowing down, McDonald was ready to go it alone. He scored a top 10 hit with 'I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)' from his debut album 'If That's What It Takes'.
The 1982 single was written by McDonald and Ed Sanford (Ashford & Simpson) with additional credits being awarded to the legendary writing team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, with McDonald's version being similar to their 1962 song 'I Keep Forgettin' recorded by R&B artist Chuck Jackson.
Given his vocal stylings, admittedly the record label didn't necessarily know how to package him. "My solo career could have gone either way. It was make or break right from the start." He explains further, "The A&R people weren't sure what to do with me. Warner Brothers assumed since I sang with The Doobies and they received a lot of FM radio play that I was going to be in the same vein. But I've been influenced by a lot of styles of music and was taking a different direction."
Finally the label forged another path. "The single found some ground on some smaller independently black owned radio stations. That's where it began to pick up steam." 'I Keep Forgettin' would eventually peak at No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Singles charts, #7 R&B and #8 on the Adult Contemporary chart. "I'm very proud of that song and the path it took to get where it did."
Follow up Top 40 hits include 'Yah Mo B There' (1984), a duet with James Ingram, which would go on to win a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and 'Sweet Freedom' a single on the soundtrack from the Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines film 'Running Scared'. In 1986 McDonald would have his biggest post Doobies success when his duet 'On My Own' with Patti Labelle spent three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the most successful single ever for both singers.
Having made his mark with The Doobies and delivering a solid solo career early on, McDonald released three albums paying tribute to Motown and R&B greats. 'Motown' and 'Motown 2 ' were released in 2003 and '04 followed by 'Soul Speak' in 2008 which included some of greatest songwriters of the 1960's era. Among the diverse covers include songs written by Ashford & Simpson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Van Morrison and the team of Holland–Dozier–Holland.
71 years young the 1960's is when McDonald came of age. A few of the songs included in the songfest tribute are classics such as 'Into the Mystic (Morrison), 'Walk on By' (Burt Bacharach & Hal David) and '(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher' immortalized by the great Jackie Wilson.
"I'm a fan of all types of music, and no doubt I'm a product of all I grew up listening too. All the songs I've covered are songs that had an effect on." He adds, "I'm also a big fan of gospel music. Most of the guys I started jamming with in the early days got their start singing and playing in churches. We honed our skills in church before embracing the secular side later."
Between return gigs with The Doobies and solo projects McDonald maintained a busy schedule. His voice, keyboards and or songs can be heard on numerous albums. "I've been very fortunate over the years. When I was off the road I primarily hung my hat in LA. I took to the studio a lot. I'm honored that some many diverse artists over the years have asked me to play and or sing on their records."
Never wanting to be idle McDonald's expertise can be found on over 300 plus recordings including female greats Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Alison Krauss, Olivia Newton-John, Jennifer Lopez, and Bonnie Raitt. He's further backed up male superstars Sergio Mendes, Vince Gill, and David Crosby, as well as crooner Paul Anka and the legendary Ray Charles. Fans can find his work on albums by Toto, Cheap Trick, and gospel greats The Winans.
Although McDonald is forever tied to The Doobies and his solo success, he lent his background voice and musicianship (keyboards) to a who's who of rock n' roll including Kenny Loggins, Stephen Bishop and Van Halen, as well as pop and soul greats David Cassidy, Christopher Cross, James Ingram, Patti Labelle, and the queen herself, Miss Aretha Franklin. Apparently his talents were well received and knew no boundaries.
From Steely Dan's 1974 release 'Katy Lied' to Toad the Wet Sprocket's 2021 album 'Starting Now', apparently McDonald's talents are well received. "I've tried my best to make myself available to any artist who can utilize my talents. I enjoy working with a wide spectrum of artists just to keep myself up on what younger audiences are listening too."
Over a five decade career in the limelight McDonald has shared the stage with some of the who's who of rock n' roll and recorded with some of the industry's most distinct voices such as Elton John (Victim of Love) and Carly Simon (You Belong To Me). However, perhaps some of his fondest memories pre-date even his time touring with Steely Dan.
"In my early years when I was a teenager we were the house band at a well known club in Ferguson, Missouri. Many legends and soon to be legends came through there including Ike and Tina Turner, and the Allman Joys who would later become the Allman Brothers. I remember backing up the guys like Chuck Berry, and doing a gig with Little Richard. I took it all in. It wasn't lost on me and the guys I jammed with that we were in the presence of greatness."
Coming full circle McDonald attributes his father for instilling a love for music in him. "I have to credit my father for stoking my interest in music. He was a classic Irish tenor, somewhat sort of professional. He would visit these night spots and clubs in St. Louis and be asked to sit in. Of course I often tagged along. So I got to witness some of the best piano players in St. Louis. I became enamored with music through my father and with the keyboards by watching these musicians."
McDonald remembers returning the favor as his own career took off. "I had just joined the Doobies and my first gig with the band was in Shreveport. I brought my dad to the show. Before the show began we were out in front of the stage. Of course no one recognized me because I was new. I was able to have them place a chair on stage so my dad could sit and watch close up. He was just delighted and for me it was a bit of redemption to be able to share that moment with him."
Charleston, SC fans of The Doobie Brothers will have an opportunity to take in the 50th anniversary tour as the band plays Credit One Stadium on Saturday September 9th. Sadly, due to back surgery earlier this year Johnston has not joined The Doobies on this final leg of the 50th Anniversary Tour.
Aside from Johnston missing from the lineup, McDonald says the guys are in top form despite their ages. "We're not as nimble as we were decades ago, but the band is great, and honestly the songs have held up over the years." He adds, "The Doobies Brothers are one of the best bands I've ever played with, and I'm enjoying this anniversary tour as much or more than any tour I've ever been a part of."
For more on The Doobie Brothers show at Credit One Stadium including tickets visit https://creditonestadium.com/event/the-doobie-brothers-50th-anniversary-tour/