Michael McDonald is familiar to almost all of us, even if we don’t realize it.
Many consider him an icon. Others see him as a symbol of hyper-mediocrity. But lately, that middle-of-the-road sound provides a blissful escape from intense times.
So what’s the story behind America’s favorite Yacht Rock Icon?
Let’s find out!
Michael McDonald’s Early Years
Born in 1952, Michael McDonald was playing in bands around his hometown of Ferguson before he had a driver’s license. His dreams of becoming a professional musician were bigger than Missouri could contain. Consequently, he headed West in pursuit of California fame.
His first couple of years in Los Angeles were tough. McDonald hit the pavement hard, schmoozing with industry insiders and passing out his demos. He played at various dance clubs and wrap parties for TV series like Emergency.
Singing Backup for Steely Dan
McDonald’s hard work and constant industry mixing finally paid off when he met drummer, Jeff Porcaro. He was one of a string of session musicians recording with Steely Dan in the early 70s. Pocaro immediately noted McDonald’s vocal abilities and connected him with the rest of the band.
By 1974, McDonald was a touring member of Steely Dan. He recorded backing vocals and keyboards through 1980.
Michael McDonald Joins The Doobie Brothers
Although working with Steely Dan was a dream come true, the band never intended to have McDonald join full time. No strikes against McDonald – this was just band policy at the time. His fellow band member Jeff Baxter left to join The Doobie Brothers for a more steady gig. And McDonald took note.
Not long after Baxter joined The Doobie Brothers, lead singer Tom Johnston fell ill and had to leave the tour. Baxter proposed hiring McDonald. Although his vocal style and musicianship were utterly different than Johnston’s, the Brothers needed to act fast. McDonald joined in 1975 and wrote most of the material for their 1976 album Taking it to the Streets.
The next three years marked a turn in sound and the most popular era for The Doobie Brothers. McDonald ushered in the period of soft, polished rock and blue-eyed soul. Their popularity skyrocketed with the release of the 1978 album Minute By Minute, and it seemed as if Michael McDonald started an easy listening revolution.
Unfortunately, constant touring and the production of three albums within three years pushed the band to the brink. Tensions ran high, and creative differences grew. By early 1979 three band members left. The ‘McDonald Sound’ had become an albatross, making the remaining members feel like nothing more than his backup band.
By the early 80s, McDonald’s guest appearances and duets with artists like Christopher Cross eclipsed The Dobbie Brothers. The band called it quits in 1982. It would be another five years before they got back together.
The Swing Into a Solo Career
Michael McDonald wasted no time and released his debut album, That’s What It Takes, in August 1982. He also began working on film soundtrack songs, making guest appearances on television and film.
Throughout his career, McDonald collaborated with scores of musicians. One of his most famous duets was with R7B artist James Ingram. Produced by Quincy Jones, Yah Mo B There won Best R&B Performance by a duo.
McDonald’s other collaborations during his solo years include work with Van Halen, Patti LaBelle, Toto, and Aretha Franklin.
What Are Some of Michael McDonald’s Best Known Songs?
Michael Mcdonald’s sound is like a sweet sunrise on a summer day. His status as an ooey-gooey dad icon is the subject of comedy podcasts like Timesuck. But in an entirely loving way! Here are three great examples of the McDonald signature sound.
Takin’ It to the Streets
The big, bold step the Doobie Brothers took with this single paid off in spades. Takin’ It to the Streets, both the song and album, were the first work the band did with Michael McDonald. Streets was his demo, his music. The band knew the new guy would take them in a different direction. The journey to the center of soft rock had begun.
Takin’ It to The Streets hit the airwaves in March of 1976. Although the single only hit the top 20, it garnered more admiration from rock critics than the Doobie Brothers had ever received. McDonald’s song about the voice of the impoverished became an anthem for fans worldwide.
What a Fool Believes
Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins co-wrote this classic soft rock hit in the summer of 1978. The plan to meet for the first time and hang out had already been in the works. But when Loggins pulled up to McDonald’s house and heard him singing, he jumped right in with an impromptu guitar melody. And bingo – What a Fool Believes was born!
Loggins released his version in July 1978. But it was McDonald’s take with The Doobie Brothers released later that year that sold millions. McDonald won two Grammys with What a Fool Believes in 1980.
The lyrics describe a man in love with an old flame, foolishly thinking the woman ever had any romantic interest in him.
I Keep Forgettin’ (every time you’re near)
Sticking with the theme of someone not getting the hint, I Keep Forgettin’ describes a guy who won’t let go of love. He struggles to accept his relationship is over. McDonald’s sister Maureen recorded some sweet backup vocals, accentuating the remorseful soft rock vibe.
I Keep Forgettin’ topped both the Adult Contemporary & Pop charts after its 1982 release. This soft rock single secured McDonald’s status as a newly minted solo artist.
Is Michael McDonald Still Singing?
Yes indeed! Michael McDonald is currently on the road with The Dobbie Brothers for their 50th anniversary. This country-wide concert tour started in the summer of 2021 and continues through the fall of 2022.
Not only is McDonald still singing today, but he’s been keeping pretty busy these past few years. He’s never stopped singing, whether touring as a solo artist, with the Doobies, or on a side project. Mcdonald has released eleven solo albums, four with the Doobies, and has guest appearances on countless other collaborations.
Somewhere around the year 2005, he unknowingly became captain of a newly defined sound. What are we talking about? We’re talking about Yacht Rock! Pop culture of the early aughts began to look back at the easy-breezy light jazz style of artists like Steely Dan and Toto as something to make fun of. Dad rock, yuppie soft shoe, call it what you will.
However, like everything else in pop culture, what was once uncool, is now super hip. The Gen Z’ers like the sweet escape from today’s news. The Millenials marvel at the over-polished production.
According to Michael McDonald, his love for the easy jazz of his youth is why yacht rock sounds the way it does. Although he finds the term a little off-center, he happily accepts it.
From the Muse: Michael McDonald will headline the January 2023 Smooth Jazz Cruise early next year. Buy your tickets soon!
Michael McDonald is Still Jazzin’ It Up
Whether you’re a fan of Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, or Yacht Rock, the legacy of Michael McDonald is at once soft and steadfast. He started young and never stopped.
The more we researched the evolution of Michael McDonald, the more impressed we were with how dedicated he is to his craft. It seems clear as a crystal lake that if he’s not currently singing on stage, he’s writing, collaborating, or humming a tune.
What’s your favorite Michael McDonald era? Or have you rediscovered a song you may have dismissed in the past? Let us know in the comments!