September 2017 will see the release of Michael McDonald’s Wide Open, his first solo album of original material since 2000’s Blue Obsession. Following that record, McDonald reoriented his solo career around a series of albums in which he recorded tasteful tributes to Motown Records, cementing his position as one of the most respected “blue-eyed soul” singers of all time. But that career path, however lucrative it may have been, only served to make a fairly uncool pop star of the ’70s and ‘80s seem even less cool.
McDonald’s status as a pop-culture punchline is perhaps best epitomized by the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, wherein an electronics-store employee played by Paul Rudd squirms with annoyance as a Michael McDonald live DVD plays on a loop at work. In 2007, I saw McDonald in concert and filed a review for my local paper, and the next day my editor sidled up to me with a smirk and said, “So…Michael McDonald, huh?”
But in 2017, Michael McDonald is about as cool as he’s ever been. The “yacht rock” sound with which he’s associated (thanks to his work with the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Christopher Cross) has become a renewable source of inspiration for dance and hip-hop producers. And over the past decade, McDonald has collaborated with a number of hip younger artists that appreciate the distinctively smoky grain of his voice, including Brooklyn indie bands Holy Ghost! and Grizzly Bear. L.A. future-funk bassist Thundercat even reunited McDonald with longtime collaborator Kenny Loggins on his acclaimed 2017 single “Show You The Way.”
This newfound appreciation of McDonald didn’t happen overnight, and in fact there’s no one particular tipping point that turned him from camp to cool in the way that The Sopranos helped rehabilitate Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But the seeds were laid by hip-hop, particularly when McDonald’s 1982 solo hit “I Keep Forgettin’” became the bedrock of Warren G. and Nate Dogg’s G-funk smash “Regulate.” De La Soul sampled Steely Dan’s “Peg” and Meek Mill sampled the Doobies’ “Minute By Minute” on hit singles, and dance producers like Grant Nelson have remixed tracks like “Yah Mo B There,” McDonald’s 1983 duet with James Ingram. But McDonald himself has also demonstrated himself capable of surprising displays of good taste, like his killer cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River.” And the sheer range of artists he collaborated with in his heyday, from Van Halen to Patti LaBelle, has placed him at the intersection of rock and soul, and continues to inspire a wide swathe of music both popular and underground.