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The singer, whose breathy, falsetto vocal style still spawns a lot of impersonations, brings his band to Salem to perform with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Such songs as “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes,” “It Keeps You Runnin’ ” and “I Keep Forgettin’ ” were part of the pop music soundtrack of the 1970s and ’80s — powered in large part by the vocal work of Michael McDonald.
His breathy, top-of-the-throat, falsetto-laden vocal style stuck in a lot of ears and spawned a lot of impersonations.
McDonald still gets to hear a lot of those impersonations.
“It’s almost like I’m Ed Sullivan or something,” said McDonald, who brings his band to Salem Civic Center on Friday for a performance with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. “I have more people walk up to me and do their Michael McDonald. While I’m trying to get a yogurt or something in the airport, some guy realizes it’s me and starts singing his favorite Michael McDonald song.
“And I’m flattered, you know; don’t get me wrong. But it hits me once in a while that I’m like one of the world’s caricatures.”
Caricature or not, his work with the Doobie Brothers and later, as a solo artist, put an imprint on pop culture that has resulted in equal parts adulation and parody.
The first episode of the YouTube parody series “Yacht Rock” opens with the strains of the McDonald song “Sweet Freedom.” The series went on to include fictional and hilarious accounts about the musical exploits of McDonald, Loggins and Messina, Hall & Oates, the Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross and Steely Dan (the act that first put McDonald’s voice in front of national audiences).
But people who love those acts have appropriated the term “yacht rock” for their own use. Bands specializing in “yacht rock” are busy on the touring circuit, drawing people who grew up with what was called “soft rock” in its day, as well as the hipsters who are widely reported to be into Hall & Oates and the like.
McDonald gets a kick out of it all.
“It definitely made me laugh, and the first time I saw it, I thought it was hysterical,” McDonald said of the YouTube series. “It has kind of taken hold as a term for a certain genre of music. It’s fun to mess around with it.”
Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake have kept McDonald in the thick of pop culture recently, doing their impersonations on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” McDonald joined the pair on a March episode of “Late Night” to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Fallon and Timberlake each had white, combed-back wigs and goatees, to match McDonald’s. House band The Roots kicked in some pop-gospel at the end, as the three sang “life is but a dream.”
McDonald apparently is not at all uptight about it.
“A lot of the guys from my era, I’ll see them and they’ll go, why do you do that? You know they’re making fun of you,” McDonald said by phone on Wednesday from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “And I go, yeah but what the hell. At my age, what do I care? It’s funny.
“I tell my son, when your music becomes less relevant, your pathetic comic value might be of some use. So you’ve got to go with it, you know.”
By the way, his son, Dylan McDonald, is a blues-rock singer building his own career. He sounds nothing like his father. In fact, his style and tone more closely resemble Mike Mattison of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Michael McDonald said his son encouraged him to do the “Late Night” bit.
None of these things would be happening if it weren’t for that inimitable timbre and delivery. McDonald said that he developed it as a vocal survival mechanism.
“I played so many clubs growing up, and back in that period, in the ’60s, we’d play like four, five sets a night,” he said. “And there was a time I remember we were playing four sets at one club, which let us out just in time to play another club in L.A., at the after hours, till like 6 in the morning.
“During those years, what I really learned to do was preserve my voice, and part of that morphed into the style of singing that I do today, where I just kind of sing in a kind of self-preservation mode.
“I grew up in the era where everybody wanted to sing like Mitch Ryder and James Brown. And I did, too. But I learned real quick that it hurts after a while. Along with trying to find ways to sound like the guy on the record, we all tried to find ways to be able to sing five sets a night without losing it halfway through the evening.”
And it keeps him busy to this day. Two volumes of Motown covers sold millions. He has 10 live dates this month, three in November and 15 in December.
He recently did a “smooth jazz” R&B cruise gig in the Mediterranean Sea. Cruise host Dave Koz, Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright were among the performers, he said. And on that cruise ship, he heard what sounds most to him like the R&B- and soul-inflected pop that made him famous.
“The one thing that really struck me was the level of musicianship of all these guys,” he said. “And I can see where a lot of people go, smooth jazz isn’t my genre. But when you hear these guys play live, you can’t help but be impressed by just how incredible they are, and the compositions are really wonderful.
“An evening of listening to Kirk Whalum is not a bad thing, [nor is a night of] Gerald Albright. It’s very soulful, a very wonderful genre of music.
“It kind of encompasses what we used to call R&B and what we used to call pop music.”
And a lot of people can fit on that yacht.
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