It makes perfect sense, somehow, that the cover
of this album has a near black and white closeup of Michael McDonald.
The only color that really grabs you in the shockingly limpid blue
pool of the singer's eyes (and I type that with a staunch record of
heterosexuality, to paraphrase George Costanza.) This is, indeed, the
face of blue-eyed soul.
Michael McDonald has had a long and winding
is worthy of that supple elastic voice.
He first gained notice as a sweet and delicate backing presence in the
ironic jazz-rock of Steely Dan. Then he single-handedly transformed
the Doobie Brothers from a biker-rock band to a polished soul unit. In
the years after he became a celebrity-backing voice for hire, propping up
such songs as Christopher Cross' "Ride Like The Wind," his wife Amy
Holland's lovely cover of "Let Me Go Love" and tunes by a huge cross section
of then popular acts like Elton John, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie
Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Lauren Wood, Gary Wright, Jimmy Webb, Stephen
Bishop, Tim Moore, Little Feat and many more.
He went solo when the
Doobies called it quits in the early 80s (hot on the heels of one of their
most popular albums, Minute By Minute, which featured McDonald's
classic title track). In fact, word at the time was that McDonald was
greatly responsible for the split, and he embarked upon a problematic, but
mostly interesting solo career. He traveled from early solo smashes
and hit duets to starting the downward spiral of popularity and getting
desperate enough to do a Doobies reunion tour to a short-lived label with
actor Jeff Bridges to finally reaching the point where he is specializing in
Motown cover versions.
This is the first
collection that covers both McDonald's solo and Doobie careers, and it is a
good fit because it is all anchored by THAT VOICE. Honestly, the
Doobie songs tend to be a little stronger than the solo ones, but both sides
of McDonald's career have their fascinating wrinkles. So you get a few
Doobies classics like the forementioned "Minute By Minute," "Takin' It To
the Streets," "Real Love" and "It Keeps You Runnin'," all of which you know
by heart -- as you should. The one kind of surprising Doobies pick is
there I guess to show off his songwriting skills. It is his
songwriting collaboration with Carly Simon on "You Belong To Me," but
honestly Simon's hit version of the song was always much superior to the
The solo singles are an
interesting lot, too, although there are a few more rough patches.
Minor hit "No Lookin' Back" (McDonald obviously liked dropping his g's) is a
surprisingly hefty piece of driving white-boy rock-soul while AC favorite
"Take It To Heart" feels a little bland in hindsight. His recent hit
version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"
is pitch perfect, but it seems too much an imitation. Much more
unexpected was the James Ingram duet "Ya Mo B There," which is still a funky
throw down twenty years later.
The movie soundtrack tune
"Sweet Freedom" (from the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines buddy cop film
Running Scared -- no kids, that's not a typo...) is a terrific tune but
sounds a bit too late-80s. It is a little dated when it could be
timeless. However there is no moss at all on the gorgeous Patti
LaBelle collaboration (it's hard to call it a duet, because McDonald sang
along to a tape of LaBelle's vocals and the two singers never met until long
after the song was recorded.) "On My Own" is still one of the all-time great break-up
songs, with simply perfect songwriting and production by Burt Bacharach and
then-wife Carole Bayer Sager.
The biggest surprise of this compilation,
however, is the fact that it points out that McDonald's greatest
collaboration was not with the Doobie Brothers, wife Amy Holland or even
Patti LaBelle or James Ingram. It was the writing collaboration that
he had with fellow late-70s-early-80s pop star Kenny Loggins.
Together, they wrote the two best songs on this compilation. One of
the songs was Michael's true Doobies breakout moment, the spectacularly
smart and self-aware "What A Fool Believes." That song still retains a
polished luster that has not been worn out by over twenty-five-years of the
song being overplayed on adult contemporary stations.
Even better, though -- in fact, shockingly the
finest moment on this already quite fine disk -- is "I Gotta Try."
Pretty much forgotten as the not-quite-a-hit (it peaked at 44 on the
Billboard charts) follow-up to McDonald's premiere solo single "I Keep
Forgettin' [Every Time You're Near]," this song is quite simply one of the
most melodic, stirring pop tunes of the era. At the time I never
understood why the good-but-not-great "Forgettin'" became such a huge hit
while "I Gotta Try" barely got noticed. Twenty-two years of hindsight
make this slight even more baffling. "I Keep Forgettin'" was a nice
little update of the Leiber and Stoller classic, but "I Gotta Try" had the
chops and the hook to be an all-time classic all on its own.
Sort of like the guy who sang it.
Jay S. Jacobs