Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features backup vocalist Dolette McDonald.
When Dolette McDonald walked into the Talking Heads rehearsal space shortly before the launch of their 1980 Remain in Light world tour, she had no idea that her life was about to change forever. The band had hired her sight unseen as its first backup vocalist even though her main experience was singing in the church and on a handful of disco records. She’d never heard a note of their music and didn’t know who any of them were, but she instantly integrated herself into their world and became an incredible onstage foil for David Byrne, doubling his vocals on songs like “Born Under Punches” and “The Great Curve” and lifting their show to incredible new heights.
Her stint with Talking Heads was the start of an incredible career as a backup singer that included tours with the Police, Sting, Don Henley, and Steve Winwood, and recording sessions with the Rolling Stones, Tears for Fears, Chic, and Laurie Anderson. When it quieted down in the Nineties, McDonald moved to Naples, Florida, and started a whole new life far away from the spotlight. We called her up at her new home in Savannah, Georgia, to hear all about her incredible journey.
How has your pandemic year been?
Considering all that has gone on, it’s been great. It has allowed me to sort of pay attention to me and grow a little bit more and spend more time on me instead of running around doing God knows what. In terms of not being able to see people, that’s been really, really hard. I happen to be an extroverted introvert, so I’m OK with being home a lot. However, the fact that I can’t go out, human nature is like … I’m pissed right now. [Laughs] My cooking skills have also become amazing.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. What are your earliest memories of hearing music as a child?
Whew! My earliest memories would be hearing Dinah Washington. We had a record player, and that was before my mother became very religious and all that was taken away. But I do recall as a little child, Dinah Washington’s voice.
Where did you grow up?
Newark, New Jersey.
How old were you when your mother got very religious and banned most music?
I wasn’t in school yet, so I think I was about five years old. I’m the baby of seven. So my mother didn’t get religious until me. [Laughs] I was fucked. [Laughs] She decided to become this religious fanatic and I was the one that paid for it.
Did your siblings sneak music in the house or was it truly banned?
It was banned. The interesting thing about that is that my father was not religious. It was a strange dichotomy. My father worked the second shift, so we only saw him on the weekends, for Sunday dinner usually. That’s because on Saturdays he was out partying with his family, who lived up the street. But my mother was an extremist. I heard stories about her when she was younger. She was quite the partier. She went from that to the opposite extreme and became religious. And as a matter of fact, she became an evangelist. That’s where I found out that I could sing.
Tell me about that.
I was in school and I had a music teacher named Miss Simmons. I’ll never forget her because she had quite the impact on my life. She was fabulous. She taught the inner-city kids and she came in a car dressed like a movie star. She didn’t drive. She’d get out the back. It’s amazing the things I remember because I can’t remember some things, but there are things I really remember, and she’s one of them.
She would teach us Broadway show tunes and I would, without realizing it, harmonize. She’d be at the piano and she’d go, “Who is that voice?” At first, I thought I was in trouble. Of course, I wasn’t, I came to find out. She pulled me aside and asked me to sing some things. She taught me the “Lord’s Prayer” and called my mother and asked her to come to assembly, which is where the whole school came together and had plays and things. They’d always sing the Lord’s Prayer first and the Pledge of Allegiance. I sang the Lord’s Prayer and that’s when my mother realized I could sing.
How did your singing career evolve in your childhood years? Was it mainly in the church?
Yeah. My mother used to travel. I used to warm up in church for her. I sang before she spoke. It was pretty cool since they used to pass the plate and there was some additional money in there every time I went with her. [Laughs]
The funny thing is, I was so shy that I would shake. I was so nervous. She told me not to look at the people. Every church had a clock at a certain level and it was right above the heads of the parishioners. I would always look at the clock and it seemed to calm me. Years later, I found out that was a terrible habit since it would constrict my vocal cords. [Laughs]
That was my experience singing in church. From there, I’d sing in choirs and I’d direct young people’s choirs in the church. As my mother became more popular, her kids became more popular. I started directing the youth choir and then started singing with groups. The group I remember most, which was the closest to show business, was called the Voices of Tomorrow. There’s a gentleman named Donnie Harper who was actually the director of that group and in charge of that group.
Through Donnie, I started singing background for Cissy Houston. I started gigging with her. From that point on, things just started to accelerate.
Tell me about Cissy. What was it like working for her?
She was great. We could relate since we were all church kids. What I loved about working for her is she did cabaret. I love cabarets. I wish supper clubs and cabarets were still around. Those were some of my fondest memories, actually. We would play Sweetwater’s and there were other fantastic clubs in New York we would do. I kind of learned from Cissy, a little bit, how to perform because she was originally a background singer. I learned a lot from her and we shared a dressing room and we’d chat. I did some of my first recording sessions because of her. I was very luck to work with her.
Did you meet Whitney as a child?
Oh, yeah. She’d run around the house being a kid. She sang with us sometimes. It’s so funny. At that time, my mindset was just hanging out and having fun and singing. I never thought about that Whitney could become who she was, or anything. It never even dawned on me that that was a possibility.
Tell me about discovering pop music as as teenager when you were finally able to hear all this great stuff.
Fortunately, The Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t banned. That’s where I got to see Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations and the Beatles and Gladys Knight and the Pips. We were able to walk up and down the street and you’d hear music coming out of people’s homes and the radio. I was familiar with the music of the day. I was even familiar with the Beatles.
I thought I was Diana Ross at a certain point in my life. I dressed like her. I wore eyelashes. This is when I left home. I left at 17, but that’s another story. That’s when I started to mature and develop. I did everything late since I was so stifled as a child. My learning came at a price sometimes.
But Diana Ross was everything. When she did the movie Lady Sings the Blues, I bought the record and I knew all the dialogue. I was obsessed with her; I really was.
How did your career evolve after your time with Cissy Houston?
When I was with Cissy Houston, I did a recording with [producer] Michael Zager. It was the Afro Cuban band. I sang a song with them called “Black Widow Woman.” That was my first solo endeavor.
That’s when I became interested in recording. And then I started touring with Walter Murphy and the “Fifth of Beethoven” band. I was just doing gig after gig. Eventually, I sang background for a disco group called the Bombers. Through them, I met a man named Busta Jones.
He was so wonderful to me, like a brother. And probably my first cheerleader, really. He realized that I had some kind of talent and asked me to sing on a record of his, and I did. It turned out that, at that time, the Talking Heads were looking to expand their band. Busta recommended me for the job.
Did you know about their music at all?
Hell, no! [Huge laugh] Hell, no! I didn’t know a damn thing! I was like, “What the hell is the Talking Heads?” [Laughs] I don’t know how, but Busta was always in the middle of everything in terms of punk and New Wave. He was a black guy that wore cowboy hats and cowboy boots. I was amazed that he found his way to where everyone knew him. He was just one of those guys.
Tell me about first meeting the Talking Heads. Did they audition you?
No. The funny thing is I met them at rehearsal. How fabulous is that? I didn’t even have to audition. They believed Busta. I was completely unknown.
What was your first impression of David Byrne?
I was so nervous that I don’t even know if I had an impression. I thought they were kind of weird. However, Chris Frantz, the drummer, was so normal. Everyone, except for David, turned out to be so normal. David was quirky and weird, but on the other hand, there was [keyboardist] Bernie Worrell, who was equally as weird. [Laughs]
What was it like to first hear their music? Hearing Remain in Light must have blown your mind.
Funnily enough, my first reaction was, “What is this?” You’re talking about a girl from Newark, New Jersey who was used to singing in bars and singing soul music. I had never been introduced to punk or New Wave. I had no idea what that type of music was. Although, as I became more educated, I realized they really weren’t doing punk or New Wave. They had their own thing that they were doing. It was almost like dance music, actually, but more sophisticated.
Tell me about learning to find your place in the band. You were singing, playing percussion, dancing …
Interestingly enough, it was easy. I’ll tell you why. Because they were, at that time, so open to what we brought to the table. They allowed me to do my thing. If it was a little much or they wanted more, they’d tell me. I look back now and appreciate them so much for the way they allowed me to find my voice.
They gave you a very prominent role. You’re standing near David and doubling his vocals much of the time.
Yes. I have not had that opportunity before or since.
Your first show was the Heatwave Festival in Bowmanville, Ontario, on August 23rd, 1980.
[Screaming laugh] Oh, my God! Yes! I know you’re going to say, “Why are you getting so dramatic right now?” I still have a visceral reaction every time somebody asks me about that. Remember, you’re talking about Dolette McDonald, green as hell, knows nothing about the music business, just finding her way and watching what everyone else is doing, mimicking what I thought was right and wrong.
We get to Canada. I’m following the leader, call times … I never experienced a lot of that. But I had Busta guiding me along the way. We get to that first gig, we go from the hotel to a helicopter. OK? This is Dolette McDonald, who has not done anything, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, who has not experienced anything.
We have to fly in by helicopter since there were 80,000 people there. Eighty thousand people! This is my first gig with them. So I had to really … I wasn’t even meditating at that time. I honestly cannot tell you how I got through it. I didn’t know anything about centering myself or getting myself ready for that situation. I think ignorance got me through it, to be honest with you, because that was an incredible moment. I wish I could have appreciated what was happening to me at that time, but I think what I was trying to do was just get through it.
I’ve seen videos of the tour. You brought a ton of energy onto the stage and clearly got the crowd going.
Yeah. And a lot of it was fear. It was fear-driven, I have to be honest. My whole career, I was afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid of not being good enough. My whole career was so fear-driven that if I could go back and do it again with what I know now, I would remember it more. I would have enjoyed it more.
Central Park was the second gig. That must have been intense too.
[Laughs] Talk about the universe putting me in places. Boy, I tell you. I lead a charmed life. I couldn’t have invented this in my imagination in a million years. Central Park was fantastic. That night, I was able to perform with the legendary Nona Hendryx. That also was precious, to stand beside her and perform. I was lucky enough to work for her. I sang backup for her. I don’t think she realized it, but she mentored me for a long time. I loved working for her.
Did David give you helpful feedback during the tour?
No! [Laughs] I didn’t need that, but that’s just not what he does. He was doing his thing. Also, I guess, my imitation was so good that I was able to feed off of him and I think he enjoyed that. There was really nothing for him to give me notes on, to be honest with you. I got more notes from Tina [Weymouth] than I did from David.
Did you grow close to her?
Oh, yeah. I adore her. Tina is classy and smart and has the most amazing memory of anyone that I know. We’re still friends. Tina kept it classy all the time. That was our endeavor. There were times we’d discus wardrobe. She even gave me clothes. At first, I didn’t have the right wardrobe. She wasn’t mean about it. She was very nice in suggesting things for me to wear. It was really cool and I really appreciated it.
If I could go back in time and see any tour, I think it would be this one. I can’t think of a better tour by anybody in the history of rock.
I tell you, I was learning the whole time, I really was. I was learning, growing, getting more confident as a background singer. That’s really what I wanted to do and I wanted to do it well. I had no designs on being a solo artist. I never did. I was just a girl from Newark that wanted to sing a song. I just lucked out with all these amazing opportunities. Most of them, I didn’t pursue. They just came.
How was Europe and Japan? That must have been overwhelming to visit all these faraway cities.
Completely overwhelming. I got my first passport with Walter Murphy. My second one was with Talking Heads. I was a little overwhelmed, to be honest, by all the traveling. I didn’t know how to pace myself. I didn’t know what to expect. Honestly, I remember very clearly the first time we went to Paris. I sat in my room and cried because I couldn’t speak the language and I was hungry. Everything was closed since things close in the afternoon. There was a lot of cultural changes I had to learn to understand and roll with the punches.
By the 1982 tour, did you feel more comfortable onstage and on the road?
Oh, yeah. By 1982, I was more comfortable with them because they made me feel like part of the group. You didn’t feel like an outsider with Talking Heads. You really felt like part of the band, which helps one’s nervousness and helps you be a better performer when you’re feeling like that.
How was the US Festival in 1982?
I just remember a lot of celebrities waking around backstage. I was always that person. To this day, I’m not a big backstage person. I don’t go backstage when I go to shows. I’m just not that. I hate the whole backstage scene. I would usually be in my area, wherever that was. I never walked around. I just stayed hidden. That was partially because I was so shy. It didn’t appear to be that way, but I was very shy and I didn’t want to deal with anything other than my job.
You were a part of the Speaking in Tongues sessions and you’re credited on “Slippery People.” What do you recall about making that?
I recall having a really good time. That’s when David came out of his shell and he was very clear about what he wanted. It was different with the live show than recording, I do remember that. He knew what he wanted and was very clear about what he wanted. It was more work than when we did the live shows.
Did you sense a disconnect between David and the rest of the band?
Not at all. I didn’t see any of that. What’s funny is that people ask me questions like that, but I missed a lot of stuff during my career. I was so focused on my job and I was just naive. I wasn’t intuitive enough, or I didn’t care. I’m not sure.
You left the group before the Stop Making Sense period. What happened?
I had aligned myself, for the lack of a better word, with a management company because I couldn’t negotiate. One of the things that I’m terrible at is promoting myself. I’m still terrible at it. I could never be a sales person. Anyway, I was offered a gig with Duran Duran when I was with Talking Heads. Me being native, I immediately went to David [Byrne] and went, “Here’s the deal. I got a gig with Duran Duran. It might interfere with Talking Heads.”
It came down to him asking me about money. And of course, Duran Duran was offering me more. Next thing I know, I get a call saying that I no longer had a gig with Talking Heads and I no longer had a gig with Duran Duran. [Laughs] I didn’t get the gig with Duran Duran because the Talking Heads management told them not to hire me.
I didn’t know at the time. I left Talking Heads telling them that I’d find a replacement for myself. Years later, I was doing a video for Sting and Duran Duran were at the same set doing a video on their own. I came out of the set and saw Simon Le Bon. He ran up to me and said, “Dolette, I’m so sorry.” I was like, “For what?” I had no idea any of this was happening. That just goes to show you how naive I was. And he was the one that told me the story, but this was a few years later.
Speaking of Sting, you went right from Talking Heads to the Police’s Synchronicity tour.
Yes. I lost the gig with Talking Heads and lost the gig with Duran Duran. However, I got a gig with the Police. I’m one of those people that believes everything happens exactly as it should. I didn’t have that knowledge at the time. Now I can look back and see that it was all good.
Anyway, I was told that the Police were looking for singers. I didn’t audition. They were already on tour, actually. They felt like two of the singers that they had, they were good singers, but I don’t think they were background singers.
We were flown out to Los Angeles and I learned all their songs on the airplane. We were taken to the studio. I think they had just done Shea Stadium. We re-recorded the background vocals for that live show. That’s how I got the gig with the Police. I’ll never forget that the first person I met was Tessa Niles, my dear friend to this day. I adore her. She’s my sister. I knew I’d have a good time because Tessa was so cool. She was amazing. I said, “Oh, I’m going to like this gig.”
I’m singing and Sting turns to me and the first thing he said was, “Nice hair.” I had dreadlocks at the time. I was like, “OK, hi!”
It’s funny because I’m so grateful, but I was so naive. I never know who these people were. I knew they were famous or whatever, but I never knew got starstruck. I still don’t get starstruck. You know how people lose their minds when they’re around somebody they admire? That was never my thing. I’m grateful for that part of my personality. It comes off as aloof, but I just don’t have that.
How was the work with the Police different than the Talking Heads? You weren’t doing percussion. It was just backing vocals and you were more stationary.
Right, with a little choreography. Sting was very clear with what he wanted. It was the first time in my whole career that I was restricted as a singer. I’ll never forget it. My first month with the Police, I had headaches. That’s because Sting, at that time, didn’t want his singers to sing with vibrato, and I didn’t know how to do that. That was a whole new skill set for me to learn, which was good, because I learned it. But I would have headaches trying to control it.
It was very interesting. When I look back at my time with the Police, I don’t think that they looked at background singers as being very important.
Right. They’d always been a three-piece band up until that point.
Yeah. I almost feel like some people resented it, to be honest with you. I never got a really warm and fuzzy vibe from any of them, the crew, any of them. I just didn’t. I’m sure that was my thought process at the time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but that’s how I felt. As I spent more time going from the Police tour to Sting [in his solo career], I became tight with all those same people, and it was a whole different vibe.
What is it like to walk onstage at those Police shows and see 80,000 people?
After my first gig with Talking Heads, it was nothing. That was, for me, the ultimate. I did the Rose Bowl with Juan Gabriel and he sold that out. It was my second time feeling something. My first time was Talking Heads. With the Police, the funny thing is I realized nobody was paying attention to us [backup singers], so it really didn’t matter.
Did you sense they were a band on the verge of breaking up?
No! [Huge laugh] I did feel like there was a bit of a disconnect. I really felt that. But I didn’t feel like they were a band on the verge of breaking up. But I got a sense of it at the end of the tour. Where we we?
It ended in Australia.
Look at you! You do your homework. Sting and I had this thing. I was always the first one up, the first one at the gym, the first one down for breakfast. It became a competition between the two of us, who was going to get there first, who was going to be in the gym. That was a fun time for us. But we were sitting in the airport in Australia, coming home, and the night before was our last gig [at the Melbourne Showgrounds in Melbourne on March 4th, 1984], and Sting was in a pissy mood. He was mad at the world that night, telling us we were singing out of tune and he was yelling at us.
Me being me, I don’t like to leave anything. I like to have closure. I said to him at the airport, “What was up with last night?” He was like, “What do you mean?” as if he didn’t know. I said, “You were telling us we were singing out of tune.” And honestly, he was the one singing out of tune. He said, “I’m sorry. I got a lot going on. But I have some new things coming up and I’ll give you a call.”
Of course, I thought it was bullshit and he was just trying to get me out of his face. However, I did get a call saying that Sting was doing a solo album. When I look back, that’s what he was trying to tell me.
The Police were at their zenith at that moment. But then Sting breaks the group up and the only person from the tour he brought to his next project was you.
I know, right? Isn’t that something? [Laughs] I never thought of it like that. Oh, my God! I never thought of it like that! Wow. He did.
Tell me about the Dream of the Blue Turtles period with Sting.
I have to say that it was extremely enjoyable, quite a learning experience, and much more intimate than the Police tour. I always felt like an outsider on the Police tour. I felt more in touch with the group as a whole on the Sting solo endeavors. I had nothing to do with who he chose to be in the band, but what I did know was that it was serious and I had to bring my A-plus game. The people he chose were incredible. They were talented and they all brought something to the table. That’s what he was looking for, people that could bring something more to the table, people who could enhance what his vision was. He gave me that opportunity.
On songs like “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,” there’s more room for other vocalists.
Yeah. There’s more room on them for vocalists. But if you notice, the voices are mostly Sting. [Big laugh] I’m just saying! We were there, but he was louder! [Laughs] I’m not mad at him because he’s Sting. He wants to hear himself. Every time I’d hear a mix of a song, I’d be like, “But where am I?”
You were on the 1986 Amnesty International tour with U2, Peter Gabriel, and Lou Reed. What was that like?
That one played in New Jersey at Giants Stadium [on June 15th, 1986]. I sang with Joni Mitchell that night and I bombed so hard with her. I remember that more than anything else on that tour. Someone recently sent me the audio of it and I didn’t really bomb, but at the time, I felt like she hated me. At rehearsal, it sounded fine. But once I got out on stage with her, the audience was not embracing her or giving her any love. Her energy changed. I’m like a sponge. When her energy changed, my energy changed. I kind of created my own melody to that part she was singing and I don’t think she liked that too much.
I saw her not too long after this in L.A. and she was with her husband, Larry Klein. Mind you, I’m talking about an idol. This is somebody that I dreamed of singing with forever, and I got an opportunity. I should have known when I sang with her and [Sting manager] Miles Copeland got such joy out of giving me a thumbs down.
Anyway, I saw her and Larry Klein. I went, “Oh, hi!” She said, “Dolette!” And then started yelling at me, “Why didn’t you tell me that was at the bottom of your register?!” I did not know what to do. And Larry dragged her away. He was like, “Come on, Joni. Let it go.”
I have never told that story before, but you brought up that Amnesty tour. That is what I remember most from that. I also remember Muhammad Ali behind me. I had my back to him and I heard someone coming up behind me saying, “You sure are pretty.” I wanted to turn around and tell him to fuck off. It was Muhammad Ali! [Huge laugh] You can imagine what my face looked like when I turned around and it was him.
Back to the music, there was U2 and the Police [reunion]. That was great. Janice [Pendarvis] was with me and we got a chance to sing with the Police, which was so much fun.
Bono came out for “Invisible Sun.”
Yeah. It was great. One of the things I loved about the Amnesty tour is that you got to sing with multiple artists. You just got to hang out and sing with each other and enjoy each other’s company.
That same year, you sang on “Winning Ugly” on the Rolling Stones album Dirty Work. How did that come about?
Mick must have seen Janice and I on Sting’s tour. He asked us to come and perform. We were still on tour and I think we had a couple of days off in New York. He asked us to come and rehearse. I got lost and could not find his house. They didn’t have numbers on the brownstones where he lived in New York and I got completely lost. There were no cellphones. I missed the rehearsal, but we went and did the gig anyway.
It was fabulous because Mick Jagger, you can tell he loves everything about music. He was so energetic. He wanted us to have a certain energy during the song and he danced and he performed. It was an incredible experience, so much fun. He made it really, really a good time for us.
In 1988, you went on the second Amnesty tour, this time with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour.
I adore Youssou N’Dour. That was the best, as far as I’m concerned, because everyone was together the whole show, traveling together. There was no egos. It was just fantastic to see people being themselves. We had to sleep on the plane and there wasn’t much time to do anything because it was from gig to gig to gig. I think it was very smart that we all traveled on the same plane to make sure everybody got to the gig on time.
The tour hit Zimbabwe. Not a lot of big rock tours get there.
I didn’t go. I didn’t go anywhere that you had to take a shot to go to. Also, my mother was dying. I asked Sting if I could spend some time with her. I didn’t know if it would be the last time she’d be living. I missed the first half and did the second part of that tour.
How did your mom feel about you performing all of this secular music?
She was funny. She wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say, “This is great” or “It’s terrible.” She just went with it, especially when she started receiving perks from the fact that I was traveling all over the world, making a lot of money and doing this thing she didn’t want me to do. She kind of kept quiet about it. My dad was a little more encouraging.
Did your mom see you sing with the Talking Heads or the Police?
Oh, God, no. My father saw me on television once. I wasn’t there, but my sister told me this. He said, “They pay her for that?” [Big laugh] It’s so weird. But they came from a generation … Mind you, this is a reason they were so odd. My parents didn’t have me until they were in their forties. At that time, people were grandmothers and grandfathers. They were old parents for me. They came from a generation where it was unfathomable that one of their children would be a successful entertainer. I don’t think they ever really realized how blessed I was. I don’t think they really got it.
That’s sad, but it makes sense. To move on here, you sang with Tears for Fears on “Year of the Knife” off the Seeds of Love album in 1989. Tell me about that.
That was fun. Tessa [Niles] got me that gig. I was living in London in 1987 and Tessa asked me if i wanted to. I think we went to Bath to do that one. It was a great day. We had fun. I remember Roland [Orzabal] saying to me … and at the time, I didn’t get it. But there was a point where he said, “I want you to sound like an old, black gospel singer.”
I was really insulted. I was like, “What the hell?” I didn’t realize that was what he heard in his head and it ended up being Oleta Adams. But that was the only way that he could describe it. Does that make sense?
Yeah. I guess he just lacked the vocabulary to describe what he wanted.
Right! And so when I heard Oleta, I realized that’s what he was thinking when he said that to me. But it was great. I had a really great time with him. They are really great guys. They know what they want, which is cool. Tessa and I always had a fabulous, fabulous time when we were together.
Tell me about your time with Steve Winwood.
I did the  Back in the High Life tour with him. It was the year that Chaka Khan sang “Higher Love” with him. And it was different from anything else I’ve ever done. Usually, the singers would have some sort of relationship with the artist because it reflects on your performance onstage, what kind of energy there is. At least for me, I need to have some sort of relationship with the artist. That way, I can feed off their energy when we’re performing. It makes my gig better and I think it helps me be in tune with them if they want to change anything or switch anything up mid-song.
Anyway, with Steve Winwood, it was quite the opposite. I don’t ever remember having a conversation with him about anything. It was interesting. We would rehearse, we did soundcheck, we did the shows, but I don’t ever remember just sitting down or having a meal. There was nothing like that. I had no relationship with him at all. It was the one and only tour where it was like that.
Tell me about the Don Henley tour then.
I’m not sure how it happened. I had my wonderful managers at the time and they got a call. I don’t know who recommended me, but that’s how I found out about it. I loved working with Don Henley, except that he’s a little OCD about his music. He likes things to sound exactly like the record. That was interesting.
Don was very generous. He was very classy. I love his music. I love his face. But there was just something that didn’t connect with me. It could have been me. I don’t know.
Do you recall the Unplugged performance you did with him in 1990?
Oh, yeah. He stopped. [Laughs] It was supposed to be live, and he totally stopped recording because there was something that he didn’t like. I thought that was weird, but it sounded incredible. It sounded great.
Then you were back with David Byrne on his 1992 LP Uh-Oh.
Yeah. I remember going back and singing. It was Nona Hendryx, myself and Tawatha Agee. I noticed on that particular record, David was a pain in the ass in terms of being a stickler for things that didn’t make sense to be a stickler for. I did some backgrounds with Nona and Tawatha and then he kept me and I did some things on my own after they left. I had to tell him at one point, “I don’t know what it is that you want. I can’t do it.” It was this one part that he just had. I said, “I don’t hear it that way. It’s not going to come out that way.”
The woman who was the engineer-producer came in and sang it. I was like, “Why don’t you just have her sing it? [Laughs] I’m going to stand here for hours and it’s just not going to come out of my mouth.” It was really weird. It was a certain thing that he wanted that I just could not do, but he just kept at it. I had never experienced that with any producer before. I was like, “Put me out of my misery. I’ll put you out of your misery. Let her do it.” But it was great working with Nona and Tawatha Agee. I had a great time.
By this point, you’d been working nonstop for 12 years. How did you find any time for a personal life?
You don’t. You are married to your career. Everything is your career. And I was OK with that, up to a point. But after those 12 years, I went on another 10 years with a Mexican artist called Juan Gabriel. That’s when I decided I had had enough. I couldn’t anymore. I had lost myself. I didn’t know who I was. I just needed a break. I had gone as far as I could go, mentally, emotionally, professionally. I just couldn’t do it anymore and I actually moved to Florida.
I called everything we talked about “Act One.” I moved to Florida to reinvent myself and create Act Two. I started working in hospitality and spent 12 years as a hotelier.
What kind of hotels?
High-end hotels in Naples, Florida, and Captiva. What I did was, I said to my sister, “I gotta stop traveling. I’m losing it. I don’t know who I am. I have to figure out who Dolette McDonald is or otherwise I’m going to be old and crazy. And at a certain point, the music business isn’t going to support me. There are young, cuter people coming in that are working for less money. I need to decide what I want to do.”
She sent me a computer and I spent eight hours a day in my office learning how to use it. I have to tell you, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, just the basics. I didn’t know anyhow about computers.
I then went with my professional résumé. This is the hilarious part. This took courage. I went on interviews with hotels, because that’s what I knew. I went to the Ritz-Carlton and all the high-end hotels with my résumé. Nobody would even … they just shook their heads like, “Please! Get out of here.”
That’s awful, but I can’t imagine they got many people with résumé lines like “Backup singer on Talking Heads Remain in Light tour.”
Yeah. But then this one beautiful hotel on the water, a boutique hotel, I went to their HR department and the HR director looked at my résumé and she was as fan, which was hilarious. She said, “Oh, my God, the general manager needs to meet with you.” What person going in on a basic job making $7.50 an hour is going to talk to the GM?
The GM asked me if I was serious. I said, “Yes” and I explained to them that I needed to reinvent myself. He then became my mentor. He said, “If you’re serious, this is what you do.” And I worked from the ground up. I was still able to supplement my income because I had saved so much money. I was ready to make the break, if you will.
I learned the business from the ground floor. By the time I retired in hospitality, I was offered a general manager position at a hotel. I said no because I was done. That was the best thing I’ve ever done because in the interim, I spent years in therapy. I found myself. I just spent my time getting to know who I am. At the same time, I started living my life really authentically for the first time.
When did you retire from the hotel business?
I’m 69. I was 60 years old. Nine years ago.
What have you been doing these past nine years?
I’m back to singing. I didn’t realize that I was famous. [Big laugh] On social media, I received a note from a gentleman that was writing a book about the Police. His name is Craig Betts. He contacted me to ask me to write some things about my experience. I put him off. I was like, “Nah, I’ve given up the business. Maybe you should call Tessa Niles.” And he goes, “No, I want it from you.” And so I wrote some things and he was like, “That’s so cool.”
Then he said, “You should put a professional page on Facebook.” I was, “No. Nobody wants to see …” And he was like, “No, trust me on this.” And he became the administer of the Dolette McDonald Facebook page. Interestingly enough, I started getting calls from young DJs and people about a song I had done years ago. I sang on this track called “(Xtra) Special.” They knew about that song and the song was hot again. I started getting all these calls and DJs saying they’d like me to sing on tracks and work with them.
I started hearing words like “legendary” and I started thinking, “What the fuck? What are they talking about?” And I had decided anyway when I turned 60 that I would retire from hospitality and start singing again, but just locally. I had no designs on doing anything nationally or internationally again.
And I met this young man named Charlie Fishman. He has a group called FSQ. They are young DJs who write and are Berklee-educated. That’s because DJs aren’t what they used to be. Some of these kids are really talented. They asked me to sing on a couple of tracks of theirs.
I also met some kids from Soul Clap Records. They were really interested in who I am and who I was, making me feel like I was an important part of the music industry, and I’d never thought that before. They made me feel so comfortable about who I am that I just decided, “OK, let’s pursue this.”
That’s what made me move to Savannah, Georgia. There’s such a rich history here musically. I’m here and I’m on the board of Savannah Jazz and the Savannah Repertory Theater. I had been singing until this damn pandemic at the jazz festivals and stuff. It’s been a great experience. This is Act Three now.
Sounds like Act Three is ongoing.
It is. And I’m grateful for it. I can still sing. I’m 69 and I still have a voice and I’m grateful. [Laughs]
You probably saved your voice during all those years when you weren’t on tour trying to sing over a loud rock band.
Yeah. I still sang in church. I never stopped singing completely, which is good. And I never stopped practicing. I would constantly do vocal exercises. I tried to keep it together as best I can. My range isn’t what it used to be, but I still got something, which I’m grateful for.
Tell me your goals for the next few years.
Honestly, I have no goals. I’d like to be prepared if I have an opportunity to sing somewhere, to do it and do it well, and to continue to contribute to my community through my work with Savannah Jazz and the Savannah Repertory Theater, which is amazing. I’m learning so much. Actually, I want to continue to learn and grow. That’s what will keep me young.
I also want to continue to be active. I’ve always worked out. I walk five miles a day. I want to keep it moving, as my 80-year-old sister says. Keep it moving.