For Michael McDonald, the last fifteen years have been spent in a state of full-tilt vertigo, groping his way through a blur of unmemorable bands with names like Jerry Jay and the Sheratons, the Del-Rays and Blue. Not to mention session work with the likes of David Cassidy and Jack Jones. And then there was his shuddersome solo career in the early Seventies with RCA Records, which resulted in an insipid single called “God Knows I Love My Baby” and an album that the label deemed unfit for release.
Since graduating in 1975 from a Steely Dan sideman to a dramatic, revitalizing force for the Doobie Brothers, McDonald has become the toast of the L.A. music scene—a curious community where songwriters compete with die governor of California for clout and media coverage and often win. Hell, last night McDonald threw a big bash for elder statesman (and personal hero) Burt Bacharach, and two nights from now he’ll share the spotlight with Jerry Brown at a memorial concert in the L.A. Forum for the late Lowell George.
As the hit songwriter, keyboard player and sex symbol in the Doobie Brothers, the soft-spoken twenty-seven-year-old with the piercing eyes and coal-cellar singing voice is currently at the top of his game. A string of his compositions—”Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes” (cowritten with Kenny Loggins) and “Minute by Minute” (cowritten with Lester Abrams)—has given the ten-year-old band a new lease on the pop life. And McDonald’s songs have also provided commercial boosts for such artists as Carly Simon, who scored hits in 1976 and 1978 with “It Keeps You Runnin'” and their infectious collaboration, “You Belong to Me.”
Heady stuff for the son of a St. Louis bus driver, but Michael carries himself with a calmness and a humility uncharacteristic of a front-runner. And he’s the first one to admit that, from the start, he had no idea what he was getting into.
“My first rock band was called Mike and the Majestics,” he remembers with a shy grin as he sits hunched over on a plush couch in an L.A. office, just down the road from his spacious brick home that overlooks the San Fernando Valley. “I was about twelve and my older sister Kathy was the manager. There were three of us, me and a friend on guitars and a drummer. We were young but we played for a lot of fraternity parties, plugging both guitars and a microphone into one little amplifier. The parties were really crazy — those college kids weren’t slouches — and I remember one night especially well. We must have been doing this repetitious nonsense song called ‘Hot Pastrami’ for at least an hour, and some guy on metal crutches came up, a little drunk, and he goes, ‘Let me sing, let me sing!’ We were loud more than talented, and I could barely make out what he was saying, so I said, ‘Sure, come on up . . . if you can.’ I mean there was beer everywhere, and chicks in their underwear were dancing in the food.
“So this kid came up, and he was singing the dirty words to ‘Hot Pastrami’ — stuff like ‘Hot 69! Yeah!’ — and then I heard this rumble, and I was afraid to look. This guy had shocked himself by standing in a pool of beer with metal crutches while holding onto the microphone, and now he was laying on the floor. Every time he tried to get back up, he got shocked and fell back down. It was a sick sight, but there was definitely some humor there.
Anyway, my father came down to pick us up, and when he saw the party he went nuts. The place was a riot. People were under the table humping, this girl was on top of the table dancing in her underwear. . . . My father helped us to pack up right away. By that time I had made up my mind that rock & roll was where it was at, but all my father kept saying was, ‘This isn’t what life’s like! Life isn’t like this!’“