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Best Michael McDonald Background Vocal Performances

Michael McDonald is one of the most recognizable vocalists of all time. Period. That silky baritone's got soul, baby! But on top of a treasure trove of incredible hits with The Doobie Brothers and as a solo artist, McDonald's résumé boasts hundreds of credits for backing vocals, writing and arranging, etc. For example, he co-wrote the Van Halen single "I'll Wait," from 1984; and is even listed amongst the group of background singers on several cuts from El DeBarge's 1986 solo debut—including "Who's Johnny," from the movie Short Circuit.

Bypassing anything done with Steely Dan (of which McDonald was a pseudo member, having toured with the group in addition to frequent session work), this list compiles what I feel are the finest examples of Michael McDonald's elite background vocal prowess.

Christopher Cross, "Ride Like the Wind," from Christopher Cross (Warner Bros., 1979)

Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald are like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of light rock: "Two great tastes that taste great together." Present on a number of Cross' best ("All Right," and "I Really Don't Know Anymore" among them), it's this flawlessly amazing classic that has to be the obvious choice. The lead single from Cross' Grammy-winning debut, "Ride Like the Wind" topped out at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks in no small part to McDonald's name recognition and outstanding performance—essentially turning one snippet of a lyric into a key hook that's to this day probably one of the most well-known backing vocals of all time.

Coincidentally, this song was dedicated to Lowell George from Little Feat, who closes out this list.

James Ingram, "Yah Mo B There," from It's Your Night (Qwest/Warner Bros., 1983)

Co-written by the heavyweight team of Ingram, McDonald, Rod Temperton (writer of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and "Rock With You"), and its producer Quincy Jones, this phenomenal duet between James Ingram and Michael McDonald may not have been the lead single from It's Your Night, but it was the highest-charting: hitting #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B charts. The track also scored the pair a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

Ingram and McDonald later re-teamed to provide background vocals for Ambrosia's David Pack on "I Just Can't Let Go," and helped co-write "She Don't (Come Around Anymore)" on the same album (1985's Anywhere You Go).

Toto, "I'll be Over You," from Fahrenheit (Columbia, 1986)

Michael McDonald also provided backing vocals (and appeared in the music video) for the lead single from Toto's 1986 album, Fahrenheit. Playing a more subdued role here (his presence isn't that obvious until midway through), the performance follows the "Ride Like the Wind" formula of repeating/accenting lyrical snippets during the chorus—helping add life to an otherwise sparse ballad that eventually made its way to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and held the #1 spot on the Adult Contemporary chart for two weeks.

Oddly enough, Michael McDonald and Toto just announced a co-headlining tour beginning later this year.

Kenny Loggins, "This is It," from Keep the Fire (Columbia, 1979)

If Michael McDonald's on board, make it the lead single. A fact proven once more by this Grammy-winning hit (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male) from Kenny Loggins' third solo album. In addition to providing his priceless background vocal talents, McDonald co-wrote this tune—which made its way to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100, #17 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and #19 on the soul chart.

Little Feat, "Red Streamliner," from Time Loves a Hero (Warner Bros., 1977)

More obscure than the preceding selections in this list, I don't know if this slick groove made much noise in its day, but it rules. It must have been obvious early on that Michael McDonald is the shit, 'cause they practically gave him the chorus of this funky jam. Another high-level performance in which McDonald's golden pipes help step up the song's overall quality.

Honorable Mentions

In addition to tracks already linked above, it would be remiss not to at least mention "On My Own," McDonald's #1 hit-single duet with Patti LaBelle from 1986. His excellent reunion with The Doobie Brothers' Patrick Simmons on his 1983 solo debut, Arcade, for "Why You Givin' Up" is also a sure contender. If I sit here and overthink it, either track could replace "This is It" in the list, but... Kenny Loggins performed "Danger Zone" (from Top Gun), and "Meet Me Half Way" (from Over the Top), and "I'm Free (Heaven Helps the Man)" (from Footloose), and "Nobody's Fool" (from Caddyshack II), among others (hmmm, I smell another list), so... it's hard not to lean in his direction!

SEE ALSO: Tumbling Down the Chris Thompson Rabbit Hole

But, again, Michael McDonald is credited with hundreds of appearances over the past 40 years, and I've absolutely not heard them all. If I've failed to cite any obvious contenders or standouts, by all means post a comment and let me know!

(Perhaps unsurprisingly, shortly before wrapping up this piece, I learned that Carlos created a Michael McDonald-themed Spotify playlist sometime last year. It contains a few goodies not mentioned herein, and as with all things Michael McDonald, it's worth a listen, so check it out!)

Comments

  1. aretha franklin - ever changing time

    5.21.2014 | By Bernard Adlian

  2. YES. Thanks for the tip. Excellent point, and much appreciated!

    5.21.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  3. He performed on “Who’s Johnny” from Short Circuit? Ha! I gotta give that another listen now. Good stuff. And yes, please meet me half way and do a Kenny Loggins list.

    5.21.2014 | By Rog

  4. I couldn’t noticeably pick him out, but according to discogs.com, he’s credited in there:
    http://www.discogs.com/El-D…
    I hope it’s true, because if so that’s gotta be one of the greatest random little trivia tidbits ever!

    5.21.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  5. If you have never seen this SCTV skit it’s pretty funny.
    http://youtu.be/b0HzWMqLeiE

    5.26.2014 | By Matt

  6. Absolutely awesome. Incredible, ha, ha.

    5.27.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  7. In the song from this album “Don’t say it’s over” you really notice his deep voice !

    5.29.2014 | By Fan of El

  8. He also has his own cd’s of music of the 60’s that he captures as his own and he has his own works on cd too….
    I have them all…he’s got such a great voice!

    5.29.2014 | By susieq6000

  9. Nicolette Larsen - Let Me Go Love
    Kathy Mattea - Among the Missing
    Larry Carlton - Till I Hurt You
    Norman Brown - I still believe
    Jamie O’Neal - Not so distant day
    Chaka Kahn - Time to be lovers
    Maire Brennan - Don’t give up
    Stephen Bishop - Losing myself in you
    Ambrosia - I just can’t let go

    5.30.2014 | By Martin Turvey

  10. Chaka Khan, yes! Thanks for the list!
    Just FYI, the version of “I Just Can’t Let Go” from David Pack’s first solo album is mentioned and linked in the text above. Thanks again!

    5.30.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  11. Bad Sneakers by Steely Dan. My personal favorite MM appearance.

    5.30.2014 | By BruceWayne

  12. Gotta put some Steely Dan on the list…Bad Sneakers, PEG, I Got The News…...and many more.

    5.30.2014 | By Doobieman

  13. I mentioned Steely Dan (and why they weren’t included) in the second paragraph of the intro, linking to “Peg” specifically. That’s a GREAT track. Thanks for the comment!

    5.30.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  14. this one is incredible. Obviously not as popular as some listed, but would’ve liked to see it in the honorable mentions at least :)
    https://www.youtube.com/wat…

    5.30.2014 | By saucY

  15. WOW. I didn’t know this existed. I’ll be buying this pronto. Holy shit. Thanks!!!

    5.30.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  16. Glad to share it :)
    I heard this on the radio in 2011. Couldn’t figure figure out who the artist was until around 6 months later after some digging. Been on a Michael McDonald kick ever since.

    5.30.2014 | By saucY

  17. I certainly hope you have seen the “Yacht Rock” series that they have up on YouTube!
    Yacht Rock HD: http://www.youtube.com/play…

    5.30.2014 | By Ed G

  18. Great list!  I know the first 4 songs very well, but was previously unfamiliar with the little feat tune.  Great song!  Would also appreciate a Kenny Loggins list.

    6.4.2014 | By Nate

  19. It’s gotta be on the bridge at 2:34 DeBarge – Who’s Johnny

    6.4.2014 | By Nate

  20. Many thanks! And I’m definitely considering some sort of Kenny Loggins piece.

    6.5.2014 | By Andrew Aversionline

  21. It sounds like Michael McDonald on Robby Dupree’s song “steal away”, but it’s an impersonator, lol.  My wife and I often like to sing the Michael McDonald backup parts on the song “Peg” by Steely Dan…..ahhhhhh eeeeee oohhhh ooooooo….PEEEEEEEG!!!!!

    7.18.2015 | By The Bear

  22. MICHAEL MCDONALD SANG BACKUP FOR SEVERAL STEELY DAN SONGS IN THE 1970’S INCLUDING “PEG”.

    6.27.2016 | By BRUCE THOMAS

  23. I read that Greg Guidry and Michael McDonald played in a band together when they were younger. In listening to the song by Guidry, “Goin’ Down”, I can’t help but believe that I hear the voice of McDonald in the backgrounds. Is this possible, does anyone know if he contributed backup vocals?

    7.24.2016 | By Ellis Drewery

  24. Yacht Rock is the best thing that came out of Channel 101. Probably will forever remain so. That series is gold.

    9.5.2016 | By Fred

  25. He may be a baritone in his normal register but I’d say he’s more well known for his falsetto or half-falsetto or whatever it’s called. His high harmonies are his trademark, imo.

    10.17.2016 | By Doug Thompson

  26. Who did he do Hot Rod Hearts with??

    2.7.2017 | By Christine

  27. That’s a Robbie Dupree song, but to my knowledge Michael McDonald is not credited with any backing vocals on that album, though many fans have cited the similarities (this is also mentioned a few comments up by The Bear).

    2.7.2017 | By Andrew Aversionline