Note: This interview was conducted some months prior to the recent announcements of the Doobie Brothers being inducted into the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and their upcoming 50th anniversary tour and reunion with Michael McDonald.
On “Hail Mary” – the opening track of Wide Open – Michael McDonald plaintively asks this question of the woman who he is desperately trying to win back: “Does the sound of my voice still carry?”
And on 70+ minutes of the 2017 record of all-original material (his first in nearly 20 years), the answers is a resounding yes. Then again, Michael McDonald has had “That Voice” for his entire career. It’s one of rock and R&B’s most distinctive set of pipes. A smooth, warm, and buttery vocal cloak that somehow manages a simultaneous soft and gritty feel, akin to the beard that McDonald has sported in some version for decades.
It’s the kind of voice that a former bandmate once said “makes women melt” when they hear it. It has given life to a thousand impressions, including a “Tonight Show” skit where host Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake – joined by a good-natured McDonald himself – sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as “The Three Michael McDonalds.” All were dressed (and coiffed) identically.
“This record kind of came out in a different way,” he says of Wide Open. “Of course, all records start with the demos as you try to flush out the arrangements. But a lot of the tracks here were the original demos just spruced up. Most of those vocals are the original demos.”
Wide Open also lives up to his name in that of the dozen tracks, the shortest is 4 ½ minutes long and most run in the 5-and-6 minute range, allowing a lot of breathing room as the songs unfurl. Many of the songs are in familiar territory of romantic difficulties, but McDonald gets social/political on “Free a Man.” About the struggles of African-Americans and equal rights in today’s society. It almost comes off as spiritual sequel to the Doobie’s “Takin’ In to the Streets.”
“That was written by a friend of mine, Richard Sheckle, who I think is one of the best American songwriters ever. I put him in a class of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan,” McDonald says. “I think he’s unheralded as an American treasure composer wise. And what I love about the song is that is just seems like a conversation that we’re having in our society right now. We’re trying to reevaluate ourselves more than ever, even than in the ‘60s.”
Going back to that era, McDonald remembers his parents watching Martin Luther King, Jr. give speeches on TV or the coverage of the racial unrest in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights era. He says they had a “call of consciousness” about how the U.S. was not living up to its promises made in the Constitution for all. “Things have to evolve toward the truth or you miss an opportunity. And it’s sometimes it’s never comfortable when you raise the ugly head of bigotry,” he offers.
Last year, McDonald embarked on a summer tour with R&B legend Chaka Khan opening. That might seem odd on paper at first – many would expect he’d be paired with another classic rock band. But upon further reflection, it makes sense.
McDonald has just as much of a footprint in R&B as rock (including three very successful records of all-Motown covers) and has long been a presence on that record chart. And when he does occasional tours with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen as “The Dukes of September,” all three cover choice ‘50s and ‘60s R&B/soul songs that inspired them early in their careers.
McDonald’s career in the national eye began in the mid-‘70s with his vocal and keyboard contributor to Steely Dan in the studio and on the road (most noticeably on “Peg”). Then becoming lead vocalist for the Doobie Brothers and churning out massive hits like “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” “It Keeps You Runnin’” “Real Love,” and “Takin’ It To the Streets.”
A thriving solo career produced “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Sweet Freedom.” And if that weren’t enough, his slew of duets and backing vocals have paired him with Patti LaBelle (“On My Own”), Christopher Cross (“Ride Like the Wind”), James Ingram (“Yah Mo B There”) and Kenny Loggins (“This Is It”).
More recently, he and Loggins collaborated with cutting edge singer/bassist Thundercat on the single “Show You The Way,” which they also performed on CBS Saturday Morning. McDonald also shared the stage with Thundercat at Coachella.
Finally, he is also very cognizant of his place as the #1 captain in the Yacht Rock universe. “Yacht Rock” started as the title of a comedy web series (that included actors playing real-life musicians, including a “Michael McDonald”) that both celebrated and gently skewered the soft and smooth sounds of the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s. The sort of songs you’d imagine being played on a yacht during the summer where the wind is brisk and the champagne flows.
“I’m usually introduced to all this stuff like Yacht Rock and ‘The Family Guy’ skits by my kids. And they can’t wait to Tivo it and make me watch it!” McDonald laughs. “But I thought the Yacht Rock series was hysterical the first time I saw it. It was such a great laugh! And the fact that it’s become a musical genre since then is kind of amazing. But I’m glad to be part of anything at my age!”
A version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com