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.
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!
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!