If the voice doesn't get you, the beard will: Michael McDonald is one seductive dude. The guy with the Grizzly Adams look has earned both Grammy Awards and a good amount of ribbing for his blue-eyed soulful voice and his hits of heartbreak: What a Fool Believes with the Doobie Brothers, On My Own, I Keep Forgettin', not to mention the awesomely cheesy power of Yah Mo B There with James Ingram.
On Tuesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, the 60-year-old star will join pals Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan) and Boz Scaggs (of Lido Shuffle) to form jazz-pop supergroup the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. A few weeks before the show, I called up McDonald to chat about cutting his teeth with Steely Dan, fronting the Doobies and how he got a writing credit on ... Van Halen's 1984 album?
You earned your show-biz stripes as a backing singer for Steely Dan during their studio heyday in the mid-'70s: The Royal Scam, Aja. How intense were those recording sessions. I've heard the perfectionist rumors.
They were definitely one of the few bands at that time to be doing serious music, and I was ready for something fairly sophisticated. I wasn't a jazz guy; I was a bar band Top 40 guy. (Fagen and partner Walter Becker) could be fearsome, but mostly the legend (of their perfectionism) has always been more than what it was. They were always very funny guys. I've never felt that I was doing anything more worthwhile musically then when I was with Steely Dan.
Wow. That's a strong statement. It always seemed like you were a stranger in a strange land with the Doobies, the house band for Hell's Angels suddenly being fronted by a soul singer.
It was the most unlikely pairing of musical styles. Tommy (Johnston) had health issues at the time and needed a hiatus. They decided to keep touring, and were just looking for someone to cover the bases. At that point, I was just a sideman. What was strange was playing for these gigantic crowds, all these people. The band always was a really rocking band, so it was preordained to be a temporary thing.
With producer Ted Templeman at the helm of the Doobies, you wrote Takin' It to the Streets, It Keeps You Runnin', What a Fool Believes. Templeman was also your connection to another instance of strange bedfellows: co-writing Van Halen's I'll Wait from 1984.
Ted called me in to help them. They had the track down, but they needed a melody. So I got together with David Lee Roth.
That's just weird, man.
Yeah, it was interesting. (Laughs) I think we were both wearing pants. Hey, I can only look back on it with overwhelming gratitude. We just got together like two professional songwriters. I helped with the basic melody and the lyrics.
You're one of the few singers that can go one-on-one with James Ingram and Patti LaBelle. Is there a certain level of competition when supervoices collide?
From my standpoint, I would never want to go one-on-one with James Ingram or Patti LaBelle. (Laughs) Sharing the same mike as them — I'm not sure if it's humbling or humiliating.
You've taken comedic ribbing on The Family Guy and in The 40 Year Old Virgin. You've delivered laughs of your own on 30 Rock and South Park. And you once busted me up at a show by apologizing for having "Bea Arthur's hair." Any thoughts on doing more comedy?
You know, Sean, I don't know if I'd be any good at it when put to the test. All of sudden they put a camera on you and you become the shyest nerd in the room. I absolutely have no resources to draw from as an actor or a comedian. I did a couple skits with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin at this private thing...and they were probably like "Get this guy out of here!" It was my Waterloo.
You've remained married to the same woman since 1983, which is remarkable for a man who specializes in heart-smashing breakup songs.
Laziness can be virtuous in the right setting, I guess. Listen, we've been through the good and the bad of it. My wife is, by and large, the best thing that ever happened to me. We're just lucky, despite our dsyfunction and insanity. It's remarkable when you look back and see that anything good that happened to you happened in spite of yourself.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.