is one of the most recognizable voices of his generation. He wrote and sang songs that have topped the airwaves for decades, including “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes” and “Minute by Minute” with his Doobie Brothers bandmates, as well as “I Keep Forgettin’” as a solo artist. But to hear Mr. McDonald tell it, he was something of an accidental superstar, “a master of nothing who could do a few things at once: play some piano, write some songs, sing background.”
He was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Doobie Brothers. The ceremony, originally planned for May 2020, was postponed and then turned into an HBO special—one pandemic adjustment that he says he didn’t much mind. “I love getting awards and am honored to do so, but I’m socially inept at these events,” he says with a laugh. “The last time I went to the Grammys, I was the only one in a tuxedo, so I was actually relieved that we didn’t have to go through the whole thing. It fits my personality to stay home and watch it on television.”
Mr. McDonald, 68, had a modest attitude when the Doobie Brothers brought him aboard in 1975 as a temporary substitute for their ailing frontman
and little seems to have changed since. “I look back on my career and realize that blind ignorance allowed me to succeed,” he says over the phone from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home. “I kind of overanalyze things, and if that’s self-deprecation, so be it. I call it being a little more in touch with reality. I look back on my music and feel so blessed that people like it. But do I think it’s the greatest stuff I’ve ever heard? No. That’s just the reality.”
As a child in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. McDonald played banjo to accompany his father, who used to sing Tin Pan Alley and ragtime songs, before moving on to keyboards and Top 40 cover bands. He later mastered Motown tunes, which deepened his love of R&B.
In 1970, an 18-year-old Mr. McDonald moved to Los Angeles. He recorded demos for RCA Records while working as a keyboardist and background vocalist on recordings with members of the legendary “Wrecking Crew” band of superb session musicians, who graced thousands of songs by all sorts of artists. The experience “was transformative,” Mr. McDonald says. “I learned studio skills from some of the greatest ever to do it.”
Mr. McDonald’s own songs combined the pop elegance of
compositions with a grounding in R&B and a love for some of the jazz chords he played as a member of Steely Dan’s touring band. He got that gig, in part, because his vocal versatility and ability to hit the high notes allowed him to sing the parts of multiple singers, letting the group tour with a smaller, more economical band.
That musical depth has kept his music relevant for decades, sampled by hip-hop artists and covered by numerous younger musicians. While some artists of his era balked at having their work sampled, he gladly let the rapper
use some of “I Keep Forgettin’” for the 1994 song “Regulate.” It became a smash and exposed Mr. McDonald’s music to a new generation.
His open-minded outlook reflects his collaborative nature. Mr. McDonald has written and recorded with a dizzying range of peers, including
Van Halen and
He has also worked with a similarly diverse group of younger artists, from indie darlings Grizzly Bear to R&B singer
and the funk-jazz bass virtuoso Thundercat.
“Playing with these guys is rejuvenating,” he says. Thundercat “took me back to that place of where energy is as big as it can get. It feels like taking a breath so big you think you’re going to burst your own lungs.”
Mr. McDonald will celebrate his 69th birthday on Feb. 12, 2021, by performing solo in a live stream concert, billed as the “Home Alone Birthday Bash: A Party of One.” He is also fine-tuning recordings he made last winter with a group of local musicians in a friend’s barn studio, which he calls “a very old school, organic way of recording.” The music from these live sessions had a Spanish tinge that he leaned into, adding accordion from
of Los Lobos and vocals by
and the Spanish singer
“What emerged in these songs was my love of California, which was renewed by returning after living in Nashville for an extended time,” says Mr. McDonald, who has been married to the singer
since 1983. They have two grown children, Dylan and Scarlett. “What surprised me was what I had missed—not the endless summer, the ocean and the mountains as anticipated, but the beauty and depth of California’s Hispanic culture. At our best, the United States’ amalgam of cultures makes us feel unity, and at our worst, it’s what separates us. We should be reminded of what an essential part it is of what’s beautiful about America.”
The pandemic temporarily scuttled a planned reunion tour with the Doobie Brothers. The shows are now scheduled to kick off July 17, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I was very much looking forward to it, and I still am,” says Mr. McDonald. “I hope we get to do it this summer. We’re supposed to play big venues, and it seems that may be the last thing to come back and feel safe. I hope it happens, but I wonder how long it will take us to get back to that carefree attitude about being in large crowds.”
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