The Doobie Brothers - Career - Michael McDonald Years

Michael McDonald Years

Under contract to release another album in 1976, the Doobies were at a crossroads. Their primary songwriter and singer remained unavailable, so they turned to McDonald and Porter for material to supplement that of Simmons. The resulting LP, Takin' It to the Streets, debuted a radical change in their sound. Their electric-guitar-based rock and roll gave way to a more soft rock and blue-eyed soul sound, emphasizing keyboards and horns and subtler, more syncopated rhythms. Baxter contributed jazz-inflected guitar stylings reminiscent of Steely Dan (as he had played with that group), along with more emphasis on compound chords and unusual, complex chords and sophisticated progressions with key changes and longer, more developed melody lines. Above all, McDonald's voice became the band's new signature sound. Takin' It to the Streets featured McDonald's title track and "It Keeps You Runnin'," both hits. ("It Keeps You Runnin'" would be covered by Carly Simon, appearing on her album Another Passenger, with the Doobies backing her). Bassist Porter wrote and sang a tribute to the absent Johnston, entitled "For Someone Special." A greatest hits compilation, Best of the Doobies, followed before year's end. In 1996, the Recording Industry Association of America certified Best of the Doobies "Diamond" for sales in excess of 10 million units.

Their new sound was further refined and McDonald's dominant role cemented with 1977's Livin' on the Fault Line. It featured a cover of the Motown classic "Little Darling (I Need You)", "Echoes Of Love" (written for, but not recorded by, Al Green by James Mitchell, then of the Memphis Horns, and Earl Randle, both of whom had worked with Green a good bit, to which Simmons added some music and lyrics co-writing the finished version with Mitchell and Randle; the song was later covered by the Pointer Sisters and ex-New Seekers vocalist Lyn Paul), and "You Belong To Me" (co-written by McDonald and Carly Simon, who had a hit with her own version of the tune). To help promote Fault Line, the band performed live on the PBS show Soundstage. Jeff Baxter used an early type of guitar synthesizer (made by Roland) on many of the tracks (it is heavily featured in his solo on the title track, as well as on "Chinatown"). The combination of McDonald's cerebral approach to harmony, funkier beats and R&B vocal flavor, along with Baxter's guitar pyrotechnics, pushed the band away from the more proletarian biker-bong-boogie style that made them popular originally. Fortuitously, however, the new sound made them a crossover pop-R&B-rock sensation, bringing them even more fans and chart presence. The use of complex jazz chords, built on McDonald's thoroughly composed keyboard parts, tempered by strong pop hooks, resulted in an album that, though not really jazz, had a distinctly urban contemporary finish, adding the flavor of the "cool jazz" era to a pop setting.

Both Streets and Fault Line reflected Tom Johnston's diminished role in the group following his illness. Restored to fitness and briefly back in the fold, he contributed one original song to Streets, ("Turn It Loose"), and also added a vocal cameo to Simmons' tune "Wheels of Fortune." He also made live appearances with the band in 1976 (documented in a concert filmed that year at the Winterland in San Francisco, excerpts from which appear occasionally on VH1 Classic), but was sidelined once again in the fall due to exhaustion. None of Johnston's songs appeared on Fault Line, though he had written and the band had recorded five of his compositions for the album. Finally, before Fault Line was released, Johnston had his songs removed and he left the band that he co-founded (though he received credit for guitars and vocals and was pictured on the album's inner sleeve band photo). He embarked on a solo career that eventually yielded one modestly successful Warner Brothers album Everything You've Heard is True (1979) and the less successful Still Feels Good (1981).

During the period of transition, the band also elevated former roadie Bobby LaKind to onstage backup vocalist and percussionist. In the studio, LaKind first contributed percussion to Streets but had been a member of the band's lighting crew since 1974. Additionally, in early 1978, the band appeared as themselves in two episodes of the ABC sitcom What's Happening!! The group performed the songs "Little Darlin' (I Need You)", "Black Water", "Takin' It to the Streets", and "Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)".

After almost a decade on the road, and with seven albums under their belts, the Doobies' career unexpectedly soared with the success of their next album, 1978's Minute by Minute. It spent five weeks at the top of the music charts and dominated several radio formats for the better part of two years. McDonald's song "What a Fool Believes", written with Kenny Loggins, was the band's second No. 1 single and earned the songwriting duo a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The album won a Grammy Award for Pop Vocal Performance by a Group and was nominated for Album of the Year. Both "What a Fool Believes" and the title track were nominated for Grammys for Song of the Year, with "What a Fool Believes" winning the award. Among the other memorable songs on the album were "Here to Love You," "Dependin' On You" (co-written by McDonald and Simmons), "Steamer Lane Breakdown" (a Simmons bluegrass instrumental) and McDonald's "How Do the Fools Survive?" (which featured a lengthy guitar coda improvised by Baxter in a single take, according to a 1980 interview in Guitar Player Magazine). Nicolette Larson and departed former bandleader Johnston contributed guest vocals on the album.

The triumph of Minute by Minute was bittersweet, however, because it coincided with the near-dissolution of the band. The pressure of touring while recording and releasing an album each year had worn the members down. Jeff Baxter and Michael McDonald had been in the midst of a creative conflict for some time. McDonald desired a direct, soulful and polished rock/R&B sound, while Baxter insisted on embellishing guitar parts in an increasingly avant garde style. (Both McDonald and Baxter elaborated on the matter in the documentary series Behind the Music, which aired on VH1 in February 2001). Just as the success of Minute by Minute had become apparent, founding drummer Hartman, longtime guitarist Baxter and LaKind exited through the revolving door. A two-song set on the January 27, 1979 broadcast of Saturday Night Live (with guest host Michael Palin) marked the final television appearance of this lineup, and a brief tour of Japan marked the last live performances of the band in its middle-period configuration (Hartman subsequently joined Johnston's touring band in 1979 and taped an appearance with Johnston that aired on Soundstage in 1980).

With the surprise smash album embedded in the charts and more money to be earned on the road, the remaining Doobies (Simmons, Knudsen, McDonald and Porter) decided to forge ahead. In 1979 Hartman was replaced by ace session drummer Chet McCracken and Baxter by multi-instrumental string player John McFee (late of Huey Lewis' early band Clover); Cornelius Bumpus (who had been part of a recent reunion of Moby Grape) was also recruited to add vocals, keyboards, flute and saxophone to the lineup. This lineup toured throughout 1979, including stops at Madison Square Garden and New York City's Battery Park for the No Nukes benefit shows with like-minded artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and John Hall.

1980 marked the return of LaKind to the lineup as a full member and the Doobies released their ninth studio album, One Step Closer. The LP featured the hit title track and the Top 10 smash "Real Love" (not to be confused with the John Lennon composition) but did not dominate the charts and the radio as Minute by Minute had two years earlier, largely due to an oversaturation of the "McDonald sound" by many other artists (such as Robbie Dupree's hit "Steal Away", which copied the "McDonald sound" nearly note for note) heard on the radio at that time—not to mention McDonald's numerous guest vocal appearances on hits by other artists at that time, such as Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, and Nicolette Larson. The album itself was also noticeably weaker musically than the previous three with the band itself sounding tired and seemingly devolving to little more than McDonald's "backup band" by then (according to contemporary references at that time). "Ted and Michael became one faction against Pat and the rest of us,” Porter said in an interview. Long frustrated with the realities of relentless touring and yearning for a stable home life, as well as battling self-admitted problems with cocaine, Porter left the band after the recording of Closer. Renowned session bassist Willie Weeks joined up and the Doobies continued touring throughout 1980 and 1981 (Post-Doobies, Weeks has performed with the Gregg Allman Band, Eric Clapton, and many others). Also during this tour, session vet Andy Newmark stepped in briefly for Knudsen, who was then in rehab.

By the end of 1981, even Simmons had resigned from the band. Now faced with the prospect of calling themselves "The Doobie Brothers" with no remaining original members, a sound that was light years away from their original version and a "leader" in McDonald who was ready for a solo career, the group elected instead to disband. It wasn't even decided upon until after a rehearsal done without Simmons in a vain attempt to keep the band going, according to an interview with McDonald for "Listen To The Music," the Doobie Brothers official video history/documentary released in 1989. He went on to say in that interview that by that point they couldn't have gotten further away from the Doobies sound if they had tried to. The reluctant Simmons, already hard at work on his first solo album, rejoined for a 1982 Farewell Tour on the promise that this truly would be the end. At their last concert at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, they were joined onstage by founder Tom Johnston for what was presumed to be the final rendition of his staple, "China Grove". Former members Porter, Hossack and Hartman subsequently took the stage for an extended version of "Listen to the Music". Knudsen sang lead vocals while Johnston, Simmons and McFee traded licks on guitar. The live album Farewell Tour followed in 1983.

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