By Mike Morsch
Michael McDonald had this little riff that had been rolling around in his mind for a while.
“It really hadn’t gone anywhere, but I knew there was something to it,” McDonald says. “I just never had the wherewithal to finish the song.”
One day while talking on the phone with Tiran Porter, his Doobie Brothers bandmate, Porter mentioned that he had run into Kenny Loggins and Loggins had said that he wanted to write a song with McDonald. Loggins asked Porter to give his number to McDonald.
It was 1978 and Loggins was just coming off a successful run in the 1970s with Jim Messina as Loggins and Messina. After a string of hits, the duo had split in 1977 and Loggins was pursuing a solo career.
McDonald, who had joined the Doobie Brothers in 1975 after a few years as a member of Steely Dan’s touring band and recording team, liked the idea of writing a song with Loggins. So the two connected and made a date to meet at McDonald’s house.
When McDonald’s sister found out about the meeting, she sprang into action.
“I had never met the guy and I was kind of nervous,” McDonald says. “My sister decided to come over and clean up my house because it was usually pretty trashed. She decided that she was going to meet Kenny Loggins and that I should at least not have my dirty laundry in a pile in the living room.”
On the day of the meeting, as his sister went about doing the laundry and cleaning out the ashtrays, McDonald sat down at the piano and started thinking about what he wanted to play for Loggins.
“I had played that little riff for Ted Templeman [Doobie Brothers producer] a few times and every time I played it, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to finish that song. It’s a hit, I’m telling you,’" McDonald says. "I would just laugh and say, ‘If I come up with anything, I’ll let you know.’”
So McDonald decided to play the riff for his sister that day.
“I said to her, ‘I’m thinking of playing this for Kenny. What do you think?’” McDonald says.
But just as McDonald was in the middle of playing the riff, the doorbell rang. It was Loggins.
“Before I could say anything, he goes, ‘You were just playing something on the piano, is that new?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I was thinking about playing it for you.’ And he said, ‘That’s the one I want to work on,’” McDonald says.
For the next two days the duo came up with the bridge and chorus and the rest of the words for the song. And it turned out that Ted Templeman was right.
The song was “What A Fool Believes,” and when it was released in January 1979 as the first single from the band’s "Minute by Minute" album, it became the second No. 1 hit for the Doobie Brothers. It also earned McDonald and Loggins two Grammy Awards: for Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1980.
“It was just one of those moments that was meant to be,” says McDonald, who went on to write several more songs with Loggins, a songwriting partnership that continues to this day.
The Doobie Brothers would initially break up in 1982 and McDonald would go on to develop a successful solo career in the 1980s. In 1982, he released his first solo album, “If That’s What It Takes,” which featured the hit single “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every time You’re Near)” and “I Gotta Try,” a song he co-wrote with Loggins.
All of that music history will be on display when McDonald performs at the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, July 8, sharing the bill with Boz Scaggs.
McDonald is in the middle of a tour to promote his new album “Wide Open,” which will be released in September. It’s his ninth solo album and first full-length release since 2008.
“What I’m finding at this age is that I still have a great need to make records," McDonald says. "But I’m not sure I’m any more sure today why, what the real drive is, anymore than I did when I was in my 20s."
McDonald said that he thought he wanted to be in a rock band playing arenas and living the life, which he accomplished. But he learned that really wasn’t what “it” was all about and he had to discover what really inspired the musical drive within him.
“I found out that I was trying to ring that same bell that I rung so easily as a kid when I was 14 in the back of a van with no air conditioning, sweating my ass off going to a gig where I was gonna sweat some more,” he says. “It wasn’t very glamorous, but there was nothing more thrilling than getting up there and just making music with my buddies. That’s as good as it was ever gonna get for me. And that’s enough to make me still want to go into the studio today at age 65 and make a record.”
To this point, McDonald is pleased with the way the tour is progressing and the reaction he’s getting from fans on the new material.
“We’ll pull in older stuff and obscure stuff and change it out from show to show, but having new stuff to play is a whole other dynamic for us that I have to say, we’ve enjoyed,” McDonald says. “It’s a lot of fun and a little daunting at the same time because you just don’t know how people are going to react. So far, so good, though. We’re having a real good time with it and people seem genuinely enthusiastic about it.”
Michael McDonald will perform at the Tropicana Showroom in Atlantic City, July 8, 8 p.m. For tickets and information, go to tropicana.net.
By Mike Morsch