Michael McDonald preps for Saugerties concert, shows he can take a joke

Michael McDonald is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. Michael McDonald is a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

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Headlining a Sunday show at HITS-on-the-Hudson in Saugerties, Michael McDonald boasts distinctive soul vocals that have inspired millions of fans -- as well as a few jabs at his expense in TV and movies, which the five-time Grammy Award winner says he finds funny.

But McDonald's success is far from laughable. From Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers to his solo material and celebrated Motown covers, his rich baritone and songwriting skills have earned the respect of his peers and yielded hit after radio-friendly hit, including "What a Fool Believes," "Takin' it to the Streets" and "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)." Perhaps the combination of his music's ubiquity, resonance and unique vocal styling make it a prime target for comedy. But if you ask McDonald, he's more than capable of taking a joke.

Regarding the movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," McDonald not only cracked up when Paul Rudd said "If I have to listen to 'Yah Mo B There' one more time, I'm gonna yah-mo-burn this place to the ground," he also laughed when an industry insider was sending him scripts with other jokes, at his expense, that didn't make the final cut.

"He actually sent me some stuff that they didn't use that was even more hilarious, and, of course, more biting," said McDonald.

Over on the Internet, comedy writer JD Ryznar's viral Web series "Yacht Rock" offered a dramatized spoof of McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Steely Dan and other soft-rock stars who collaborated on material from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. Again, McDonald is on board.

"I just thought it was very funny, just the whole concept of '70s music [acts] being on a yacht somewhere, floating," he said. "The characters are, of course, highly fictionalized, but ... there's some little element of silly truth to it, so it's funny to watch."

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Perhaps the most unusual Internet gag being played on McDonald is a Twitter account under his name. Last updated in 2010, the supposedly "verified" @Mike___McDonald account's final tweets reply to users who'd used lyrically convenient phrases like "I keep forgetting" and "such a long way to go." But the singer claims he's "never tweeted in his life, so I have no idea who that was or is."

Nonetheless, because Hollywood knows McDonald can be in on the joke, he's been asked to provide some comedic material of his own, while playing it straight.

There was the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," whose closing credits featured McDonald singing "Eyes of a Child." And if you thought it was weird for the singer to earnestly wail lyrics like, "I can even get my friend Steve to detail your car / for like 20 bucks," just imagine the other ones "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone tried to pitch him.

"We were doing our best, making it sound like we were trying to be serious about subject matter that was completely ridiculous," McDonald recalled with a laugh. "They were in the studio -- while I was doing the vocal -- rewriting the lyrics, and every new verse was, like, more horrific than the last."

And then there was the season-three finale of "30 Rock," for which McDonald joined Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and more than a dozen other singers to wail on "He Needs a Kidney," a hastily written "We Are the World"-type benefit track produced by Liz Lemon (Tina Fey).

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"All those things are just really fun things to be able to do," said McDonald, who added that the cameos have helped him stay relevant in recent years.

Not that he's ever really vanished as a performer. McDonald, 60, has been used to making people smile since his father, an Irish tenor, propped him up as a 4-year-old on the bar of a St. Louis tavern to perform for patrons at least two decades his superior.

"I sang something like, 'Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,' and everybody laughed and clapped, and I thought, 'Wow, this is really fantastic,'" McDonald recalled. "From that point on, my dad would always let me sing a song with him, whenever I was around. We got to the point when we would actually perform together. For years, I'd play banjo and he would sing. We'd work with a piano player, and we'd play a lot of old-folks' homes and city events ... We never did it for the money."

When he was about 12, McDonald started his first band, and his dad served as its first manager. "That band was called Mike and the Majestics, but then it was just the Majestics, because I got demoted," he said with a laugh. "We all stayed in the same circle [of friends], but [played] in different bands over the years."

That sort of musical mobility would set the trend for McDonald, whose pro career would see him sing backup vocals on tracks (and on tour) for Steely Dan; become a frontman for the Doobie Brothers; and write chart-topping songs with a variety of fellow hit-makers. "I've just enjoyed the spirit of collaborating with different people," he said. "I think some of the best music I've been able to write has been with Kenny Loggins, with Ed Sanford and Bernie Chiaravalle."

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Those collaborations are well-documented, but music fans might be surprised to learn that he collaborated with Van Halen for their hit "I'll Wait," from the rockers' monster album, "1984." Working with David Lee Roth on the lyrics and melody for the track remains a bit of a shock for McDonald, nearly 30 years later. "That's probably the most unusual [of my collaborations]," said McDonald, who added that he's "not sure" how the band reacted to his work after he left the studio.

In more recent years, McDonald has made a name for himself as a cover artist, especially for his work on 2003's "Motown," a collection of genre-defining hits ranging from Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" to Stevie Wonder's "All is Fair in Love." The secret to a great cover song, McDonald says, is paying homage to the original singer while avoiding pure mimicry.

"You have to grab the subtle nuances of their performances, but you don't want to sound like you're doing a bad impersonation of them," he added. "I kind of developed this skill in clubs of trying to sound as much like James Brown as I can without sounding ridiculous, or sounding as much like Marvin Gaye as I can without sounding like ... some stranger doing a hit song."

Looking back on his career, McDonald says his top accomplishments include five Grammy victories and his performances with "childhood idols" Ray Charles and James Brown, but he's also happy to be where he is today: Although his show at HITS-on-the-Hudson will be a solo gig, he's enjoyed hitting the road lately with Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen and Steve Miller band guitarist Boz Scaggs for their Dukes of September Rhythm Review tour.

"For me, right now, just playing with Donald and Boz is just a great source of pride for me," McDonald said. "I'm just thrilled to be in the company of those guys, and on stage with those guys, after all these years."

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IF YOU GO

Who: Michael McDonald

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9

Info: HITS-on-the-Hudson, 319 Main St., Saugerties; 845-246-8833; www.hitsshows.com; $25; $30 on the day of show; children 12 and under are free with paid adult admission

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