The Captain of Yacht Rock

REVIEW: ‘What a Fool Believes: A Memoir’ by Michael McDonald with Paul Reiser

June 16, 2024

Michael McDonald serenades us. On the radio, sure, plus on the television and the silver screen. He’s on heavy rotation at the grocery store and in the waiting room. Hear him hit high harmonies in captivating cameos with Steely Dan! Listen to his catchy keyboards and soulful vocals with the reinvented Doobie Brothers! If you doubt Christopher Cross has got such a long way to go / to make it to the border of Mexico, McDonald’s echo will convince you it’s so. Is that him in a chart-topping duet? You bet.

In the 1970s and ’80s, McDonald’s ubiquitous croon helped define a pop sub-genre now called yacht rock, but which at the time was simply mainstream. And he was more than just a great set of pipes. He wrote songs that are so infectious, the CDC recommends you wear a mask around them. They were sophisticated, too, featuring jazz, R&B, and gospel influences, dramatic key changes, and angular melodies.

In his new memoir, What a Fool Believes, McDonald tells the story of how his talents became so familiar to a generation of American music fans. McDonald has always performed well with other stars, so it’s appropriate that he’d have a partner for this book, though the actor and comedian Paul Reiser (My Two Dads, Mad About You) seems like an unlikely choice. The project grew out of the friends’ Zoom conversations during the COVID lockdowns, and perhaps the comic is responsible for leavening the recurring motifs of self-doubt and substance abuse with humor and conversational charm.

McDonald’s childhood was both chaotic and happy. Born in St. Louis in 1952 to a musical family, he inherited his love of singing from his father, a streetcar driver and Marine veteran. But his parents’ marriage was unhappy and they divorced when he was a child, creating in McDonald both a sense of insecurity and a desire to stay connected to his father through music. He started his first band in his early teens. A running joke starts at their debut gig, when a pastor politely declined McDonald’s offer to play longer: "No, no, that won’t be necessary." Ambitious and talented, he climbed his way into more prominent area bands, including one that backed Chuck Berry when the legend was in town.

Unfortunately, McDonald imbibed in rock-star vices young, too. Out of what he calls his compulsion "to disengage," McDonald started smoking pot in his early teens. He drank. He got his girlfriend pregnant in eighth grade. His life "was a nonstop pageant of chaos" from which music offered a refuge. When he was only 18, McDonald signed a contract with RCA and moved to Los Angeles, but this shot at the big time misfired: After he released one single, the label released him. McDonald retreated to Missouri in temporary defeat.

McDonald claims that "most everything good that’s happened in my life and career—virtually none of it was of my design." Case in point: After he returned to L.A., a new friend (drummer Jeff Porcaro of Toto) told him that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan were holding auditions for their upcoming tour. McDonald made the cut and provided backing vocals plus quaaludes and perhaps pubic lice on the ensuing tours. Fagen and Becker invited McDonald to perform backing vocals on their new album, as well as on subsequent records. That led to his next big break, when former Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, then with the Doobie Brothers, asked McDonald to fill in for that band’s lead singer. He had two days to rehearse with the Doobies before a show in Shreveport; McDonald’s father, who hadn’t seen his son perform in years, was in attendance.

McDonald may suffer from the music industry’s most severe case of Impostor Syndrome. When the Doobie Brothers asked him to join the band permanently, he feared "it surely wouldn’t be long before everyone realized I was a fraud." Not quite. McDonald transformed the band’s sound (though he declines the credit) by contributing several original songs on their next album, including the top-40 singles "Takin’ It to the Streets" and "It Keeps You Runnin’." He stayed aboard for three more albums and a few more hits, peaking with "What a Fool Believes," a perfect pop song that earned McDonald and cowriter Kenny Loggins the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1980.

During these boom years, he contributed backing vocals for hits by Loggins and Christopher Cross, and also produced Amy Holland’s debut album. (They’d produce a family together, too, marrying in 1983.) His omnipresence was fodder for a classic SCTV sketch, and McDonald gamely acknowledges "all the shit I’d later take for singing on seemingly everyone’s tracks," but insists, "There was a certain romance to it for me—like getting a front-row seat to something special."

That humility is endearing. McDonald jokes about dud performances and never blames other people for turmoil or failures. No matter how successful he becomes, he’s always honored to work with Paul Anka, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, or Ray Charles.

He says a major cause of intra-Doobies tension was, "I began to take my insecurities out on the other guys." Even his songwriting was often a manifestation of his modesty: "I’ve always felt more comfortable writing in the third person, as if I’m telling someone else’s story."

McDonald’s stories about specific songs illustrate the confluence of influences, experimentation, and luck. "What a Fool Believes" began with lyrics scribbled during a long flight and his desire to re-create a "syncopation and bouncing staccato rhythm" he knew from old gospel and R&B songs. (Producer Ted Templeman liked early versions but his sister thought it sounded "like circus music.") "Takin’ It to the Streets" merged his musings on inequality with a "gospel-inspired chord progression I had been tinkering with," while with "Minute By Minute" he was striving for "a jazz shuffle, but with very little swing" that took forever to achieve. (It’s a shame, though, that he doesn’t recount his experience helping David Lee Roth write a Van Halen song.)

After the Doobies’ demise, McDonald enjoyed the solo success that had eluded him a decade before with hits like "I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)" and "Sweet Freedom." He also teamed up with Patti LaBelle in "On My Own" and James Ingram for "Yah Mo B There." (McDonald shares your uncertainty over what that title means.) McDonald attributes some of this success to the black audience the Doobies had developed, which may also explain why Warren G used "I Keep Forgettin’" as the primary sample for his 1994 hit with Nate Dogg, "Regulate."

This being a rock-and-pop memoir, there are plenty of drugs and drinks. The memoir begins with a—[record scraaaaatch]—you may be wondering how I got here scene of him in jail after another booze-and-coke binge, and it features antics that are alternately funny and scary. McDonald was aware of the problems created by his substance abuse, but the major turning point doesn’t come until he arrived drunk to a counseling session for his wife’s rehab. On his difficult road to sobriety, he "entered a world of no coincidences" and formed "trust in a higher power."

Readers will forgive McDonald for living a healthier life at the expense of the memoir’s excitement. A devoted husband and father, McDonald lived with his family in Nashville for a while as his career slowed down. He returned to the charts in the early 2000s after MCI featured him performing the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic "Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing" in a commercial. (In a rare moment of braggadocio, McDonald takes credit for suggesting that the ad include a chyron with his new album’s title to boost sales.) Not everyone appreciated this renaissance. "If you don’t take this Michael McDonald DVD that you’ve been playing two years straight off," Paul Rudd tells his big-box-store manager in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, "I’m going to kill everyone in the store and put a bullet in my brain."

In his older age, McDonald has changed his approach to touring, recording, and singing (lower keys are easier on his voice). And it’s worked—he’s still at it, performing with the Doobie Brothers this summer. And last month, he visited select cities with Paul Reiser to discuss this unlikely memoir about a very likeable performer.

What a Fool Believes: A Memoir
by Michael McDonald with Paul Reiser
Dey Street Books, 336 pp., $32

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published under: Book reviews , Music , Rock