He looks like what Kenny Rogers would look like if The Gambler was human. They share the same facial features and the same prematurely gray hair, but you can tell that Michael McDonald probably doesn't whack off while paying $99 a minute to hear some Hungarian housewife tell him how thick her thatch is. You can also tell that he takes a bit better care of himself, physically, as well as spiritually.
He was born Dec. 2, 1952, so he just had the distinct pleasure of turning 50 a few days ago. Wish him well. Someone once told me, "The day you turn 50, things will start hurting that never hurt before." I pooh-poohed this warning when it was given. I'm not sure what value there would have been in believing it when I heard it, but I can tell you that it's absolutely true.
McDonald was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and got his act together playing in St. Louis nightclubs. He took the smart decision and moved to LA in the early 1970s.
One of the guys who is most responsible for Steely Dan often gets overlooked. Gary Katz was their ace producer. His decisions about what Becker and Fagen should and should not do were often uncannily accurate. One of those decisions was to hire this new kid, Michael McDonald, to do backup work. He had been introduced to McDonald by the drummer, Jeff Pocaro. (Michael McDonald told me this, personally, so if anyone ever tells you a different story about how he wound up working with the Dan, tell them they're wrong.) If you are familiar with the Dan, you know that Fagen's vocals are often the weakest part of the mix. This is one reason they didn't tour a whole lot. There's a lot of studio magic in the final product that you buy (or steal) as Steely Dan. Once, Becker considered having books of matches printed up with Fagen's picture on the cover. When you open the book, it would say, "Can you sing like this man?" I'm not sure what the point of that story is, but I heard it and I wanted to share. I think it might have had something to do with the "backup band" wanting to tour every once in a while and Fagan's reluctance to do so. I'm not sure about that, but I am pretty sure that a narcotic habit and touring don't make a good combination. It's hard to be on the road and laying tracks at the same time.
Anyway, Katz did manage to get McDonald to do some work with his two mainstay products. It began with the Katy Lied album in 1975. If you ever found yourself thinking that Katy Lied was a major turning point for Steely Dan but couldn't really put your finger on why that is, it might just be those sweet background vocals that you hadn't heard before. You can't miss his voice in the background on songs like the Great Depression-inspired Black Friday or the Jimmy Buffett-on-a-bad-trip tune, Bad Sneakers. Katz is said to have lamented the fact that he didn't choose Black Friday as the potential single from Katy Lied. Becker and Fagen didn't seem to give a rip about the charts, but Katz might have been more ambitious about having a hit single on his hands.
McDonald's work with Steely Dan continued the following year (1976) with The Royal Scam, the album with the worst album cover of the decade. You can hear him clearly in the opening song which is a veritable drug-dealer's anthem, Kid Charlemagne. His voice is also clear in The Caves of Altamira. I wonder if he was pondering his newfound home as he sang the chorus,
Before the Fall
When they wrote it on the wall
When there wasn't even
On the next one, Aja, in 1977, I can hear him the clearest on Peg, the one about how it's all gonna come back to ya'. He's also on Gaucho in 1980, but by this time he'd followed the mustached guitarist, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter over to the Doobie Brothers. One could lecture volumes about the differences between a band like Steely Dan and a band like the Doobie Brothers, and one could draw conclusions about the intelligence of folks who would even want to be in a band like the Doobie Brothers. Maybe it was because Baxter and McDonald wanted to make more money from touring. Who knows. It was a time of flux, and (after all) some virtual unknowns have become superstars by joining halfass bands and turning that band's sound into their sound – I'm thinking specifically of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and that ragtag bunch calling themselves Fleetwood Mac.
And, behold. This is exactly what Michael McDonald did with this band named after an already out-of-date term for drugs lite. When Minute by Minute came out in 1978, the scoobie doobie stoners must have been astounded by what followed. They'd already had their fifteen minutes of fame, with seven albums and over 30 million in record sales, but the accolades for this album must have been overwhelming to them. I will bet at least one of them said, "Duuuude! Whoa."
Four Grammies and more than three million copies later, the album has established the Doobie Brothers as a supergroup. But what was responsible for this, you might ask. Well, I can tell you. It was the title song, Minute by Minute, written by McDonald with Lester Abrams, and What a Fool Believes, written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins. These were the only two songs worth remembering on this album and are also the two most important songs in McDonald's career, it would seem to me. He plays keyboards on both.
I will never forget when I first heard What a Fool Believes on the radio. I stopped the car and told whoever was with me, "That's something like I've never heard before. That's marvelous." And, once again, Gary Katz proved to be correct. He once said that having Michael McDonald sing background vocals was "the ultimate waste of talent."
He left the Doobie Brothers in 1982. Again, I bet at least one of them said, "Duuuude. Whoa!" It's been sort of hit-and-miss with him since then. It's said that he's not a very hard worker and doesn't really care for what so many left coast producers have suggested: "upgrading" his sound. So, Mr. McDonald has fallen into the Hall and Oates syndrome; the Blue Eyed Soul singer's black hole. Time has passed his sound by.
You have probably heard some of his duet work with various folks. Some of it is very good. I'd particularly suggest you check out On My Own which he did with Patti LaBelle. This is one sweet song. His brash sound shouldn't fit with Ms. LaBelle's operatic emissions; but it does. One I never cared much for, a Top 20 pop hit (and a Top Ten R&B hit) was his duet with James Ingram, Yah Mo B There. You might feel differently about it.
There are very few background singers who can make a song rise to that next level. Timothy B. Schmit is one. Michael McDonald is another. You can hear his voice in the background of numerous radio hits. Songs like Christopher Cross' Ride Like the Wind and Nicolette Larson's Let Me Go, Love. You can hear him all over Joni Mitchell's Dog Eat Dog album. He's done work with:
That's a short (but pretty diverse, I think you'd agree) list.
He says his favorite Doobie Bros. song to perform was Takin' It to the Streets. I won't hold that against him. At least he didn't become a Michael Bolton or another Kenny Rogers. You've got to be glad about that.