Michael McDonald is ready to get personal in 'What a Fool Believes' McDonald says that earlier in his career, he tended to avoid writing about himself directly in songs. He opens up about his life and career in the memoir, What a Fool Believes.

With age and sobriety, Michael McDonald is ready to get personal

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley.


MICHAEL MCDONALD: (Singing) I keep forgetting we're not in love anymore. I keep forgetting things will never be the same again. I keep forgetting how you made that so clear. I keep forgetting. Every time you're near, every time I see your smile, hear your hello, saying you can only stay a while - and I know that it's hard for you to say the things that we both know are true, but tell me, how come I tell me how come I keep forgetting we're not in love anymore?

MOSLEY: When this single, "I Keep Forgettin'" by Michael McDonald, came out in 1982, It rose to the top of the Pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary Billboard charts. The song is from McDonald's first solo album, "If That's What It Takes," and was actually inspired by a 1962 song with the same name by Chuck Jackson. As we learn in a new memoir, Michael McDonald's entire career has been somewhat of a musical nod to both the past and the future, with many of his biggest hits being interpretations or remakes by soul artists of the past.

In turn, McDonald's music has unlocked nostalgia for new generations of fans. Many of his songs have been sampled by hip-hop artists - like Warren G and Nate Dog's "Regulate," and the electronic group Maloko's interpolation, "Familiar Feeling." McDonald's new memoir, co-written by comedian Paul Reiser, chronicles McDonald's life and career in music, which goes all the way back to his childhood, tagging along with his father to saloons in St. Louis, where his dad would sometimes perform.

As a high school dropout, McDonald writes about his move from the Midwest to Los Angeles, spending his early years as a session musician and becoming a member of two iconic rock bands, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, before embarking on a decadeslong solo career. The name of his memoir is titled "What A Fool Believes," named after the Doobie Brothers' 1979 Grammy-winning song. Michael McDonald, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MCDONALD: Thank you - great to be here.

MOSLEY: Yes. Well, as I told you, I hope I'm not a dork during this interview because I really am a big fan. And the first thing I just want to ask you - why Paul Reiser as a writing partner for this book?

MCDONALD: Well, Paul, and I met at a party years ago and became friends in the years since. And during the pandemic, we talked and he said, you know, why don't you write a book so I can stop asking you all these questions about Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers?


MCDONALD: And I said, well, you know, I've thought about it, but I wouldn't know how to start. And mostly, I thought, well, how much of a story is here? You know, is this thing going to kind of phase out in the middle of it and, you know, suddenly become apparent to both of us that it's not that great of a story? But he kept encouraging me to go with it and that he thought it was going to be a good story.

MOSLEY: One of the things that we learn about you as we go through your life chronologically, is just how much of a understated view you have of yourself. You're pretty self-deprecating. For a long time, you actually say you felt like an impostor. And I hear that even in talking about this process with Paul Reiser. You're like, I don't know if I have interesting stories. It surprises me because you're Michael McDonald.

MCDONALD: Yeah. Well, that's a double-edged sword right there. And I don't mean to be self-deprecating when I say this, but I never really understood why people gave me so much credit as a musician, especially because I really am just more or less a songwriter who plays a little bit of piano and was kind of put in situations over the years where I had to kind of lean into that a little bit. And only because of that, did I actually start to actually try to better myself in that regard. You know, I was I think happy before that to just play in a couple of keys and write songs, you know, with what knowledge I had, you know, mostly I gained from learning pop music from records and the radio, you know. But it wasn't until I really joined the Doobie Brothers that I really started to feel the responsibility of being the "keyboard player," quote-unquote...


MCDONALD: ...And then probably made the greatest strides during that period of time to, you know, kind of better my piano playing a little bit. So, you know, I did always feel a little like an impostor, like I was, you know, running to catch up, you know, just to keep my job.

MOSLEY: So the title of the book is "What A Fool Believes," which is also the title of your most successful and really most recognizable song that you've ever written. It won song of the year in 1980, and it's from the album "Minute By Minute" when you were a member of the Doobie Brothers. You co-wrote it with Kenny Loggins in 1978. Let's listen.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) She came from somewhere back years long ago. Sentimental fools don't see. Trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created once in her life. She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale, never coming near what she wanted to say, only to realize it never really was. She had a place in his life. He never made her think twice. As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know. He's watching her go. But what a fool believes, he sees. No wise man has the power to reason away what seems to be.

MOSLEY: That was Michael McDonald singing "What A Fool Believes" from the 1978 Doobie Brothers album "Minute By Minute." Michael, just this year, "What A Fool Believes" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a big deal in itself. But as we learn from your book, this was not an easy process. You became a member of the Doobie Brothers, an already established group. And as we learn from the book, this song and this album was not well received by the record company or the press when it was first released.

MCDONALD: Yeah, no, that's true. For me, writing songs has always been kind of a haphazard process at best. You know, I seem to have a bad habit of, you know, languishing with song ideas for sometimes years, you know, and then eventually getting around to finishing it with someone or later myself. Even recently, you know, the Doobies are doing a record right now and some of the songs that I've recorded - one was a much more recent song, but one of them was something I probably started writing, gosh, six, seven years ago now.

MOSLEY: This song, in particular, though, you started writing, you stopped, you get back to it. There's a story behind that.

MCDONALD: Well, the story there is it was, you know, like a piano riff and maybe the first verse, possibly. And I wrote the lyrics on an envelope on a flight from New York to LA. And somehow, in my house at my piano, I kind of was messing around with, you know, the verse, movement of the piano. And, you know, I played it for Ted Templeman one time. We were looking at - you know, he was, you know...

MOSLEY: And Ted was - yeah.

MCDONALD: ...And Ted would always kind of - Ted Templeman was our producer at the time. And he would try to flush out whatever we thought we all had in our, you know, arsenal of ideas to go into the next record with. And so he was asking me, what do you got, you know? And I said, well, there's this one idea I thought, you know, might be kind of cool. And to me, it was kind of like a gospel-feeling kind of a piano riff. And in some ways, it kind of hearkened back to some of the early pop R&B records that I loved so much. It just had that kind of bounce to it that I thought was catchy, you know? And when I played it for Ted, you know, he said, that is a hit. You got to finish that, you know? I said, well, I will, I will. And he goes, no. He goes, I know you, you know? And so I said, no, I promise, I will. And of course I didn't, you know?


MCDONALD: And we also didn't get to the album in a much longer time than we all thought. And so coming through that period of time, Tiran Porter, our bass player, called me one day. He goes, you know, I ran into Kenny Loggins, and he expressed an interest in writing with you. And I told him I would pass on his number to you, you know? I said, oh, man, thank you, you know? And I was very excited about that. And I called Kenny, and we made a plan to get together. And so cut to the chase. The day he's coming, my house was filthy. My sister had come over to help clean it up because there was, like, ashtrays filled with cigarettes spilling onto the floor and, you know, half-empty beers.

MOSLEY: Yeah, you were having a good time there, which we're going to get to.

MCDONALD: Yeah, I was.

MOSLEY: Yeah, yep.

MCDONALD: It was bachelor filthy, you know? And I'm playing little ideas for her. You know, and I'm looking through notes of lyrics and, you know, notebooks I had laying around and just trying to kind of come up with something that I might want to play for Kenny to get started on something. And one of the things I played her was that little piano riff and that verse. And I said, well, what do you think? She goes, yeah, you know, it's nice, you know? It wasn't really a whole lot there, you know? And so just as I was playing it for her, the doorbell rang. And we both looked at each other like, oh, my God, it's Kenny Loggins. And so I went to the door and...

MOSLEY: And he was, like, really hot stuff during that time. I mean, he was, like, at the apex of his career. He was just coming out himself...

MCDONALD: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...And would later be known as, like, a really great singer-songwriter.


MOSLEY: So you guys got together, and you wrote this amazing song that became a huge hit. But really, it wasn't initially thought of as a huge hit. And part of that issue, if I'm correct, is that the song and your voice were a departure from the sound of The Doobie Brothers.

MCDONALD: Well, actually, one of the first songs I ever cut with The Doobie Brothers was the most unlikely Doobie Brothers song I could even imagine, which was a song called "Losin' End." But Ted liked the demo I had made with Tiran at his house, and that came from just - Tiran invited me over for dinner. And we were sitting there having dinner at his place. And he had just put together a small studio off in the corner of his living room, and he said, I'm dying to kind of record something. You got anything? I said, well, I got this one song, you know? I didn't think much of it. I thought it was just something to put down.

So we put down "The Losin' End" and made a demo of it, and he wound up playing that for Teddy. And Teddy liked it and decided that we should cut that as The Doobie Brothers and which, you know, I wouldn't have imagined in a million years. So everything that we did from that point on was, in some way, kind of a departure from what they had done. But I think that was the better direction for us to take because, you know, otherwise we would have just been trying to reimagine the foundation that Tom Johnston had already laid down for the band, which was...

MOSLEY: Right, because you were recruited initially as a temp replacement for Tom Johnston, who was the lead vocalist, but he had gotten sick.

MCDONALD: Right, right, right - and not so much for him directly as just somebody to kind of come in and play some keyboards and take over some of the lead vocals, you know, and sing some backgrounds, you know, because Tom was pretty multi-tasking in his role with the band, you know, as far as guitar player - keyboards had figured into a lot of their records. But they never had a keyboard player at that point in time. They were just strictly a guitar band. So they thought, well, here's the perfect opportunity to bring keyboards into the mix live. And we got enough guitar players 'cause they had Jeff Baxter and Pat. So, you know, it seemed like the logical choice to bring in a keyboard singer, you know, to just kind of cover things that might be lacking otherwise.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McDonald. He's written a new memoir titled "What A Fool Believes," which chronicles his life and 50-plus year career as an award-winning musician. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today I'm talking to Michael McDonald. He's co-written with Paul Reiser a new memoir about his life called "What A Fool Believes," which is the name of the Grammy-winning song by the Doobie Brothers that came out in 1979. McDonald was a member of Steely Dan 1973 to '74 and a member of the Doobie Brothers on and off from 1975 to current day.

You stepping into a group and being able to integrate with the group and then form a sound that is unique but also holds to the foundation of the group - it's kind of the hallmark of what you do and what you have done. Not only did you do this with The Doobie Brothers, but throughout your career, you've been a member of several bands. There was Steely Dan for a time period. But this goes all the way back to your childhood. Your very first group was actually named after you - right? - Mike and the Majestics. Yeah.

MCDONALD: Well, yeah, I mean, no one knows why that happened, but probably because my sister...

MOSLEY: Oh, there has to be a reason. Yeah. Right. Were you the lead vocalist?

MCDONALD: My sister named the band, I think.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

MCDONALD: Yeah. But it was Mike and the Majestics, and I soon got demoted, and so it was just The Majestics. But...

MOSLEY: And how old were you when you guys started this band?

MCDONALD: We started when we were all around 12, really. And I think our first gigs happened more like when I was 13. And the other guys were a year and two older than me. They were...

MOSLEY: What kinds of gigs were you guys doing? And what kind of music were you performing?

MCDONALD: Well, back then, we were playing basement parties, you know, birthday parties for girls we knew, you know, in the eighth grade. And then we graduated to fraternity parties at a very tender age, which my mother was not happy about. And so she enlisted my father to come on as our manager and - not before we were exposed to some of the rites of passage that we were probably too young to witness at these fraternity...

MOSLEY: Did you realize it...

MCDONALD: ...Parties, but...

MOSLEY: ...At the time?

MCDONALD: Yeah. We thought we'd died and gone to heaven, really, you know, because, you know, the girls were all really cute, and, you know, the frat guys were out of their minds. And they would pass the hat. That was the other great thing about fraternity parties. We would play them for, like, 10 bucks. But then we had a curfew 'cause we were all, like, 12 and 13 years old.

And in the course of all this, we learned all the filthy lyrics to, you know, "Louie, Louie" and songs like that that were college staples. And we would, you know, typically tell them, well, we can play till about 10 o'clock. Then we got to go home, you know? And they would pass the hat to keep us there. You know, they'd go, oh, just play another hour. So we'd, like, wind up going from 10 bucks to 60 bucks, you know? And we thought, oh, my gosh. Show business is fantastic, you know? And we - you know, for 60 bucks, four kids - and, you know...

MOSLEY: Yeah. That's big time.

MCDONALD: ...In the early '60s, that was a lot of money, you know? That bought a lot of Twinkies and Dr. Peppers, you know? So we had a good time doing that. And it kind of - we learned a lot of other music. We learned a lot of music that was popular, like I say, to a generation that was just a bit older than us.

MOSLEY: 'Cause at that time, who were your musical inspirations growing up? Who were the folks you were really into?

MCDONALD: From a young age, I always - I had a great admiration for Ray Charles and - but, you know, through our exposure to the music of these college fraternities, we started to hear, like, Marvin Gaye and the Motown stuff and Bobby Bland, you know, Solomon Burke - songs like that that were just kind of, like...

MOSLEY: Motown and soul artists. Yeah.

MCDONALD: Yeah, the generation before us. But we were, you know, all of a sudden introduced to all this great music that we would then endeavor to learn and play for these parties, you know?

MOSLEY: Your dad was a streetcar driver, also a singer himself, a musician himself. And he really had a great influence on you as a man and as a musician. How would you describe him?

MCDONALD: My dad was that guy that I always wanted to be but never really thought I could be, you know? I mean, he was kind of the quintessential charming, handsome Irishman. You know, he had a wicked sense of humor - very dry, very funny, you know, guy. And he was always quick to comment on the irony of life around him, you know, and things and people in a very humorous way, you know? And people just - he was just so charming, and people loved him. And on top of that, he had a beautiful voice, and he wasn't afraid to use it. He loved to sing. And he hung out in more bars than most drunks I knew. But my dad never took a drink in the time I knew him. He had quit drinking before I was born, shortly...

MOSLEY: You kind of came...

MCDONALD: ...After it.

MOSLEY: ...To this idea on why because it's interesting how he'd spend all his time in these saloons, even take you to them sometimes as a young boy to listen to music.

MCDONALD: Yeah. He loved being out among them, like most Irish people. The pubs were, like, a central part of his life - you know, saloons in St. Louis. He knew all his favorite piano players. And back in those days, every corner bar had - usually had a piano player, and they were all very good, you know? They were those kind of people that could sit down and play any song. They had, like, you know, repertoires of 400 songs that they could play in any key, you know? People would go in there to sing, and they would accompany them.

And my dad had his favorite piano players. And he was one of their favorite singers because he actually could sing, and they enjoyed accompanying him. And people enjoyed listening to him. So he kind of built a reputation in the north St. Louis area as a vocalist. And, you know, when Bob came in the door of whatever saloon it was, he was immediately met with, Bob, sing us a song, you know?


MCDONALD: And - or the piano players would ask him to come up and sing because they were trying to get rid of some guy who was up there hogging...


MCDONALD: ...The microphone.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is singer and songwriter Michael McDonald. We're talking about his new memoir, "What A Fool Believes." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) Hey. Don't worry. I've been lied to. I've been here many times before. Girl, don't you worry. I know where I stand. I don't need this love. I don't need your hand. I know I could turn, blink and you'd be gone, that I must be prepared any time to carry on. But minute by minute by minute by minute, I keep holding on. I'll be holding on. I'll be holding on. Minute by minute by minute by minute, I keep holding on. Oh, baby. You would stay just to watch me, darling.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McDonald. He's written a new memoir titled "What A Fool Believes," co-written by comedian and author Paul Reiser. The book chronicles McDonald's life and career as an award-winning musician. He writes about growing up in Ferguson, Mo., dropping out of high school to pursue music and being a member of two iconic rock bands, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. As a solo artist, he's recorded nine studio albums and a number of singles and collaborated with numerous artists. His distinctive voice can be heard as background vocals on many artists' work.

Something you said in your book that I thought was really interesting is that initially or maybe for a time, you were not aware that the song versions that you were hearing, like of your favorite songs, had been covers by Black artists from previous generations. You were receiving the pop version, and you weren't even aware of it until you started to do your own sort of research as a musician yourself.

MCDONALD: Yeah, I think that was pretty much the experience of a lot of people in my generation growing up, you know, white kids who thought that Pat Boone wrote "Tutti Frutti," you know. I mean, we didn't know any better, you know, because radio was so segregated as was everything in the United States at the time. It was a sad division in what really was such a strong part of our culture, you know. But it was always kind of isolated away from giving credit to the people who really brought those art forms to America and really gave America its own true artistic artform.

Jazz and R&B music and gospel that came from those roots, R&B and gospel. For instance, you know, the English Invasion bands - we thought that they wrote those songs. Like, "It's All Over Now" by the Rolling Stones was Bobby Womack and his brothers. They had a group called the Valentinos. And that song was a number-one hit on Black radio when the Stones released it. Bobby Womack was quoted as saying, I was so depressed when this English band came out with our song until I got, you know, a couple of checks from him (laughter). Then I kind of rethought the whole thing.

MOSLEY: When did you become aware of it - that this was the root of the music you loved?

MCDONALD: It took a couple of years for me to actually really realize that most of the stuff that the Rolling Stones were doing was by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and, you know, different American blues artists. And that the Beatles were doing Smokey Robinson songs. But I'm still learning to this day, much to my surprise. Some of the songs like The Animals, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," is a Nina Simone composition, you know? You know, things like that - I've never ceased to be surprised by the roots of some music that I thought was, you know, more of a pop record that really has its roots in the blues tradition and was written by American artists, who...


MCDONALD: ...You know, didn't really enjoy the success of the song that other artists did.

MOSLEY: And then here you came as part of The Doobie Brothers with this distinct voice. I think that people sometimes say - I think I've heard someone say that your voice is both a whisper and a yell at the same time. But you come on the scene and Black people love you. Did you ever feel surprised by that? Especially early in your career, when you started to have those hits with the Doobie Brothers that really put you on the map on all different Billboard charts - R&B charts, as well as the pop charts?

MCDONALD: I don't know that I was so much aware of it, but whenever that was brought to my attention by friends of mine, you know, who liked our music, I was really flattered by that and I continue to be flattered because to me, that's really the test of anything I ever really desired to do was to, you know, represent in my own way, what I truly believe is American music, you know, and, you know, to have that privilege of being able to do that and have it accepted by the audience who I believe created it, who invented it and brought it to all of us, you know. The culture in the United States that really brought about what is widely accepted as just American culture across the board, you know, is really African American culture, you know, in its inception, you know, and not the least of which is our music, you know?

MOSLEY: Your voice is so soulful. The lyrics have so much depth. You reveal in this book, though, that it's not that deep for you, meaning that you write in third person, you rarely write about your own lived experience. You observe human nature, you're kind of a little bit like taken aback when people ask you how you feel about things. Is that the right way to put it?

MCDONALD: Yeah. I think historically, that's pretty much kind of describes me, you know. I was always reluctant to get in touch with my own feelings about things, you know, especially anything, you know, intimate or - I've gotten better at it, I think, you know, as far as songwriting goes. You know, I think I've gotten a little better at touching on subjects that I think are not just universal, easily accessible human nature aspects, but things that are a little more personal.

MOSLEY: How did you get to that? What do you think is the difference between now and back in the day when you were writing all those songs that were hits?

MCDONALD: You know, I think, probably more than anything else it's just being sober, you know, to put it mildly. I think I've learned in sobriety to slowly, you know, to kind of peel back of different layers like, you know, like they say, it's like an onion skin, you know...

MOSLEY: Because you struggled with addiction for many, many years.

MCDONALD: Yeah. And it was by way of addiction that I avoided really consciously feeling much of anything, you know, and with that came a lot of wreckage, you know, where, you know, I just wasn't quite able to think ahead or, you know, my best thinking really didn't do me any favors during those years, you know, But more than anything, I think what you know, people who suffer from addiction share universally is that we're kind of hiding from ourselves. We're kind of hiding from our feelings. And because our fears, you know, are like, we're sure there's a bear in the bushes. It may only be a poodle, but, you know, think I'll have a drink rather than walk that way. You know how it is...

MOSLEY: What did the drugs do for you as a performer?

MCDONALD: I thought in the beginning that they enhanced my ability to just kind of go to that place that I always - that music always took me anyway, you know, which was a kind of a otherworldly experience for me. I was, you know, I don't know what the word would be, but I think it's like anything where, you know, you feel something emotionally that doesn't come around in the day-to-day living cycle. You know, it's some kind of special emotional experience that you get a certain way. And for me, singing was always that. You know, even as a kid, I always found that that opened up a place in me that I was comfortable with going, you know, where I might not be in conversation.

MOSLEY: What do you see when you see yourself, if you look back or I don't even know if you do, but if you ever look back at videos of yourself performing back in those times, when you know you were dealing with your drug addiction and alcohol addiction, do you see do you see a confidence in yourself? What do you see when you look at that old footage?

MCDONALD: I think I mostly wish that I had figured out sobriety by then - you know, back then. You know, I always - with a certain kind of remorse that I look at those. And I remember where I was and who I was, probably more importantly. I was - you know, I was much more reluctant then I would like to think of myself today.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McDonald. He's written a new memoir titled "What A Fool Believes," which chronicles his life and 50-plus year career as an award-winning musician. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today I'm talking to Michael McDonald. He's co-written with Paul Reiser a new memoir about his life called "What A Fool Believes," which is the name of the Grammy-winning song by the Doobie Brothers that came out in 1979.

One of your iconic songs from your time with The Doobie Brothers is "Takin' It To The Streets," which was released in 1976, and you wrote the song and, of course, sang it. Let's listen to a little bit.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) You don't know me but I'm your brother. I was raised here in this living hell. You don't know my kind in your world. Fairly soon, the time will tell. You, telling me the things you're going to do for me - I ain't blind, and I don't like what I think I see. Taking it to the streets, taking it to the streets, taking it to the streets - no more need for running...

MOSLEY: That was Michael McDonald singing "Takin' It To The Streets," which he wrote as a member of The Doobie Brothers in 1976. And Michael, those lyrics - they're just so timely, so apt, especially now, even. I mean, I just think about what we've been dealing with in our country over the last few years. And I wanted to know because you're from Ferguson. And, of course, Ferguson was a very different place when you were growing up there. But what were your feelings when Ferguson became this center of unrest? Also, you had this song that really speaks to something that had been happening then and it continues to happen and it's happening now.

MCDONALD: Yeah. On all those points, when I grew up in Ferguson as a kid, it was a product of white flight from the cities. You know, It was this new suburban outside of the inner city.

MOSLEY: Was that part of why your family moved there?

MCDONALD: It was, I'm sad to say. You know, I think my grandparents, my grandmother was the only one left of my grandparents at the time, and we lived below her. And the neighborhood at the time that - my earliest memories were like, mostly older people whose kids had grown and left, you know, the neighborhood. But what happened to - much to our delight was some kids moved in across the alley. And we immediately were thick as thieves with these kids, you know. We - the oldest was a boy, and his siblings ranged all the way down to my age and in between. And he was kind of the babysitter, you know, I mean, he looked after his siblings while I think his parents worked. And he would organize these games in the alley of dodgeball, wiffle ball, and it was really in the interest of keeping us all occupied, you know?


MCDONALD: And I think he saw his responsibility. I got that impression from him, even at that age. I had quite a bromance with this guy from the very beginning. And I remember just being totally enamored by this guy, you know, and thinking, God, well, he's the greatest, you know? And you know, it wasn't long after that that my grandmother, I can still remember her asking what we were doing. I said, we're playing with these kids down the alley.

They just moved in, and how much fun we were having. It was within weeks, the house was up for sale, and we were moving. And I learned later that this was the first Black family to move into our neighborhood. To my grandmother that somehow signaled that, you know, it was time to go, that property values were going to suffer, and, you know, blah, blah, blah, whatever people thought in their misguided social strata of such situations.

MOSLEY: How do you reflect on the - I mean, just because I'm thinking about your grandmother's choice where she was a woman of her time, and so many people like her made those choices to move to this place.

MCDONALD: It's a hard thing to really wrap your head around. I mean, I became aware of racism, bigotry, at a young age because it wasn't long after that that I learned why we moved, you know. And it was part of the realization that the world wasn't such a friendly, warm and fuzzy place. You know, there was racism. There was the atom bomb. There was, you know, all these things that - you know, the Korean War - I was, like, you know - prior to that, I was only, like, 4. So even when my family's struggles - you know, my parents and their struggles - I wasn't that cognizant of it. And the world seemed like a safe place. As long as I was with my family, you know, what could be, you know, wrong? But I wasn't aware of the world outside.


MCDONALD: As I became more aware of the world at a young age - that was one of the first things I remember - is not - it was kind of unsettling, you know, that all these things - there was all these restrictions and all these things that happened that I didn't quite understand.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McDonald. He's written a new memoir titled "What A Fool Believes," which chronicles his life and 50-plus-year career as an award-winning musician. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today I'm talking to Michael McDonald. He's co-written with Paul Reiser a new memoir about his life called "What A Fool Believes," which is the name of the Grammy-winning song by The Doobie Brothers that came out in 1979. As a solo artist, he's recorded nine studio albums and a number of singles, and his distinctive voice can be heard on the background vocals of many artists over the decades.

Your music is so much like a bridge. I'm going to go back to how Black people love you. I swear I was at an event last night, and a song of yours came on. And, like it always does, you know, the crowd got into it. And I wonder because, you know, you've been a bridge for so long, crossing genres - rock and R&B and soul - have you ever grappled with, though, or felt in any way that what you do, your versions of your songs that have sometimes become hits - that you were appropriating in any way? Or do you feel genuinely like a bridge that has taken in all of what you've experienced to be able to give this gift that you give to us?

MCDONALD: Yeah, no. I mean, I think the idea that I might be appropriating or not genuine or - you know, I don't think I ever felt like I wasn't being sincere. But whether or not I had a right to be - for instance, when I wrote "Takin' It To The Streets," my first image of the song was I was on my way to a club gig somewhere, and the intro of the song just kind of popped in my head. And I couldn't wait to get to the gig and set my piano up and pick the chords out on the piano, you know? And I was hoping I didn't forget it, you know, because I thought, you know, it just felt like an opening to, like, a gospel song, and I loved gospel music at the time. You know, growing up, I remember - I liked rock 'n' roll, too, but nothing was more powerful to me than gospel music. I thought rock 'n' roll was a, you know, close second but not nearly as emotional and emotive and powerful as gospel music was.

So I guess I was kind of hoping I was writing a gospel song, if you will, you know? And it wasn't until I got a chance to play with those chords that I started thinking, well, what better, you know, motif for that very idea of, you know, people falling through the cracks, you know, our society and what place we have in it, you know, and how do we do better by each other, you know, than a gospel song, you know? It just seemed like the perfect kind of underpinning for that kind of idea lyrically.

And, of course, I couldn't really - it took me a minute to come up with "Takin' It To The Streets" because - and that came from the idea that, you know, we've got to be cognizant of this. We've got to do better by each other, or this is what it's going to come to, you know? It's going to be settled one way or the other. You know, we're - you know, these kind of progressive ideas and reforms don't come easily, you know, and they come by necessity. And so the necessity only becomes greater until, you know, we actually take the action needed, you know? And so that's what the song was about to me. Like, you know, like, you know, we're going to meet on the same plane one way or the other, you know? Maybe we can do it out of love for each other and consideration and empathy before we have to do it out of frustration.

MOSLEY: You know, your voice and your performance style - it's so distinctive. And I'm really fascinated on where your voice is now. I think I said earlier how people said, like, you're the only one who can whisper and also yell at the same time. But your voice has changed over time. Back when you first started, you were actually singing in a very specific way that is not what we know you as. But you realized the strain in your voice, so you were able to change it to be able to withstand singing at that level for that period of time. Where would you say your voice is now?

MCDONALD: That's a good question. I think the voice is a malleable instrument, you know, at best. And especially with age, you know, you - it's like you're constantly renegotiating with it, you know? I find that at my age now, I'm just trying to figure out what my strengths are and what I can use to put the song across, you know? I wish in some ways I could sing with the range or the, you know, sense of pitch or whatever it is I had when I was younger. But unfortunately, those things change, you know, over the years, and...

MOSLEY: Are there songs you had to rearrange now that your voice is different?

MCDONALD: I certainly came to sing them differently over the years. I'm not so sure it's because I had to. In some cases, I did, you know? I lowered the keys of certain things that became problematic for me as I got older. You know, singing "What A Fool Believes" in C sharp, for instance, was - you know, it got a little high...

MOSLEY: Yeah, right, right.

MCDONALD: ...Once I got into my 60s. And I remember Ray Charles saying to me 'cause - you know, I still sing all of those songs in - my songs in the same keys.


MCDONALD: I never lowered a key. And I remember thinking, wow. I'm going to aspire to that. That - I'm going to do that, you know? And, of course, as it became some - over the years, some songs just became - because I typically recorded songs a little higher than probably was my...

MOSLEY: Your range anyway.

MCDONALD: ...Actual range. Yeah. And I heard someone say one time that Smokey Robinson and whoever was producing the Motown sessions at the time used to make Marvin Gaye and some of the singers sing his songs a half-step higher than they really were comfortable with because he felt, especially with Marvin Gaye, that it brought out a certain angst in his performance that he could get only that way. And so I always felt that way, too. I always felt like, you know, this is going down on tape. If I sing it just a little bit higher and I have to reach for it a little bit, that'll come across, you know? And then I was reluctant to lower the keys later live. But another great singer, a guy I admired very much, Little Anthony, we were doing a gig together...

MOSLEY: Oh, yeah.

MCDONALD: And he was - had just come offstage. And it was - you know, he was singing like he did when he was 19. I was like...


MCDONALD: I marveled at how great he still sounded, you know? And we were talking. I said, man, you sound like you always did, maybe better, you know? I said, I just marvel at that. He goes, well - he goes, you know, you got to lower the keys as you go, you know? And I remember thinking, really? It didn't sound like it to me. He goes, you've lowered some of your keys; haven't you? I go, no. He goes, what the hell is wrong with you?

MOSLEY: Right. You need to get to it.

MCDONALD: Yeah. He goes, no. He goes, let me tell you. He goes, first of all, you won't even notice it after a while if it's a half-step or something. And he goes, and the renewed confidence that comes with that is worth it, you know, because, you know, when you get onstage and you're going after the song for an audience live, you don't want to be sitting there thinking, uh-oh (ph), here comes that line. Am I going to, you know, go down in flames, or am I going to make it, you know? And that was true, you know? And I found that to be true. And so over the years, I've been less reluctant to lower keys and stuff, and especially if it brings a better performance out of me, you know?


MCDONALD: But I found that, you know, a lot of things have changed, you know, my vibrato, you know? And I have to kind of learn what still works for me when I'm singing because I don't want to be trying to sound like I used to sound, you know, and have that be obvious. I want to just be able to do what I do best now.

MOSLEY: Well, Michael, I really enjoyed your memoir. And I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much.

MCDONALD: Well, same here, Tonya. Thank you for your time. I really appreciate talking to you.

MOSLEY: Michael McDonald's new memoir is "What A Fool Believes." On tomorrow's show, Emmy and Oscar-nominated actor, comic and screenwriter Kristen Wiig. She was a beloved cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and starred in and co-wrote the film "Bridesmaids." In her new series, "Palm Royale," she plays a pageant queen trying to break into high society in the 1960s. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) Why'd you tell me this while you look for my reaction? What do you need to know? Don't you know I'll always be the one. You don't have to prove to me you're beautiful to strangers. I've got loving eyes of my own. You belong to me in this life. Anyone could tell.

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with engineering help from Adam Staniszewski and Conor Anderson from WDET. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) You belong to me. Tell him that you belong to me. You belong to me. Girl. You belong to me. Tell him he's a stranger. You belong to me. Girl, that you were fooling. You belong to me. Yeah. You belong to me. Please, darling. You belong to me. You belong to me. You belong to me. You belong to me.

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