Takin’ it to the Amp: McDonald brings soulful baritone to Chautauqua



It’s tough to say what keeps Michael McDonald runnin’.

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, spectators might get a glance when the godfather of “Blue-Eyed Soul” brings his groove to the Amphitheater.

McDonald’s baritone voice, driven by capacious bass lines and his electric piano, will seduce those in the Amp’s benches with the same joy the performer brought to the St. Louis nightclubs of his youth.

It was in this musical environment that McDonald discovered the diverse range of genres that would guide him through the rest of his career. His primary influences  — Motown and rhythm and blues — were rooted in the gospel music that filled the churches lining the Mississippi River — the lifeblood of his hometown.

“One of the bands I was in used to love to have a horn section,” the singer said of his early days. “We’d have a six-piece horn section with our rhythm section, and the band was a 13-piece  band. We never made any money, but we had a lot of fun.”

As time went on, McDonald found himself to be the right man for his time and city.

“Back in the day, when I was playing in R&B dance bands … we were kind of the staple in the St. Louis area, so there were clubs that we could always play.”

As the rest of his generation became enamored with the psychedelic sounds of the late 1960s, McDonald continued, in good faith, to perfect the R&B music that had brought him hometown fame.

Years of discipline, hard work and staying true to his roots made the musician a perfect fit for Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, the two bands that would propel him to stardom.

After a stint with jazz-oriented Steely Dan tested his technical mastery, McDonald’s work within the simpler song structures of The Doobie Brothers allowed him to showcase his raw talent in a different light.

“When I got with the Doobies, I found that my background with that music really did me well,” McDonald said. “Songs that were gospel-rooted songs [were] pretty much the kind of stuff that I had learned to play back in St. Louis.”

Tonight’s performance will showcase the artist’s career after his time with Steely Dan. Open-air venues like the Amp are among the artist’s favorites, and he believes the setting will suit such songs as “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Keeps you Runnin’,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “Yah Mo’ B There,” “You Belong to Me” and a variety of the Motown covers for which he is also known.

McDonald’s 2003 album, Motown, was nominated for two Grammy Awards and was certified platinum. Motown Two (2004) debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 and No. 8 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums. McDonald has won five Grammy Awards throughout his career.

After decades of success, McDonald remains true to his craft, though the process by which he prepares for a tour has changed a great deal.

“Back in the day, I probably didn’t do much preparing,” he said. “[The band] played so much that I didn’t do a lot of practicing. We did a lot of rehearsing; we would rehearse for days.”

Today, McDonald’s band is a well-oiled machine.

“I always look to the musicians I’m working with for some kind of an inspiration from them,” he said of the collaborative process.

Though he hardly stands alone onstage, McDonald humbly admitted he is pleased with where his career is.

“Mostly I enjoy being a solo artist,” he said. “I enjoy having ultimate direction, being left to my own devices. It’s kind of a luxury, really. I have a hard time believing sometimes that I actually get to go out and play with my own band and have that position where I can pretty much do what I want to do.”

So what is it that Michael McDonald wants out of tonight’s performance?

“We want people not to feel afraid to get up and dance,” he said. “That’s what we do best.”