It's one thing to call Michael McDonald one of the most identifiable voices in contemporary music. For more than three decades, his seasoned pop-soul tenor, and the frequent falsetto extremes it reaches to, has fortified a generation of hits.
But what remains so fascinating about the singer's body of work is the sheer variety of settings you are apt to hear that voice in and the styles his singing is often surrounded by.
Sure, there are the obvious radio classics like What a Fool Believes and Takin' It to the Streets that retooled the radio rock of the Doobie Brothers into R&B-slanted pop during the late '70s. But there are also chart-topping duets with soul maestros like Patti LaBelle and James Ingram as well as fusion flavored journeys with Steely Dan where, even as a harmony or background singer, McDonald gloriously stood out.
But dig deeper into the five-time Grammy winner's résumé and you discover just how many — and how many stylistically different — artists have called upon one of pop's most recognized voices for their recordings.
A partial list includes classicists Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell as well as newer generation indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost. Oh, and did we mention McDonald even sang under the closing credits of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut?
For McDonald, juggling vocal roles and genres continues to fuel a career that brings him back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House. Longtime fans will note the venue is just a couple streets over from Rupp Arena, where the singer and keyboardist played regularly during the late 1970s with the Doobie Brothers.
"Knowledge of one kind of music is always going to enhance your enjoyment of another," McDonald says. "As a kid growing up, I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music even though what I was introduced to as a kid probably would not have been the music I would listen to later as a teenager.
"My dad was a singer. Growing up with him, my first instrument was tenor banjo playing ragtime and music of another whole other era before I was born. Even as a kid, I loved the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, stuff like that. Those guys to me are still part of what I consider to be American classical music. So my tastes have always been kind of diverse."
Then came the 1960s, which turned the St. Louis native to the electric sounds of the day, By 1970, that music prompted a move to Los Angeles.
"Like most guys of my generation, I wanted to play rock 'n roll," McDonald says. "My first band kind of emulated all of the British Invasion bands. Then rhythm and blues got to be a favorite music. But I always saw a similarity in all of it. There was always something from one genre that I borrowed to approach the next one I had an infatuation with. That's the thing about music. There is always going to be a similarity."
That sense of musical kinship dominates a 2014 recording that reteamed McDonald with the Doobie Brothers. But the resulting album, Southbound, wasn't a reunion as much as a refashioning as it presented new versions of Doobies classics cut with contemporary country artists.
For McDonald, that meant taking new looks at hits he popularized during his tenure with the band. Specifically, What a Fool Believes was shared with Sara Evans and Takin' It to the Streets with Love & Theft. It also enlisted Vince Gill for guitar color during You Belong to Me, a 1977 Doobies song McDonald co-wrote with Carly Simon (it was a Top 10 hit for the latter in 1978).
"Oh, that was a lot of fun," McDonald says of the recording. "We (the Doobies) don't always get that many opportunities or excuses to get back in the studio because we're always going in different directions at this point. So any time something like this comes up for me, it's fun. But it was also an opportunity to work with some great new artists in the country scene, most of which we probably wouldn't otherwise have had a chance to get into the studio."