Michael McDonald: Once A Doobie, Always A Doobie

Oct 25, 2019

Singer-songwriter and "yacht rock" pioneer Michael McDonald has a lot to be excited about these days. This month, news broke that The Doobie Brothers — the band he performed with and wrote hits like "What A Fool Believes" for since the 1970s — was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time. If inducted next year, the celebration would be pretty perfect timing — 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the rock band's start. "None of us thought we'd be taking the stage together in our sixties," he told Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Lobero Theatre, in Santa Barbara, California. "It's amazing to me."

Michael McDonald plays a game on Ask Me Another at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California.
Mike Katzif / NPR

The five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter reflected on his nearly 50-year-long career in music — from his early days performing with his father in St. Louis to moving to Los Angeles when he was 18. It was there where he signed a record deal that earned him gigs with the famed collective of session musicians, the Wrecking Crew. He would soon lend his distinctive, silky-smooth voice to songs like "Peg" with Steely Dan, collaborate with Kenny Loggins, and write hit after hit as a Doobie Brother with singles like "Takin' It To The Streets" and "It Keeps You Runnin.'" Throughout the 1980s, McDonald went on to carve out a successful solo career of his own — and in recent years has reached with a younger generation of fans with collaborations with the likes of Thundercat and Solange.

On stage at the Lobero, McDonald also shared what it was like to co-write a song with his son, Dylan, on his 2017 record, Wide Open — his first album of original songs in 17 years — and offered up his take on the musical genre "Yacht Rock."

Inspired by McDonald's love of female singers from the 1960s and '70s, his Ask Me Another challenge played him short clips of well-known classics, and had him identify the famous singers who sang them.

Interview Highlights

On Performing with his dad when he was young:

I did perform with my dad in a lot of ammateur stuff. He sang in bars all around St. Louis for fun. We did a lot of rag-time stuff, old songs. He was an Irish tenor, if you were gonna have to describe him. He sang a lot of Irish songs. I played banjo for him too.... Then I went into rock and roll and I broke his heart. He didn't want to see me do that. My grandma snuck me a guitar for Christmas and that was the end of my banjo playing.

On getting his first record deal after moving to LA at the age of 18:

Eventually it was (how I met Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers). I played in a lot of clubs, and one of the bands I played in, we were just local L.A. club musicians. But you could meet a lot of people in those clubs. When certain bands were auditioning to go on the road, someone who might be working for that band might remember someone who fit the job description. In my case, I could sing all the high parts in my natural voice. I can't anymore, but back then I could. So I was a valuable asset to any band who were trying not to hire too many people.

On performing with The Doobie Brothers:

The Doobies were always such a generous band. They just were desperate enough and they called me... I met up, we rehearsed for two days and then finished out the tour. There were so many bands. You know, there was the "principles" and the "other guys." With the Doobies, everybody in the band was proud to be a Doobie Brother. And to this day, I think of myself as a Doobie Brother — all these years later.

Heard on Michael McDonald: Once A Doobie, Always A Doobie.

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia, coming to you from Santa Barbara, Calif. I'm Jonathan Coulton.


COULTON: Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's a five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter who's worked with the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Thundercat. And to start things off, he's going to play for us. Please welcome Michael McDonald.


MICHAEL MCDONALD: Good evening, Santa Barbara.


MCDONALD: (Singing) I keep forgetting we're not in love anymore. I keep forgetting things will never be the same again. I keep forgetting how you made it so clear. Every time you're near, every time I see your smile, hear your hello, you can only stay a while. And I know that it's hard for you to say the things we both know are true. How come I - how come I, baby, keep forgetting? Don't say that. Don't say that. Don't say that. I know you're not mine anymore, anyway, anytime. How come I forget? How come I, baby?


MCDONALD: Thank you so much.


EISENBERG: Michael McDonald, everybody, and his band.

Michael McDonald, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

MCDONALD: Oh, thank you.


MCDONALD: My pleasure.

EISENBERG: So I think a congratulations is in order - just announced that the Doobie Brothers are going to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

MCDONALD: Well, there's a good chance, yeah.


MCDONALD: Thank you. You know, it's their 50th anniversary...


MCDONALD: ...This next year, so it's...


MCDONALD: It's very timely.

EISENBERG: You've been singing professionally for 50 years. But you started singing and going on the road with your dad when he was gigging.

MCDONALD: I did perform with my dad in a lot of amateur stuff. But he sang in bars all around St. Louis for fun. I mean, he...


MCDONALD: He just had his favorite piano players, and he would go down and...

EISENBERG: What kind of stuff was he singing?

MCDONALD: You know, we did a lot of, like, ragtime stuff, old songs. He was an Irish tenor if you were going to have to describe him, you know? And he sang a lot of the Irish songs. And I played banjo for him, too, when I was a kid.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's amazing.

MCDONALD: And so we would do a lot of, like, you know, old rag songs, you know, and stuff like that.

EISENBERG: And how old were you - like, 12?

MCDONALD: You know, when I was about 10, 11, 12 or that age, I sang with my dad. Then I went into rock 'n' roll, and I broke his heart, really, you know?


MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Because he thought it was terrible music.

MCDONALD: Yeah. He didn't want to see me do that. But...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: My grandmother snuck a guitar. She bought me a guitar for Christmas, and that was the end of that - my banjo playing.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) See you later, banjo. So you moved from Missouri to Los Angeles to be a session musician.

MCDONALD: I signed a recording contract with RCA Records...


MCDONALD: A producer from LA area, Rick Gerard, signed me to RCA Records. And, you know, like most artists in their first record deals, not much came of it - you know, probably for the better, really. But the wonderful thing about it was to keep me alive while I was out there - I was 18 then - he used me on all his other recording sessions.

EISENBERG: And is that how you met the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan or any of those people?

MCDONALD: Eventually, it was, yeah. I played a lot of clubs. And one of the bands I played in - we were just local LA club musicians, but you could meet a lot of people in those clubs.


MCDONALD: That's where I met Jeff Porcaro first. And so, you know, word of mouth is such that when certain bands were auditioning to go on the road, someone who might be working for that band would remember somebody that might fit the job description that they were looking for.


MCDONALD: And in my case, I could sing all the high parts in my natural voice. I can't anymore. But back then, I could. And so I was a valuable asset to any band that was trying not to hire too many people, you know?


EISENBERG: Right - they were, like, we can get, like...


EISENBERG: ...Three out of this guy.

MCDONALD: ...Play a little keyboard and sing the high parts.

EISENBERG: So then you're - it's 1976, and you write two songs for the Doobie Brothers for the album "Takin' It To The Streets." You wrote the title track and "It Keeps You Runnin'." And you come in working with them, and then you write these songs. Were you always writing songs?

MCDONALD: Well, I was, yes. And that was probably a lull in my songwriting, actually. But, you know, you always have songs laying around.

EISENBERG: Lulls are good for you (laughter).

MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


MCDONALD: I was very fortunate. You know, I mean the Doobies were always such a generous band, and they were just desperate enough that they called me. And, you know, all these - these things kind of conspired to be in my better luck, you know? And I met them, and we rehearsed two days and finished out the tour, you know? There were so many bands that there were the principles, and then there were the other guys...


MCDONALD: And, you know, with the Doobies, it was always - you know, everybody in the band was really proud to be a Doobie Brother. To this day, I think of myself as a Doobie Brother, you know? All these years later, you know...


MCDONALD: Anytime these days - you know, I'm 67 now, so, you know, when we're on stage together, I don't think it's lost on any of us that none of us in our wildest dreams thought we would still be taking the stage together in our 60s, you know, and playing music together. So it's...


MCDONALD: It's amazing to me, you know?

EISENBERG: Yeah. And your latest album called "Wide Open" - it's - released in 2017. It's the first collection of new music in 17 years. And I read that your son Dylan co-wrote a couple songs on the album.

MCDONALD: He co-wrote one of them with me, yes. It was an idea he had that I wrote lyrics to. He was actually showing me a chord progression. He was trying to teach me some chords on guitar.



MCDONALD: And so he - you know, he made this progression. And he was describing chords to me kind of like I would have at his age. This is a Dave Navarro chord, you know?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

MCDONALD: Not a A minor or a C minor but a Dave Navarro.

EISENBERG: Dave Navarro chord.

MCDONALD: So I - you know, I remember saying to him - I said, well, I like that. I like that chord progression, and we should write something, to which he replied, eh, yeah.


MCDONALD: And so I went off, and he, myself and his uncle, my brother-in-law - we wrote some lyrics to it and then recorded a demo of it. And I'm still trying to get him to record that song, and he just doesn't want to (laughter).

EISENBERG: He doesn't want to.

MCDONALD: You know, I think it would be a perfect song for him. It would actually be a better record, I think, with his band than...

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah.

MCDONALD: ...What we did. I mean, I enjoy the song a lot, love playing it live. But I still would like to hear his band play it...


MCDONALD: ...Because they're more of a rock band.

EISENBERG: Well, maybe you can get someone who's not his dad to suggest it (laughter).

MCDONALD: You know, that's...


MCDONALD: ...Pretty much what it would take, actually. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So if I say your name to a friend, they smile and yell back, yacht rock...


EISENBERG: ...Which, of course, is a term that did not exist when the genre was actually active - from, like, 1975 to '84. But it was coined in 2005. So what do you think of the term yacht rock?

MCDONALD: In my case, in my age, musicians my age - thank god for casinos.


MCDONALD: You know, yacht rock, oldies radio - you know, you name it, the - all those things came along just in time, you know...


MCDONALD: ...To keep us working, you know? Yeah.

EISENBERG: That's right. All right. Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?


EISENBERG: So you told us that you're actually really obsessed with female singers from the '60s and '70s. So in this game, we're going to play you a clip.


EISENBERG: You just identify the singer.


EISENBERG: That's it. However, each clip is just a few seconds long.


EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, listener Martha Swanson from Santa Barbara will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.


EISENBERG: All right.


MCDONALD: All right.

EISENBERG: Yeah. All right. Here we go. This 1967 hit was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Find out what it means to me.

MCDONALD: Aretha Franklin.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right, of course.


EISENBERG: Now, apparently, Otis Redding originally didn't like Aretha's version...


EISENBERG: ...Because when he heard it, he realized that it no longer belonged to him.



EISENBERG: All right. This 1965 song followed the hit songs "Heat Wave" and "Dancing In The Streets."


MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS: (Singing) It's not love I'm running from.

MCDONALD: Martha and the Vandellas, yeah.

EISENBERG: Martha and the Vandellas...

MCDONALD: One of my favorite songs.

EISENBERG: ...Is correct.


EISENBERG: You covered this song.

MCDONALD: I did, yeah.

EISENBERG: And supposedly, Martha and the Vandellas got their big break when Martha Reeves, who was working as a secretary for Motown Records, snagged the chance to sing backup to Marvin Gaye in a recording session.


EISENBERG: All right. This 1972 song is performed by a gospel family band who often played before Martin Luther King speeches.


MAVIS STAPLES: (Singing) I'm calling, calling, calling for mercy.

MCDONALD: Mavis Staples.

EISENBERG: That's right, yes.


EISENBERG: Bob Dylan proposed to her, but she turned him down.

MCDONALD: Yeah. She probably made a good choice there.


EISENBERG: She later married a Chicago mortician named Spencer Leak - not a good name.

MCDONALD: Yeah, no.



EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clip. This song was released in 1974.


LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Now I see how you really are.

MCDONALD: Oh, Linda Ronstadt.

EISENBERG: Yeah, Linda Ronstadt - "You're No Good."


EISENBERG: All right. Well, congratulations, Michael McDonald. You did fantastic. And you and listener Martha Swanson both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.


EISENBERG: Michael McDonald will perform a benefit concert for The Rhythmic Arts Project right here at the Lobero Theatre on November 1. And his latest album, "Wide Open," is available now. Give it up for Michael McDonald.


EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.