Michael McDonald for a time was satisfied making a living as a Los Angeles recording session musician and background singer, but work with Steely Dan led the soulful singer to the Doobie Brothers and a successful solo career with a string of hits.
The Grammy-winning vocalist, songwriter and musician will take the stage on Wednesday at the Gallo Center for the Arts. He played the center in 2011 and in Turlock in 2009.
McDonald has plenty of hit stuff for his show, including songs from his Doobie Brothers years such as “What a Fool Believes,” “It Keeps You Runnin’” and “Minute by Minute,” and his solo tunes like “I keep Forgettin’ ” and “Yah Mo B There,” with James Ingram.
McDonald, who was born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1952, moved to Los Angeles in 1970. He played keyboards but didn’t read music, so he wasn’t a first-call musician. He did whatever recording sessions he could as a pianist or backup singer, McDonald said.
When he got to Los Angeles, “It wasn’t long before I kind of gave up my dreams of being a recording artist per se or a solo artist with record deal,” he said. “I just settled on the dream that if I could do enough sessions in a year and make a good living as a musician here in L.A., that would be my dream come true at this point.”
But he got a break and sang backup on a few Steely Dan albums, which led to his joining the Doobie Brothers, McDonald said.
McDonald explained that session guitarist Jeff Baxter, who performed with Steely Dan, started working full time with the Doobie Brothers. When the Doobie Brothers lead singer Tom Johnston became ill, Baxter recommended McDonald for the group.
“For me it was great stroke of good fortune and led to me being with the band for quite a few years afterwards,” he said.
The sound of the Doobie Brothers changed with Johnston’s departure, but the new sound was a collective effort of all the group’s members, McDonald said.
“We were all scrambling trying to make something that sounded like an album and we got lucky,” he said. “With ‘Minute by Minute,’ I don’t think anybody, including us, thought it was all that great, but apparently the audience thought differently and we were very fortunate to win some Grammys with that one. It gave the band a new lease on life.”
The Doobie Brothers had big hits with the title track of the “Minute by Minute” album and with the song “What a Fool Believes.”
McDonald, who continues to perform with other artists from the 1970s such as Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen, said music is in his blood and it’s a lifestyle.
“We are all very fortunate that we can still do it and there is still an audience out there,” he said.
Speaking about performing a couple of years ago with Fagen and Walter Becker from Steely Dan, McDonald said, “Here we are some 30 plus years later and we are still taking the stage and making music.”