Two notes. That’s all it takes to recognize the voice of Michael McDonald. Distinctive and soulful, it is one of the most yearningly emotive instruments of our times. To this add formidable songwriting and keyboard skills, and you have an artist who has been a singular musical presence for four decades. From ‘70s-era Doobie Brothers classics such as “What A Fool Believes” and solo hits like “I Keep Forgettin’” through two highly-acclaimed Motown albums, genre-busting guest spots and innovative concept shows, the five-time Grammy Award winning McDonald is both timeless and ever-evolving.
Beyond his music, McDonald has long been an active humanitarian. He has lent his talents and energies to many causes and benefits, including MusiCares, the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the 7UP Grammy Signature Schools Program and was part of a star-studded lineup at Kokua For Japan, a concert that raised $1.6 million for tsunami relief.
After moving from his hometown of St. Louis to Los Angeles in the early ‘70s, McDonald honed his talent as a session musician and singer before being invited to join Steely Dan. Over the course of four classic albums, from Katy Lied to Gaucho, McDonald became an integral part of the group’s sound, singing background vocals on FM staples like “Black Friday” and “Peg.”
In the mid-‘70s, McDonald joined The Doobie Brothers, helping the band redefine their funky R & B sound as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter on such Top 40 singles as “Takin’ It To The Streets,” “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes.”
His distinct vocal style also made him one of the world’s most sought-after session singers. Beyond his hits with The Doobies, McDonald has lent his voice to records by an A-Z of artists, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Vince Gill and Grizzly Bear. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, his solo career zoomed from success to success on the wings of evergreen hits like “Sweet Freedom,” “On My Own” (a duet with Patti LaBelle) and the Grammy-winning duet with James Ingram “Yah Mo B There.”
Continuing to explore new vistas, McDonald released his Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling pair of Motown albums in 2003. Then in 2005, he partnered with Hallmark for a special Christmas album, Through The Many Winters, which sold 500,000 copies in its first two weeks.
In 2008 McDonald released the acclaimed crossover album Soul Speak (which hit three different charts simultaneously), and in 2011 received an honary doctorate from Berklee School of Music. Recently he and co-horts Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs an 11-piece soul supergroup who tour as The Dukes Of September, released their first live DVD. McDonald continues to tour extensively as a solo artist, with symphonies, altruistic events and plans to tour this summer with Toto.
With a career that encompasses five Grammys, numerous chart successes, personal and professional accolades, as well as collaborations with some of the world’s most prominent artists, Michael McDonald remains an enduring force in popular music.
“I’m at a point where I’m having a lot of fun with music, more than ever,” Boz Scaggs says about his spellbinding new album, A Fool to Care. “It’s like I’m just going wherever I want to go with it.”
You can hear that sense of fun, as well as that ability and willingness to wander in any musical direction throughout the album’s twelve tracks. The inspirational heart of those songs lies in the sounds of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma that played such a vital role in shaping Scaggs’ musical sensibility, but they venture forth boldly from there, ranging from the seductive New Orleans rumble of the title track to the wry social commentary of “Hell to Pay” and a heartbreakingly wistful interpretation of The Band’s “Whispering Pines.” As he did on his most recent previous album, Memphis (2013), Scaggs worked with producer Steve Jordan and a telepathic core band consisting of Jordan on drums, Willie Weeks on bass, Ray Parker, Jr. on rhythm guitar and Jim Cox on keyboards. “Steve works on a high energy level,” Scaggs says of his prized collaborator. “It’s relaxed and easy, but also very highly charged. His direction is laser-focused, and his playing is intense. It’s a whirlwind and he’s a strong leader, but it’s also lovely and loose and cool. That’s all a comfort to me. I’ve produced myself and I feel pretty solid in the studio, but it’s really nice for me not to have to do anything but help select the material and be free to be a singer and a guitar player.”
Fans who have followed Scaggs’ remarkable career dating back to the late Sixties with the Steve Miller Band; his solo triumphs with such classic albums as Silk Degrees (1976) and Middle Man (1980); and the splendid assurance of late-period high points like Some Change (1994) and Dig (2001), will instantly recognize Scaggs’ characteristically deft touch as a singer. He brings a sly drawl to a funky workout like Li’l Millet and the Creoles’ “Rich Woman,” a conversational intimacy to Bobby Charles’s “Small Town Talk,” and an elegant delicacy to the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud.” He easily negotiates the Latin flavoring of “Last Tango on 16th Street” and “I Want to See You,” both written by San Francisco bluesman (and longtime Scaggs compatriot) Jack Walroth. His soul is effortless and deeply felt, never making a show of itself, but unmistakably evident in every lyric he delivers.
Recording the album over four days at Blackbird Studio in Nashville made possible the participation of such notable guests as guitarist Reggie Young, who lights up a sinuous cover of Al Green’s “Full of Fire,” and steel guitarist Paul Franklin (“one of the greatest steel players alive, and one of the greatest ever,” in Scaggs’ estimation), who lifts a gorgeous reading of Richard Hawley’s “There’s A Storm A Comin’” into the stratosphere. Horns, strings and soulful background vocalists allow the album to render with equal power the bruising groove of Huey “Piano” Smith’s “High Blood Pressure,” the sophisticated Philly Soul of the Spinners’ “Love Don’t Love Nobody” and the torrid, big-band R&B of “Rich Woman.”
Two guests, in particular, make definitive contributions to A Fool to Care. Bonnie Raitt duets sassily with Scaggs on vocals, and adds her characteristically sizzling slide guitar to “Hell to Pay,” a knowing indictment of corruption on both the personal and political level that Scaggs wrote himself. “That’s one of those songs that writers talk about that just falls out of the sky,” Scaggs says. “It just appears, and if you don’t look it too hard in the eye, it keeps talking to you. We perform it with that little extra twang, but Bonnie really put the touch on it. She brought it home for me.”
Finally, Lucinda Williams closes out the album with Scaggs on “Whispering Pines.” The two perform the song as a kind of prayer for deliverance, each of their voices yearning for a redemption that alternately seems barely within reach or drifting just out of reach. “The Band’s original version of ‘Whispering Pines’ has an exotic quality to it that I’m not sure anybody else who’s done it has quite tapped into,” Scaggs says. “The melody is strange, and there are some chord changes that are quite unexpected. But I heard a live version of it that Lucinda did that was very touching. She seemed extremely vulnerable in the way she approached it, and that vulnerability made for an amazing reading of the song. I couldn’t resist asking her to join me, and she was way into it. It was very special to me to be able to do that song with her.”
What ultimately communicates about A Fool to Care is how fully Boz Scaggs inhabits these songs. They seem less like interpretations than realizations, proofs that when you truly make someone else’s song your own, you paradoxically restore something essential to it. Scaggs believes that this album and Memphis, its immediate predecessor, might turn out to be the first two parts of a trilogy, a three-album collaboration with producer Steve Jordan and the band of extraordinarily empathetic musicians they love to work with. Let’s hope so, but let’s also not get ahead of ourselves. A Fool to Care is here right now, and to overlook its many great pleasures by thinking about more that might come in the future would be foolish and uncaring indeed. – Anthony DeCurtis