On Nostalgia And The Voice Of Michael McDonald

by Thomas Brett

I’m in the grocery store, staring at the fish offerings, when a subtle wave of melancholy washes over me. I’m restless and keep moving, eyeing products on the shelves, looking for a particular milk brand–but I just can’t shake this feeling. Since when is grocery shopping such an emotional experience? The milk and some odds and ends (OJ, cheese balls, bread, but no fish) secured in my basket, at last I’m standing in the checkout line when I figure out the source of my feelings: why it’s the soulful sounds of Michael McDonald!

McDonald has been in the popular music business a long time. Beginning in the 1970s he worked extensively as a background vocalist on countless studio sessions (including records by Steely Dan), and was a singer, keyboardist and songwriter with the mega-million selling Doobie Brothers from 1975-1982. From there he went on to release solo records, re-recording soul music classics and collaborating with many other musicians. He still collaborates too–most recently contributing back up vocals to the track “While You Wait for the Others” by the indie rock band Grizzly Bear. Here’s McDonald observing the arc of popular music since his heyday:

“When I was with the Doobies, the style of music was that we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible. The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.”

McDonald has a distinctive voice that is key to his success. Essentially he’s a “blue-eyed soul” singer (in the form of a very bearded white guy). McDonald’s voice has a powerful grain to it and when he reaches for high notes he can make listeners feel as well as any singer. This voice has been circulating for many years now too. It’s kind of ubiquitous–a sound that finds its way onto radio, television, and supermarket soundtrack playlists. McDonald seems aware of his voice’s easy-listening ubiquity too, having fun with it and making cameos in various places. There is an episode of Family Guy where McDonald plays a kind of one-man Greek chorus role, urgently echo-singing every word spoken by Peter Griffin and his friends because, as Rob Harvilla of The Village Voice observed, “it all just sounds better—sweeter, smoother, more soulful—when issued from his lips.”

Urgency is the key to McDonald’s vocal sound. The song I heard while shopping at the supermarket was “On My Own”, a duet McDonald did with Patti LaBelle in 1986 that hit number one on the billboard charts. The hook and chorus of LaBelle’s song is, surprise, surprise, the phrase “on my own” that rises by just a few tones. The melody isn’t elaborate, merely traversing the interval of a minor third, but such is the urgency of McDonald (and LaBelle, of course) that he can transform these three pitches into something movingly nostalgic. Interestingly for me, though, the nostalgia is without an object: McDonald’s voice doesn’t make me long for anything specific, it just seems to embody the state of longing itself.

What a voice! Easy to parody, perhaps, but still enough to make you freeze in the checkout line and start paying attention to the source of your feelings.