Even 28 years after his last hit, Michael McDonald can still trigger laughter and tears. Though he's still a fixture on the R&B/soft rock nostalgia circuit (catch him with Toto and Kenny Loggins this summer), that sui generis voice has been touring without him, so to speak, for decades. Recently, the ersatz McDonald popped up at an East Village karaoke bar, via the vocal cords of indie rock troubadour Mac DeMarco, who attempted "What a Fool Believes" as part of a Wondering Sound feature:
DeMarco's Michael McDonald impression, it will surprise no one to learn, is uproarious, a series of alarming grunts and man-rock noises that, six Stellas in, is simply the funniest thing any of us have ever heard. But then his voice hits falsetto on the chorus, and the bartender… is touched, muttering to his friend, "Every time I hear this song I just die." Six Stellas in, I am convinced it is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.
Even via karaoke, the Janus-style potency of the man's voice and music is impossible to miss. The husky robo-soul of the "Fool" verse melody ascends on the chorus, and giggles turn to goosebumps. Then, when the falsetto hits on the "wise man has the power" part, it's back to knowing chuckles.
Michael McDonald's voice is so unique that for more than 30 years, it has subsumed Michael McDonald the man, much in the way that his beard subsumed 50 percent of his face during his peak years in the 1970s and '80s. I have an impression of the dude in my own repertoire, and there's a good chance many of you do, too. It's not that hard. Doing a Ray Charles, an Al Green, or even a Daryl Hall requires a good deal of vocal training and genetic luck. A Michael McDonald impression, on the other hand, is 95 percent timbre—the subjective "color" of a voice—which I know because I have zero singing talent and can nonetheless imitate "I Keep Forgettin'" with a high degree of verisimilitude. I just find the spot in my throat where a sound that would otherwise signify "soul" instead sounds like one of those uncannily human Japanese robots programmed to "soul." But at the same time, when I'm not mining it for laughs, there's something about "Fool"—an emotionally potent song, once you strip away everything you've learned to remember about the late 1970s—that can move me in a very different way.
McDonald, the winner of five Grammys and the seller of tens of millions of records, has had a significant career that continues to this day, through which he has honestly moved millions of listeners without a trace of irony. His popular reputation over the past three decades, however, primarily involves joke fodder. Darryl Hall is a white guy with a Motown-derived soul voice as well, but you don't see a Conan O'Brien desk bit devoted to how intrinsically hilarious it is to see Daryl Hall sing "Maneater" to a bunch of kids at summer camp. Boz Scaggs isn't the butt of Paul Rudd's arson-and-murder joke in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Kenny Loggins isn't getting that South Park money. You don't see Jimmy Fallon—the Ed Sullivan of LOL-mining—invite Justin Timberlake to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in rounds with Phil Collins.
Whereas Mike has received all those honors, and many more. It was the fake origin myth of "What a Fool Believes" that birthed "Yacht Rock"—the web series and the loath portmanteau—for Christ's sake. As a blue-eyed soul singer who evokes a period when white guys could gaudily evoke an African-American idiom, McDonald has had a much more interesting post-fame career than Barry Gibb (despite Fallon's and Timberlake's best efforts) or Michael Bolton (patron saint of the Lonely Island), and thankfully hasn't, like poor Rick Astley, had a hit single become the butt of a webjoke. He makes us laugh, sure, but he doesn't just make us laugh. How did all this happen?
Two video clips, released three decades apart, demonstrate how our man has been portrayed less as a singer and more as a vocal technology—what audio engineers call a punch-in. Back when he was still a bonafide star, SCTV—the Canadian SNL—parodied McDonald's knack for knockout backup vocals. In a sketch, Rick Moranis's proto-VJ character Gerry Todd cuts to what is announced as a video clip for Christopher Cross's 1980 No. 2 single "Ride Like the Wind." What we get is very different: a brief vignette of McDonald speeding his way to the studio as Cross's verse plays, then running into the recording booth just in time to record his vocal, which famously hits on the chorus. The bit is repeated a few times. Then he bounces back into his car, presumably to speed off to the Mexican border.
Thirty years later: same song, very nearly the same joke, as Cross himself performs "Ride Like the Wind" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2009. (The Roots are wearing yacht-captain hats, a product of the seas of cheese that Cross's music had sailed in the decades since his eponymous debut album swept the Grammys on the way to selling five million copies.) For Fallon, it wasn't enough to simply stage Cross performing the song; apparently unbeknownst to Cross (judging by his bemused but unflappably professional expression), and right on cue before his background vocals were set to appear, here comes Michael McDonald in the flesh, upstaging Cross by taking his seat at the keyboard, right in time to belt out his line. Such a long way to go, for more or less the exact same reason. Me, I still get goosebumps when McDonald comes onstage.
One of his most singular accomplishments is that he's perhaps as well known for his backing vocals as his songwriting and lead singing. The world at large first encountered The Voice untethered from The Man in much the same way that Fallon and Moranis used him: as a ghostly apparition answering a lead vocal, this time on a Steely Dan album. During their 1970s run, guesting on a Steely Dan cut could be a career-making opportunity for L.A. session guys. McDonald—who moved to L.A. from St. Louis in 1970 to cut some demos that RCA would shelve—happened to fit perfectly with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's session-musician song factory named after American literature's most renowned dildo. I imagine the first meeting McDonald had with Becker and Fagen happened in the manner of Jack Horner encountering Eddie Adams in Boogie Nights: They caught his voice at some chintzy Hollywood supper club, and convinced him over drinks that his unique gift could make him a star.
Maybe not. Regardless, Steely Dan's 1975 LP Katy Lied was McDonald's first gig, and he made the most of it. The first song they put him on was "Bad Sneakers," a druggy fever dream written by two jaded New Yorkers shielding themselves from the L.A. sun. The first chorus featured Fagen, a peerless popsmith whose own Dylan-jazz vocal style is itself fairly odd. McDonald first emerges on the song's second chorus, echoing the phrases "goin' insane," "laughin' at the frozen rain," and "so alone" like he'd swallowed whole and was belching out an entire gospel choir. I don't know if it was "Bad Sneakers" that caused Frank Zappa to dub Steely Dan "downer surrealism," but the mixture of junky imagery, 50-take jazz charts, and McDonald's uncanny-valley Solomon Burke still makes for an appealing pop nightmare.
"Sneakers" was the moment that McDonald changed from an anonymous white R&B drifter to one of pop's most unique vocalists. "I noticed I had something different when I sang 'Bad Sneakers' for that record," he later remembered. "It was the first time I'd heard myself alone in a background capacity. Somehow my voice took on a sort of ethereal sound because of the timbre of it. Fagen liked the sound a lot."
It makes a lot of sense that Fagen—who, perhaps mythically, instructs his female backup singers to "sing white" as a distancing device from soul signifiers—would love McDonald's unearthly timbre. The question arises: What in the world is that timbre? Do some searching and you'll find McDonald equally described as a baritone and tenor, by people who are equally informed enough to credibly make such claims. The secret lies in how he tweaks the register of his natural voice, adding unique color to it. I asked my friend Christian, a musicologist and composer, to listen to a few tracks and describe what he heard. "What makes his voice so unique is that he resists the urge to actually sing in his baritone range," Gentry replied.
If you listen to him speak naturally (in interviews), he is clearly a baritone, and his tessitura (or natural range) should be a lot lower than what he sings. His vocal cords produce a more resonant sound when he speaks. This is clear where you hear no vocal fry, which is an acoustic phenomenon of trying to physiologically force your vocal chords to resonate at a lower pitch level than is natural. McDonald forces his range upward in most of his songs, and it requires more breath to go through the vocal cords to get them to resonate, hence the McDonald tone: an urgent earnestness that glosses over the breathiness and strained nature of the sound by falling off of pitches and quick vibrato. McDonald's voice is a breath of fresh air as a non-operatic tenor and unnatural baritone.
What would become the urgent earnestness of McDonald's timbre was forged as a young singer in St. Louis R&B groups who had his eye on a long career. "I grew up in the era where everybody wanted to sing like Mitch Ryder and James Brown," he told an interviewer in 2013. "And I did, too. But I learned real quick that it hurts after awhile. Along with trying to find ways to sound like the guy on the record, we all tried to find ways to be able to sing five sets a night without losing it halfway through the evening." A self-preservation style of singing, in other words, allowed his timbre to float freely across several decades, opening up any number of reappropriation possibilities.
With Steely Dan, McDonald popped up on a couple other Katy choruses—the sour nostalgia of "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)," the gleaming romance of "Rose Darling"—but if he'd left the business entirely after his guest-work on the band's classic 1977 album Aja, he'd still have retired a legend. Fagen isolating McDonald's background vocals on "Peg" in this documentary clip is fairly revelatory of McDonald's gift. As McDonald himself explains (you can compare his speaking and singing voices here), he was tasked with singing certain words on the chorus, with exacting, bizarre nuances that created a somewhat alien effect.
In his book on Aja, Don Breithaupt referred to McDonald as "a foil for Fagen's dour leads" and "the dominant color" in the song's vocal-backup stack. Listening to "Peg," it's subtly miraculous that even a voice like McDonald's is able to rise above the carefully orchestrated din in a hit song with dozens of individual parts, a hook every three seconds, a solo played by Tom Scott on a fucking lyricon, and a Byzantine melodic structure that, like Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia," is catchy as hell in spite of its grad-school opinion of itself. And "Peg" wasn't even McDonald's finest moment on Aja: That would be his scenery-chewing on the Broadway-disco newspaper-heiress tryst-fable "I Got the News," which shoves McDonald out front for a dramatic flourish on what amounts to the song's middle-eight section. Try that one at karaoke sometime, tough guy.
Aja was a massive hit for Steely Dan, but by 1977, McDonald was already in the process of single-handedly transforming another million-selling band in his own image. On the back of the surprise FM hit and million-selling single "Black Water," the Doobie Brothers, a Northern California boogie-rock group who started by playing gigs for the Hell's Angels, had turned into one of the country's most bankable touring bands. When lead singer Tom Johnston fell ill from too much partying in 1975, however, guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter—who'd left Steely Dan a couple years earlier after playing the fucking insane solo on "My Old School"—recommended McDonald come aboard, at least for a tour. He'd end up sticking around for several years, and the band's next album, 1976's Takin' It to the Streets, started one of rock history's most significant, and successful, sound overhauls.
Over the years, the 1976-1980 Michael McDonald Doobies have been pitted against the 1971-1975 Johnston Doobies in one of the most fairly matched Bands With Two Different Lead Singers battles ever. They enter countless pub debates alongside Van Halen vs. Van Hagar, "Tempted" Squeeze vs. "Pulling Mussels from the Shell" Squeeze, Collins Genesis vs. Gabriel Genesis, Waters/Gilmour Pink Floyd vs. Barrett Floyd, and Ronnie James Dio Sabbath vs. Ozzy Sabbath (just kidding). I'm very fond of Doobies Mk. 1, but then again, Tom Johnston didn't write "What a Fool Believes."
McDonald's voice couldn't have been different than Johnston's: a chocolate fountain vs. tanned leather. He represented an emergent musical language—the soft, R&B-influenced, synthesizer-friendly pop of Cross, Hall & Oates, and the Quiet Storm radio format—while Johnston stood for the kind of longhaired grooviness that was quickly turning residual, and probably shouldn't have lasted as long as it did. Compare two similarly titled songs to understand how the Doobies' brand finessed the changeover: the platonic choogle, harmonica solo, and Eagles-style harmonies of early Doobies gem "Long Train Runnin'" versus the languid gospel-funk of "It Keeps You Runnin'," which had much more in common with Rufus and Stevie Wonder than anything Johnston was listening to.
The Doobie Brothers were, um, named the Doobie Brothers, but it's still remarkable how totally fucking stoned McDonald could make them sound. Listen to how he slurs his words into a paste on "Minute by Minute," how the groove just slinks in under the door in the "Oh, are we recording now?" kind of in medias res yellow-smoke haze reminiscent of Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay." The rest of Minute by Minute is fairly terrible, but the title track, "Runnin'", and especially "Fool" were sui generis new wave robo-soul, and McDonald was suddenly a leading man.
Post-Doobies, he didn't cut the kind of pop-star figure necessitated by the MTV era—guys who look like Bob Vila don't get teens going crazy when there's Prince to freak out over—but between the singles "Sweet Freedom" and "I Keep Forgettin'," not to mention his collaborations with Cross, James Ingram, the Bob Saget-esque Kenny Loggins (they co-wrote the miraculous "This Is It"), and the Patti LaBelle collaboration "On My Own," McDonald more than stayed afloat while a new youth culture took shape. Though at the same time, it was obvious that the poor guy wasn't long for a music landscape driven by visuals—just check his body language at the end of the "Sweet Freedom" video. After three and a half minutes of Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines hamming it up in Hawaiian shirts and Walter Payton jerseys, they pull McDonald in, and though he's game to play along, his awkwardness at lip-syncing and play-acting signals he's more comfortable anywhere else. Fate had different plans for him, and for us.
A side effect of an iconic voice is the way you're forced to cede it to the pop-cultural meat-grinder, which means watching something you spent countless hours perfecting being subjected to hammy impersonations. "I have more people walk up to me and do their Michael McDonald," he confessed last year. "While I'm trying to get a yogurt or something in the airport, some guy realizes it's me and starts singing his favorite Michael McDonald song. And I'm flattered, you know; don't get me wrong. But it hits me once in a while that I'm like one of the world's caricatures."
This may sound sad, but the guy's got a good sense of humor about it. "This one's for Paul Rudd!" he exclaimed before performing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for a Florida casino audience in 2006. Much in the same way that Christopher Walken, Robert DeNiro, and William Shatner gamely toy with their iconic earnestness from earlier eras, McDonald's not above giggling at where his voice has gone from an ironic remove.
Still, however, his legacy is not solely lulz. There are modern musicians who proudly echo his penchant for earnestness. In 2009, McDonald saw Grizzly Bear perform in New York City—he and a member of the band share a mutual industry contact—and was wowed by the Dan-like intricacy of their arrangements. "When I was with the Doobies … we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible," he told Paste. "I never thought that would come back around, but it has." Flattered, the band gave McDonald their song "While You Wait for the Others" to play with, and he nailed it.
In an email, Grizzly Bear co-leader Daniel Rossen, the vocalist on the original version of "Others," explained the choice, which baffled more than a few listeners who assumed the choice was pure irony. "He's a really genuine and unpretentious performer, and his voice has a really warm and lovable timbre that is instantly recognizable," Rossen explained. "To me, Michael McDonald is a rare sort of singer that can be virtuosic while still carrying a lot of joy and heart through his performance. It was such a surreal experience to hear Michael McDonald sing our song that we couldn't pass it up."
It also helps that Grizzly Bear, like McDonald, are profoundly earnest. Two years later, a friend of DFA-signed New York synth-pop duo Holy Ghost—a deceptively earnest band who wrote one of the few songs of the past decade that can still make me cry—discovered that they, too, had an industry link to McDonald. On a lark, they sent him their song "Some Children"; he loved it, added vocals, and voila, McDonald's punched-in timbre was triggering fresh goosebumps (and laughter, probably, but fuck those people) in 2011. Though many self-respecting 21st-century indie fans couldn't bring themselves aboard McDonald's brand of overpowering earnestness, it's a testament to his own potency that he's able to merge so seamlessly and unironically into a moment that most would assume wants nothing to do with him. Hot Chip, you're on the clock.
I can't claim to be able to explain what it is that happens when Michael McDonald's voice—or ersatz representations of it—leaves his lungs, is recorded and transduced, travels through air to reach my ears, brain, and heart. The French philosopher Roland Barthes, mesmerized by the same phenomenon in a very different context, coined the phrase "the grain of the voice" to find a pathway into vocal description that eschewed critics' tendency toward adjectives. "The materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue," Barthes wrote as a way to get at the uniqueness of the singing voice. My musicologist friend Christian describes the effect somewhat differently for McDonald: "The magic really happens when he floats into his falsetto voice. His 'break'—moving from the natural chest voice to head voice—is around B-flat4 (ca.466 Hz)."
However it's described—via hertz or, you know, hurts—the effect of the man's voice is singular. For decades, it's been simultaneously capable of triggering knowing laughter and countless pretty-good impressions at the exact same time that it (for me and millions of others) slips past my defenses and hit me right in the gut. If the singer himself is OK with this split personality, so am I. Michael McDonald has long lost his voice, and we're all richer for it.
Eric Harvey is an assistant professor of communication at Weber State University. For beer money, he has written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, SPIN, The New Inquiry, Atlantic.com, eMusic, Buzzfeed, and Rollingstone.com. He is on Twitter.
Art by Jim Cooke.
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