Michael McDonald is as mysterious as any singer I’ve ever heard. This most unassuming of entertainers – a man who couldn’t look more Dad-like and less rock-star if he tried, a Doobie Brother who’s been sober for 37 years, a showbiz veteran who’s been married for almost 40-years – is still, at the age of 70, in possession of set of pipes that defy science.
Indeed, Michael McDonald’s middle class, kindly-high-school-geography-teacher vibe may make him an anomaly among his peers, but I always got the feeling there’s not a soul alive in the industry who doesn’t rate him. There’s also not a soul alive in the industry who sounds anything like Michael McDonald.
Speaking of soul, Michael McDonald – who celebrated his 70th birthday on February 12 – has long been the epitome of the term “blue-eyed soul”, something which more latterly has come to be swallowed by the mock-genre “yacht rock”.
On the face of it, the belated yacht rock categorisation may appear to be as much a 21st Century piss-take as it is an affection for a group of white 20th Century artists who loved black music, and yet the best purveyors of that sound – think not just McDonald, but the ultra smooth, rock ‘n’ soul late 70s/early 80s stylings of Steely Dan, Toto, Christopher Cross, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Phil Collins and Kenny Loggins – were all without fail, exceptional musicians.
Most of those stars crossed paths with McDonald with his phone number high on the list for any producer in the 70s and 80s who wanted a golden voiced background singer to elevate whatever usually LA-based track they were working on. From his big break working with Steely Dan, to his chart-topping tenure with the Doobie Brothers, to his hits with the likes of Christopher Cross, James Ingram and Kenny Loggins, you weren’t ever in doubt if it was Michael McDonald singing.
Which brings us to the mystery of his voice. I’ve never known another vocalist who can somehow simultaneously sound like they’re singing both in baritone and falsetto. Think about it: exactly what is going in What A Fool Believes? It’s so stratospheric on those upper notes, it has to be falsetto, but it comes with a subterranean resonance.
What A Fool Believes is so catchy, so ubiquitous and such an entrenched part of the pop radio landscape that it’s easy to overlook how extraordinary it is. A co-write with McDonald’s buddy Loggins (who also recorded a version for his 1978 album Nightwatch), What A Fool Believes reached US #1 for the Doobie Brothers in 1979 and won Grammys for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year in 1980.
As brilliant as it is, What A Fool Believes isn’t the song I want to highlight for McDonald’s big 7-0, given I’m not sure if there’s a person on Planet Earth who hasn’t already heard it. Instead, I’ve chosen another Loggins connection in the form of Heart To Heart, the third smash in a row for the unofficial duo of Loggins & McDonald after What A Fool Believes in 1979 and the almost as good This Is It from later that year (a US #11 for Loggins with McDonald on prominent backgrounds). Recorded and released in 1982 for Loggins’ High Adventure album, Heart To Heart (a US #15 and A/C #3) is for me the single greatest L & McD collaboration (and there are a few). It’s also criminally underplayed and underrated.
As well as pop, Heart To Heart is a song that can be categorised as everything from R&B to funk to adult contemporary to yes, yacht rock. Lyrically, it’s love song, but with the angle of admitting that perhaps the relationship in question is near its end. It’s a relationship that might be saved, but there’s no guarantee.
Musically, Heart To Heart is quietly outrageous. Quiet, because there’s such a sheen that you can underestimate just how much is going on. And there’s a lot going on. Just the players credited is a clue:
Kenny Loggins – lead vocals
Mike Hamilton – guitar
Michael McDonald – Rhodes piano, synthesizer programming, backing vocals
Neil Larsen – string arrangement
David Foster – grand piano, string arrangement
Derek Jackson – bass guitar
Tris Imboden – drums
Paulinho da Costa – congas
Lenny Castro – percussion
David Sanborn – saxophone
Marty Paich – string arrangements
Richard Page – backing vocals
Steve George – backing vocals
The famous sax solo of David Sanborn acts as an extension of Loggins’ most passionate wails, while the churchy Rhodes’ poundings of McDonald are almost as vital as his support act vocals. And it’s not just McDonald on those punchy, rhythmic vocal arrangements, with future Mr Mister members Richard Page and Steve George on board too.
Then there’s way Loggins swings from falsetto to natural voice in the bridge which is both masterful and far harder than it sounds, while there’s a euphoria that belies the lyrics when the nervous groove of the verses gives way to the major-chord chorus melody.
A solo single for Loggins that parked itself for several weeks in the US top 20, I’m certain this decent-sized hit would’ve soared even higher had Loggins and McDonald gone the whole duet-hog. This has evidently not been lost on the two of them, with several live performances over the years seeing them share leads, rather than just relegating McDonald to the backgrounds.
Shockingly, the best example of this is as recently as 2017 from the Kenny Loggins & Friends – Live On Soundstage album and DVD. Recorded in Chicago, there’s no good reason two baby boomer pop legends should sound as incredible as this at a time in their lives when fans are meant to be reminiscing about the glory days when their voices were still intact.
What also makes this performance so special is that both Loggins and David Foster (who co-wrote and played piano on Heart To Heart) are clearly still blown away by McDonald’s voice. That Loggins and Foster defer to McDonald is telling. It shows the respect in which he’s held. And maybe even they can’t understand the mystery of that voice.