The musician took it to the streets as a member of iconic groups Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, and earned the first of his five Grammy awards with the song “What A Fool Believes.” His career has allowed him to write for, and sing with, some of the best-known voices of the ’80s and ’90s, including Kenny Loggins and Patti LaBelle, with whom he performed the pop ballad “On My Own.” McDonald continued reinventing himself into the 2000s, tipping his hat to Detroit with “Motown” and “Motown II,” both of which have been certified platinum and gold, respectively.
Of course, none of this success would be his if it weren’t for a late night many years ago when, as a teenager in his hometown of St. Louis, his sister and her friends threw an impromptu party on his front lawn.
“This kid pulled right up on the lawn … and the song ‘Stop Her On Sight’ by Edwin Starr was blasting out of his car,” McDonald recalls. “I heard that music the best way you hear it, where there’s a lot of bass and you really get the full monty of a great R&B record ... It just grabbed me and I remember thinking, ‘That’s really the kind of music I want to do.’”
Before he invigorates Anniston with his Knox Concert Series performance Thursday, McDonald, who is now based in Nashville, talked with The Star about what he appreciates these days and what path he might have taken if this whole singing thing hadn’t worked out.
Q: You were born and raised in St. Louis, but have such eclectic musical tastes. Where and when did you cultivate your musical influences?
A: My dad was a singer, and one of my favorite things, and his too, I think, was when we were in the car driving around. We would hear Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole — all the great singers. My dad just loved those guys. I really grew up loving those guys too. I went on to be just so influenced by Ray Charles and really idolized the guy in my formative years as a musician.
Q: You joined the Doobie Brothers in 1976 and were a part of some of their greatest hits, including ‘Real Love,’ ‘Takin’ It To The Streets,’ ‘Minute By Minute’ — songs with distinct sounds that were able to cross genres and have reached multiple audiences over the years. What was the process in creating that?
A: It was an odd thing because they were known to be such a rock band, and all of sudden a lot of the stuff we were doing, we were kind of borrowing production value and chord progressions from records that were more like some of the early pop records, like the Four Seasons and Edwin Starr, or Sam Cooke. Things like that that weren’t necessarily rock rock things, but they were stuff that we loved. We just got off on this jag — so many of the songs that we did were, to me, reminiscent of things we’d all grown up listening to.
I hadn’t really gotten the chance to write or play that kind of music since I was a kid. Since I had come to California I was usually playing with some rock band in a bar. So with the Doobies there was this weird little window of opportunity where we started bringing that kind of influence into the music of the band.
Q: Did you ever wonder what you would do if singing hadn’t worked out?
A: When I was first starting out in California, I was just working whenever I could and playing wherever I could and doing whatever sessions I could get, and I remember thinking I’d probably love to be a forest ranger. I think I was thinking about sitting up in a tower somewhere looking out over this vast forest, probably smoking a joint, doing pretty much nothing. And I’m sure there’s a lot more to the job than that!
Q: You’ve got an extensive catalog that goes back more than 30 years — we could be singing and dancing all night. What goal do you focus on during a Michael McDonald show?
A: The only thing we really strive to do is just play the music we have and that we do — every night we try to play it as well as we can.
For me, right now, at this point in my life, the idea that I can still go out and work and play — all of us in the band … appreciate the fact that we can still do the things we love to do and work and get out among other people and communicate to the arts.
I find myself being more grateful with time that I still get to do this and so much appreciate the people who come and hear us.
IF YOU GO…
WHAT: Knox Concert Series presents Michael McDonald
WHEN: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Anniston Performing Arts Center, Woodstock Ave.
TICKETS: Some reserved seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis for $100 each. To purchase tickets, 256-741-8262.