While most Americans dream about summer vacations during the sweltering months, singer Michael McDonald is likely to be thinking about Christmas songs.
Three times since 2001, the former Doobie Brother has released an album of Christmas tunes, and that requires getting in the holiday spirit early.
When you do a Christmas album, of course you have to do it in June or July to get it out in time, he says, then notes with amusement: Youre checking out of the supermarket, and you find yourself saying things like happy holidays or whatever in July.
Fortunately, the timing is just right for McDonalds Dec. 1 appearance at Durham Performing Arts Center, where hell perform his current show, This Christmas: An Evening of Holiday and Hits.
I think we all, as adults, spend the Christmas season trying to kind of recapture something of our youth, says 61-year-old McDonald, explaining his fondness for what has become a sort of seasonal tradition for him. Some kind of wild anticipation of something great. And thats what Christmas is all about when youre young.
McDonald even hints that he fantasizes a bit about writing a new holiday standard. But its highly unlikely that he would ever claim to have written one already. When it comes to tooting his own horn, Kanye West he aint.
Sure, hes an American cultural icon whose unmistakable, alto-sax-like vocal imprint continues to be emulated and affectionately imitated by young artists today.
He even happily gets in on the joke sometimes; early this year, McDonald joined Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake for a funny round version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, with the two younger entertainers made up in white hair and beards, as they imitated the buttery tones of the man they were affectionately spoofing.
Other reverential nods from younger, hipper artists in recent years came from the bands Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost!, bands that released singles in 2009 and 2011, respectively, with McDonald as guest vocalist.
Honestly, its very flattering, and it feels wonderful, he says. And I dont know that I deserve it. But I do enjoy it.
Choirboy to Doobie Brother
Remarkably, that word deserve comes up a lot when McDonald talks about his achievements and accolades. Hes humble to a fault. Maybe it goes back to his school days as a failed choirboy at Saints John & James School in St. Louis.
I was actually kicked out pretty quickly, he says. I just wasnt choir material. I think I didnt show up for practice most of the time.
Later, when he started to sing in bands, he aspired to sing like an amalgam of his favorite radio artists Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Mitch Ryder and The Beatles, as well as crooners of the World War II era.
We were just kind of floundering through, with our limited musical education, he says of his rock-and-roll crowd. None of us were very educated musicians. We would learn to play by listening to the radio.
He would later move from St. Louis to California, where he fell in with some world-class musicians who recognized McDonalds unique musical qualities. He joined The Doobie Brothers in 1975, and reignited their career with a string of more soulful hits that included Takin It to the Streets, Minute By Minute and What a Fool Believes.
Before that, though, he sang backup for Steely Dan, and formed a bond with that groups Donald Fagen that continues to this day, through an on-an-off touring show with Fagen and fellow 70s icon Boz Scaggs. The combination is dubbed The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue.
McDonald says he hopes to do another Dukes tour next year.
Nostalgia and excitement
The best part of doing those shows is, of course, being on stage with Donald and Boz, and a great band, he says. But many of the songs we pick are songs the three of us havent done since we were kids.
For instance, he didnt imagine until recently that hed ever again sing the 1965 R&B hit Dont Mess Up a Good Thing by Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure.
The last time I had sung that song I was 14, and I was in a band in St. Louis, he says, then adds with a chuckle: Every night when Id sing it, Id think back to what a short distance it was from being on stage at The Castaway in St. Louis, to here I am, 60 years old, and doing this song once again.
And there you have it: For Michael McDonald, the act of singing, period, feels a lot like Christmas, with all those strong pangs of nostalgia, and promises of fresh excitement.