One of the most popular purveyors of "blue-eyed soul" in the 1970s and 1980s (as well as the face of the smooth soft-pop sound that was later retroactively dubbed "yacht rock"), singer Michael McDonald enjoyed success with the popular rock band the Doobie Brothers before launching a solo career that kicked into high gear with the 1982 single "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)." His dusky baritone and heartfelt delivery, which earned equal parts artists' respect and comic parody, kept him at the top of the Billboard charts for much of the 1980s before his signature brand of polished soft rock fell out of favor with listeners. McDonald kept active as a guest vocalist and live performer until rebounding in 2002 with two collections of Motown covers that sparked considerable interest among baby boomer audiences and those who grew up with his solo work. McDonald's subsequent efforts, which included a 2010 joint tour with Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs and a collaboration with innovative R&B musician Thundercat, walked a careful line between nostalgia and homage to great music of the past, which did much to preserve his status as a relevant and respected R&B artist.
Born Feb. 12, 1952 in St. Louis, MO, Michael McDonald began playing in bands while attending high school in his hometown of Ferguson. He developed his abiding passion for rhythm and blues during this period, as well as his smoky, multi-octave vocals, which arose from his desire to preserve his voice from the ravages of singing high-intensity rock and soul on a nightly basis. In 1970, McDonald moved to Los Angeles, where he became an adjunct member of Steely Dan, providing vocals on several of their mid-1970s albums, including Katy Lied (1975), as well as touring with the group at the end of the decade. During this period, fellow Steely Dan alum Jeff "Skunk" Baxter also tapped McDonald to replace an ailing Tom Johnston as frontman for the Doobie Brothers. He would spur the group to move away from its rock roots and adopt a more radio-friendly blend of pop and soul, which yielded some of their greatest successes in the 1970s, including the Top 20 single "Takin' it to the Streets" (1976) and the Grammy winners "What a Fool Believes" (1978), which McDonald co-wrote with Kenny Loggins, and "Minute by Minute" (1979). But friction between McDonald and Baxter over the direction of the group, as well as their exhaustive schedule of touring and recording, resulted in the Doobie Brothers' dissolution in 1983, which freed McDonald to pursue a solo career.
McDonald earned an immediate hit with his solo LP debut, If That's What it Takes (1982), which featured a Top Five pop hit with "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)," a slow-boiling R&B ballad that would enjoy a second life a decade later as the core sample for Warren G's No. 1 rap single "Regulate." He would then enjoy back-to-back hits in 1983 as a songwriter for Van Halen on "I'll Wait" and Carly Simon, with whom he wrote "You Belong to Me," which was initially recorded by the Doobie Brothers in 1977. McDonald then landed his second Top 20 pop hit with "Ya Mo B There," a duet with James Ingram that captured the 1985 Grammy for best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals. However, his second solo album, No Lookin' Back (1985), which marked McDonald's debut as co-producer on one of his albums, only reached No. 45 on the Billboard albums chart. Its relative failure was soon dispelled by his No. 1 single "On My Own" (1986), a duet with Patti LaBelle, as well as "Sweet Freedom" (1987), which he recorded for the soundtrack to "Running Scared" (1987).
Unfortunately, McDonald failed to capitalize on this groundswell of success, waiting three more years to release his third solo album. Take it to Heart (1990) was a dismal failure, debuting at No. 110 and effectively ending McDonald's tenure as a pop artist for nearly a decade. Adding insult to injury during this period were frequent parodies of McDonald's delivery and phrasing by stand-up comics and TV comedies. McDonald had been lampooned early in the 1980s by Rick Moranis on "SCTV" (Global/CBC/NBC/Superchannel, 1976-1984), but the ridicule reached a fever pitch in the mid-2000s, most notably in the film "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005), where electronics store employee Paul Rudd threatened to set the building on fire if the McDonald concert video playing for two years on the store's TV screens was not removed. He was subsequently parodied in the Channel 101 web series "Yacht Rock" (2005-2010) and in episodes of "Family Guy" (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005- ) and "The Cleveland Show" (Fox, 2009- ). McDonald appeared to take the ribbing in stride, and even spoofed himself on the overtly treacle-heavy "Eyes of a Child" on the "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" (1999) soundtrack and in the third season finale of "30 Rock" (NBC, 2006-2013) where he performed as part of an all-star chorus to raise money for Jack Donaghy's (Alec Baldwin) father (Alan Alda) to receive a kidney transplant.
However, McDonald remained an in-demand guest vocalist, contributing to Aretha Franklin's "Ever Changing Times," and toured with Donald Fagen and other former rock and R&B hitmakers as the New York Rock and Soul Revue. The success of the rap single "Regulate" revived interest in McDonald's career, but attempts to restart his solo career with 1994's Blink of an Eye and 1997's Blue Obsession (1997), which went unreleased until 2000, found no takers. McDonald reunited with the Doobie Brothers on several occasions during the period until striking pay dirt again with Motown (2002), a collection of classic soul numbers from the pioneering label's catalog. The result was a Top 20 album and two Grammy nominations, as well as a much-needed jump-start for his career. A second volume of Motown songs performed even better, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard albums chart, while 2008's SoulSpeak rose to No. 12 on the strength of a track list comprised of classic soul numbers, relatively obscure tunes and three McDonald originals. Appreciation for his blue-eyed soul stylings appeared to come full circle in 2008 when he was invited to sing with alt-rock superstars Grizzly Bear on the single "While You Wait for the Others," a favor he then repeated for the synthpop act Holy Ghost! for their 2011 self-titled debut album. In 2010, McDonald, Fagen and Boz Scaggs began a lengthy and well-received joint tour as the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, which saw them performing their greatest hits and a selection of favorite R&B songs by other artists. While maintaining a heavy touring schedule, McDonald sang lead alongside fellow yacht rock superstar Kenny Loggins on "Show Me the Way," a 2017 single by innovative Los Angeles R&B musician and producer Thundercat.
By Paul Gaita
Music (Feature Film)
Released first solo album, <i>If That's What It Takes</i>
Guested on James Ingram's "Yah Mo B There" single
Released second album, <i>No Lookin' Back</i>
Released third album, <i>Take It to Heart</i>
Released fourth album, <i>Blink of an Eye</i>
Parodied himself for the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" with the single "Eyes of a Child"
Released album <i>Blue Obsession</i>
Released <i>Motown</i> followup album, <i>Motown Two</i>
Released a holiday-themed album, <i>Through the Many Winters, A Christmas Album</i>
Released final solo album to-date, <i>Soul Speak</i>
Guested on the Holy Ghost! single "Some Children"
Guested on the Thundercat single "Show You The Way"
Performed backing vocals on the Jo Harman track "When We Were Young"