‘He mouths at me, Oh my God': Inside Michael McDonald’s off-the-cuff audition for the Doobie Brothers

At first, when Tom Johnston’s health faltered in the mid-1970s, producer Ted Templeman approached long-time member Patrick Simmons about fronting the Doobie Brothers. Simmons had, of course, voiced “Black Water,” the band’s first charttopping single.

But Simmons tells Creative Loafing-Atlanta that he had another idea: Michael McDonald, a studio sideman with ties to Steely Dan who’d brought along a few songs of his own.

“He goes, ‘Pat, I don’t know about bringing something else into the band at this point. If we’re gonna go on, I’d rather you front the band and you sing the songs and we’ll build it around you,'” Simmons remembers. “And I go, ‘You should listen to the songs’ [Laughs.] So Mike’s sitting down at the piano and Ted’s sitting across from me behind Mike, and Mike starts playing. [Simmons sings the intro to “Takin’ It To The Streets.”] Ted looks up at me and his eyes get really wide and he mouths at me, ‘Oh my God.’ [Laughs.]

They were in the earliest stages of an album that would eventually arrive in 1976 with that song as its title track. Johnston had done some early work, but told Templeman he couldn’t go on. In the end, Johnston would handle vocals on two songs, “Turn It Loose” and “Wheels of Fortune,” as McDonald moved to the forefront.

“He had no idea Mike had that voice; he had never heard him sing before,” Simmons says of Templeman. “Ted is a huge R&B guy. That’s where he cut his teeth. Even though he was the drummer in Harpers Bizarre, whenever we were in the studio his references were often coming from Motown, Stax/Volt, that kind of stuff. He heard Mike sing and he said, ‘We’ve got to cut that.’ [Laughs.] That was kind of the beginning of that journey and it just went on from there.”

“Takin It to the Streets” went all the way to No. 13, while “It Keeps You Runnin'” became a Top 40 hit, as well. McDonald was with the Doobies through 1982. When the band reformed later in the 1980s, Johnston returned to work with Simmons and Co. again, though they occasionally work with McDonald on stage.

Something Else!

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • EdSullivan

    Bringing in McDonald and Baxter was a good move for the Doobies, but it split their fan base, who pined for the hard-rocking Doobs of the early 70s. For all intents and purposes, their new jazzy and funkier sound made them a defacto Steely Dan, and Adult Contemporary favorites, and they gathered an entirely new, more sophisticated, set of fans by demonstrating that they were musicians of a very high caliber. Now, with Tom Johnston and John McFee, they seem to prefer the softer California county rock.