Michael McDonald brings his hits, love for Detroit music, to the Sound Board
Michael McDonald can’t shake the tag of “yacht rock” or “blue-eyed soul,” not that he particularly minds either one. But when you hear his unique, soulful voice — baritone with a tenor shimmer, or tenor with a baritone burr — singing over a jazzy riff, you don’t expect biting socio-political commentary in the lyrics.
That’s just what you find on a song from his latest album, “Wide Open” (out on BMG since the fall). The St. Louis-born former Steely Dan associate and one-time Doobie Brother front man lets loose on “Free a Man,” a big band with lyrics that laud gays, blacks and young people for their activism.
“Free a man and love will follow,” as he sings on the chorus. The song was written by McDonald’s friend Richard Stekol.
Speaking by phone from his California home while wrestling with a new golden retriever puppy, McDonald called Stekol “one of the best songwriters in America. The kind of writer who does that thing where they give you the conversation, set to music, that we’re all having at the moment.”
McDonald performs Aug. 15 at the MotorCity Casino’s Sound Board. And while he’ll sing several numbers from “Wide Open,” the bulk of his set will be culled from his 40-year career; solo hits such as “I Keep Forgetting”; Doobie Brothers numbers including “Minute by Minute,” What a Fool Believes,” and “Takin’ it to the Streets,” plus some of the R&B duets he scored, including “On My Own,” sung originally with Patti LaBelle.
That last single was a massive R&B hit, and indeed, McDonald attributes a lot of his success in general to black fans.
“I’m forever grateful to my following in the black community, because that was the audience that always pulled me out of obscurity,” McDonald said. “A couple of our singles only got to be Top 40 hits because of R&B radio at the time. Back then, black radio was owner-operated. They were smaller stations owned by one guy, who often was also the program director, and dictated the policy for the station completely. Those were the stations I looked forward to doing, because the guy would make the point to be there that day, and he’d do the interview, and he’d play the whole record — because he could! Nowadays everything is so consolidated and corporate, that if you go do an interview at a station, they may not even play your record, they may only have permission to play your music from 20 years ago.”
During his own youth, growing up in Ferguson, Missouri, an R&B single that caught his ear as a 14-year-old was the Edwin Starr song “S.O.S. (Stop Her On Sight),” released by Detroit’s Ric-Tic label in 1966. This was before Berry Gordy snapped up Starr for Motown.
McDonald had been playing “the basements of Ferguson” since he was 12.
“We were learning Beatles songs, in our band. We didn’t realize that they were actually Isley Brothers songs,” he said with a laugh. “And then one day my sister and her friends pulled up on the lawn — we were that family in the neighborhood, where people would shutter their doors when we got going — and they swung open the doors of this old Plymouth hot rod, and my sister’s friend had one of those stereo systems in his car. Edwin Starr’s ‘Stop Her On Sight’ was on the radio, their favorite song at the moment, so they all got out and were dancing on the lawn to Edwin Starr’s ‘Stop her On Sight,’ pretending to sing with a fake microphone.
“I remember I was sitting on the porch watching them, thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ But the song caught my ear. I thought, if I ever get a chance to make records, that’s the kind of record I would really like to make. The playing is a little more sophisticated, more like studio guys than so much of the British stuff at the time, which was kind of raw.”
Those smooth studio guys would of course be the Funk Brothers backing Starr up on the Ric-Tic record.
“I think it would have been, yeah. And it was undeniable when those guys put themselves into a track, it just had that other-worldliness that made Motown what it was. I still love that song.”
Unfortunately, Universal talked him out of including it on either of his two “Motown” albums. “I always wanted to do the more obscure things where people would hear it and go ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t heard that in forever. But they wanted us to do ‘Grapevine’ and things that were big, big hits.”
It would be hard to tell, but McDonald has lowered some of the keys on many of his most iconic songs just a shade. He fought doing it for years, and toughed it out singing songs in the same key as when he was in his 20s.
“It’s a lot of wear and tear going that half step or whole step up, in that original key,” McDonald said. “I was on a show with Charlie Wilson and Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Anthony and Charlie Wilson, when they heard I was singing in the original keys, looked at me like, ‘Are you kidding? Why wouldn’t you lower the key?’ Charlie Wilson said, ‘You have to do this every night. Make it right for yourself, or you’re going to blow a tire.’
“And when I listened to them sing that night, I would never have known they’d lowered a key. When you do it yourself, you tend to notice it more than other people do. Like when I heard Anthony sang ‘Hurts So Bad’ a half a step down, he still sounded great and sang the hell out of it. There’s a real big difference physically, wear and tear-wise, when you take it down half a step. You get another 25 years!”
Like Marvin Gaye and Levi Stubbs, McDonald always sang at the top of his range, which gave it that emotional punch. Then there are singers such as Boz Scaggs, whose songs were always in a lower key.
“Guys who had their songs in more comfortable keys, they were going to be able to work the rest of their lives," McDonald said. "Whereas for me, I’m looking at my calendar going, ‘Well I wonder at what point is this going to just be too physically hard for me?’ I don’t know when that will be but, so far so good, we’re still enjoying ourselves and I still enjoy singing. But it’s more physical than what some acts do.”
McDonald’s next release will be a Christmas compilation, “Season of Peace: The Christmas Collection, on BMG, a collection of some of his best Christmas and holiday music from several holiday albums he’s recorded. The album is due out Oct. 12, to be followed with a slate of winter dates, including several nights at the Hollywood Bowl with Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross.
One new track will be a version of “Winter Wonderland” featuring the Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
McDonald was in the studio in Hawaii cutting tracks for Shimabukuro’s album, “having more fun than being serious,” by his account.
“It was kind of like being on the back porch playing ukuleles, not being too serious. Everything was completely live, we just threw them down and hoped I sang halfway in tune. We cut the Christmas track for my album, but we also cut several tracks for his album. One was a Bob Marley song and the other was an old song called ‘Go Now,’ which was done by the Moody Blues, but there was an original version by Bessie Banks (in 1964). I preferred her original record.”
So he plays ukulele?
Affirmative. “I think we made history,” McDonald said. “On this one record we have the greatest ukulele player in the whole world, and the shittiest one.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.
8 p.m. Wednesday
Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel
2901 Grand River, Detroit
Tickets: $48-$60, go to TicketMaster.com
Concertgoers must be over 21 to attend.