Believe it or not, Michael McDonald wouldn’t be anywhere without black radio.
The veteran singer/songwriter, best known for his years fronting The Doobie Brothers and coming up with Grammy-winning hits like “What a Fool Believes” (which he co-wrote with Kenny Loggins), recently acknowledged how much black radio played a part in his early success as a solo artist.
When he released “I Keep Forgettin,” his debut single in 1982, the R&B department at Warner Bros., his label at the time, took a shine to the song.
“They always were like, ‘Hey, man, give us the ball! Let us take this record,’ ” remembers McDonald, 65, on the phone from his Santa Barbara home. The department then sent it to black radio stations around the country, which would play that and other, future McDonald singles.
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“Those stations were the ones that broke ‘Keep Forgettin’ and ‘Sweet Freedom,’ for sure, and I think probably were, for me, the strongest base of consistent airplay,” he said. “It’s maybe the only reason you and I are talking today, because Top 40 radio – especially in the ’80s – I might as well as have had, like, sores on my face.”
McDonald, who will perform Oct. 24 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, always has had a soft spot for soulful music. In the early 2000s, the St. Louis native released a trio of albums, all full of R&B covers, for the Motown label. The first two, titled “Motown” and “Motown Two,” were filled with Motown covers.
He’s continuing to churn out soulful numbers with the newly released “Wide Open,” his first album in nearly a decade and his first album of original music in 17 years. McDonald said it was an album made from scratch, as he and drummer/engineer Shannon Forrest recorded demos at a Nashville studio they both assembled out of old analog gear and equipment.
“I would just show up when I was in town and come in after-hours with him and convince him to throw down a demo with me,” he says. “By the time I got home, he replaced all the drums and was like, ‘You know, I gotta play you this stuff, because I think you might have the start of a record here.’ ”
“Open” isn’t the only funky work McDonald has done lately. Earlier this year, McDonald and his former collaborator Loggins received raves for doing a song with progressive-soul artist Thundercat. “Show You the Way” is the name of the track – off Thundercat’s latest album “Drunk” – and it sounds just like the sort of quiet-storm, blue-eyed soul ditty McDonald and Loggins used to work on back in the day. McDonald thanks his 26-year-old daughter for introducing him to the artist.
“We take these road trips and she’ll, you know, plug in her iPhone and play me all the stuff that she thinks I need to hear,” he says. “And I’m always grateful for that because, otherwise, I don’t think I would hear it. But Thundercat was one of those artists.”
Once McDonald read in an article that Thundercat (real name: Stephen Bruner) was a big fan of both McDonald and Loggins, a collaboration seemed inevitable.
“Kenny – I have to give him credit – put it together and called Thundercat’s management, and we wound up in a little studio in California, sitting down together and writing this tune and getting real familiar with Steve’s music and Steve as an artist,” McDonald said.
McDonald also jammed with Thundercat at the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April. “It was fun, and it was one of those car trips that my daughter – she went with me,” he remembers. “Once she heard I was working with Thundercat, I couldn’t get rid of her.”
But with all these positives that have been happening, McDonald got hit with some sad news recently when his good friend Walter Becker, co-founder of the band Steely Dan, died last month at the age of 67. In the mid-’70s, McDonald was a member of Steely Dan’s touring group and provided vocals and keyboards on several Steely Dan albums.
“One thing that I think of when I think of Walter is his insatiable appetite for listening to music,” he says. “And Steve Bruner is like that. They live, breathe and think music, you know, and I don’t really think I’m that way. There are times when I actually need a break from it, because my brain is about to fail. I’m just constantly rolling things around in my head. … But Walter was one of those guys – he always had a pair of headphones around his neck and he was always listening.”
McDonald still surrounds himself with people who keep him tuned in to music and musicians he should know about. And, just as his latest album title suggests, that’s what keeps him and his musical tastes wide open.
Who: Michael McDonald, with Marc Cohn
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 24
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Info: 919-680-2787, dpacnc.com