Michael McDonald: Records that changed my life

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
by Ray Charles

This was one of the most important records that got my attention when I was growing up. It showed me how deep an artist could go into a performance of a pop song.

The songs on this album are really simple, structurally speaking, but they had something really special that I probably would’ve missed had I heard the original recordings by the country artists—it wasn't necessarily my thing. 

For instance, I probably wouldn't have really listened to the lyrics very closely or gotten what the songs had to offer on a deeper level unless I had heard Ray Charles performing them. I remember that kind of opened my eyes up to a different way of appreciating what pop songs really were and what they really meant to us as a social medium. It made me listen a little closer from that point on to every record I ever heard.

I think I was around 11–12 years old when I heard it the first time and I remember my dad really liked that record. It was on the radio a lot in the 1950s in the States. My dad and I, we’d be driving around, and when one of those songs would come on, we’d crank up the radio and sing along.

With The Beatles by The Beatles

I really liked that there was a certain kind of sophistication to The Beatles. There were these unusual twists and turns and chord progressions to the structure of their songs. They seemed very different to what American pop music, especially with rock ‘n’ roll, had become at that time. What you heard on the radio at the time was almost like nursery rhymes.

Sure, there were some great records too, but somehow, The Beatles brought some element of cool to pop music that Americans obviously responded to. There was a certain kind of ethereal quality that European rock ‘n’ roll had that really attracted American kids, and I was one of them.

I started my first band around that time, and the music we were doing was a lot like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beatles. These bands caught my ear because it was the beginning of what would later become punk music; the raw guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. 

Greatest Hits by Marvin Gaye

I remember the first time I heard Marvin Gaye, he was on this TV show called Shindig! and he did the songs “Can I Get a Witness?” and “Hitchhike.” That show was responsible for introducing a much larger, multicultural audience in America to what was truly American music at a point when the American society was still beginning to learn what was truly American. I mean, our ear was always in that direction. So much of American culture is basically African American culture, especially our music and popular culture. I don’t think we always give credit to where it comes from.

I’m one of those people who would find a record every couple of years and it would be a record I’d listen to every day for a year or longer. I’d come home and I’d put that particular record on and listen to it over and over again, and Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits was one of those records.

I was a little older, about 18–19, when I found a copy of it, and so, I was more intimately introduced to writers like Ashford & Simpson or Holland-Dozier-Holland. When I heard Marvin’s versions of their songs, I was fascinated by his vocals and style. A lot of these songs are still pure nostalgia to me. 

Whenever I listen to a Stevie Wonder track, for example, even an old one, it’s almost like I’m listening to it for the first time because I hear new things that I never heard before in all those years. Sometimes it’s the little elements that make a record last through the ages. I’m 65 now, so even all these years later, I never lost my appreciation of the music from that period for that reason.

About my new album, Wide Open

I always thought of myself as someone who writes songs in the third person and I never found it easy to write about my own feelings which is what a lot of songwriters do. It’s a great talent, I admire that. I kind of wanted to do that on this record but even at best, I would still sneak out through the back door.

A lot of the songs are kind of expressions of the feelings that I have personally of who I am at this age and this point in time, but I still tend to put them in far-flung scenarios. For example, the song “Hail Mary” follows the storyline of a guy trying to find that feeling of being important to someone in a relationship one more time. But for me, on a personal level, it's about being kind of surprised at what it's like being this age.

You know, when I was younger and thought about turning 65, back then even 50 seemed old to me, I thought I’d be sitting in front of the TV and falling asleep. I didn’t think I’d still be on the road with my band and wanting to get in front of an audience or wanting to make a record. Sometimes I question my sanity, like, what I am even doing? I’m 65, do I want to go back on the road this year? But my answer is, yeah, I do, and I still enjoy what I do, and I still enjoy travelling with my comrades and playing music. 

Wide Open by Michael McDonald is out now on BMG Records 

March 11                                Dublin, Ireland                    Vicar Street
March 12                                Manchester, UK                  Manchester Apollo