Michael McDonald was discovered by a record producer traveling through Illinois, and signed to a deal on the spot. He began by working with Steely Dan, who liked his ability to, as he put it, “sing like a girl” — the band had a lot of high vocals, but nobody who could execute them live until McDonald showed up.
Playing as a session keyboardist and background singer, McDonald’s workload waxed and waned. One day, he was approached by Ted Templeman, who found McDonald pounding away on his Wurlitzer in a friend’s garage, which was also serving as his bedroom. Templeman was producing the Doobie Brothers, and their lead singer, Tom Johnston, had fallen ill. Could McDonald step in for a few shows?
The rest is history, as McDonald fronted the band’s first and only #1 album (Minute by Minute), and numerous hit songs, including the album’s title track, “Taking It to the Streets,” and “It Keeps You Runnin’.”
“What a Fool Believes” was a collaboration between McDonald and Kenny Loggins. As the story goes, McDonald was playing some sample tunes for his sister when Loggins pulled up in the driveway. Loggins heard a fragment of the unfinished music for “What a Fool Believes,” and his mind kept working on it as he approached the house. Loggins knocked on the door, introduced himself to McDonald, and then demonstrated the bridge he devised before the two of them sat down. The lyrics were finished over the telephone the next day.
These lyrics provide a masterclass in clashing, interwoven perspectives, as a man smitten with a woman he once courted meets her again, only to find that she has moved on while he has not. The story is told through the perspective of a steely-eyed observer, who can see exactly what’s going on, and it’s a little head-spinning.
Loggins’ version of the song was actually released first, but never as a single, and remains a curiosity.
The song reached #1 on the US charts, and the Top 10 in numerous other countries. It also won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
The clip below is from the 1980 Grammys, and McDonald’s tuxedo looks quite uncomfortable. But he sounds great.