Michael McDonald: The Soulful Voice That Changed the Doobie Brothers

By on June 29, 2023

Michael McDonald is one of the most distinctive and influential singers of his generation. His smooth, soulful voice has graced the records of Steely Dan, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, and many others. But perhaps his most memorable contribution was to the Doobie Brothers, the California rock band that he joined in 1975 and helped transform into a pop-soul powerhouse.

File Photo of Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers in Concert 2022 (Larry Philpot/SoundstagePhotography.com)

McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1952, and started playing in local bands as a teenager. He moved to Los Angeles in 1970, where he was discovered by producer Rick Jarrard, who signed him to RCA Records. He soon became a sought-after session vocalist and keyboardist, working with artists like Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, and Steely Dan. He became a member of Steely Dan’s touring band in 1973, and sang backup on several of their albums, including Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja.

In 1975, McDonald was recruited by the Doobie Brothers to replace their lead singer Tom Johnston, who had fallen ill with a stomach ulcer. Johnston had been the main songwriter and vocalist of the band, which had scored hits with boogie-rock anthems like “Listen to the Music”, “China Grove”, and “Long Train Runnin’”. McDonald brought a different musical sensibility to the group, infusing their sound with elements of R&B, jazz, and gospel. He also wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on their next four albums: Takin’ It to the Streets (1976), Livin’ on the Fault Line (1977), Minute by Minute (1978), and One Step Closer (1980).

As a member of the Doobie Brothers, McDonald sang lead vocals on some of the band’s best-known songs, such as “Real Love”, “Takin’ It to the Streets”, “Little Darling (I Need You)”, “It Keeps You Runnin’”, “Minute by Minute”, and “What a Fool Believes” (which became a number-one single in the U.S. and earned him a 1980 Grammy Award for Song of the Year along with co-writer Kenny Loggins). His soulful voice blended well with the harmonies of Patrick Simmons and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, creating a rich vocal texture that set the band apart from their peers.

McDonald’s tenure with the Doobie Brothers lasted until 1982, when the band decided to disband after a farewell tour. McDonald then embarked on a successful solo career, releasing nine studio albums and scoring hits like “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)”, “Sweet Freedom”, “On My Own” (a duet with Patti LaBelle, which was surprisingly his biggest hit), and “Yah Mo B There” (a duet with James Ingram). He also continued to collaborate with other artists, such as Aretha Franklin, Van Halen, Joni Mitchell, and Grizzly Bear.

Interestingly, the music video for his biggest hit with Patti LaBelle was shot with them on separate coasts, and never in the same studio. There is a link to that video, below.

In 1987, McDonald reunited with the Doobie Brothers for a benefit concert for Vietnam veterans. The reunion sparked a revival of interest in the band, which led to a permanent reunion in 1989 with Johnston back in the fold. McDonald has since rejoined the band on several occasions, most recently for their 50th anniversary tour in 2021-2022. He was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Doobie Brothers in 2020.

Michael McDonald is widely regarded as one of the finest singers and songwriters of his era. His voice has been described as “warm as a California sunset” by Rolling Stone magazine, and as “one of the most gorgeous instruments in all of popular music” by The New York Times. His influence can be heard in artists like Bruno Mars, John Legend, Sam Smith, and Adele. He remains an active and vital force in music, constantly exploring new genres and styles. He is truly a soul man for all seasons.

Despite being involved in the recordings of so many artists of all genres, this video with Patti LaBelle was his biggest hit.