Everyone thinks they can sing Motown, and let’s be honest, nearly everyone has. Few are as qualified, in every sense, as the man who does it to inspiring effect on the new album Michael McDonald Motown.
Thousands of hopeful young singers have paid their dues in smoky bars playing songs from Motown’s heady heyday. Back in St.Louis in the very late 1960s, one of them had them in his armoury as he set about getting noticed on his way to a multi-platinum career as one of the great singer-songwriters of his day. Now, McDonald has returned to his first love.
Newly signed to Universal Music International, the owner of one of the most distinctive set of vocal chords outside the Motor City has completed a distinguished project that’s both a labour of love and a work of genuine inspiration. Produced by English helmsman and former pop frontman Simon Climie, this elegantly-mounted collection of Motown interpretations calls on the songs of such legends as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Diana Ross & the Supremes and is nothing less than McDonald’s emotional nod towards the record collection that started him down the road of his stellar career.
The album is also a dream release for fans who have long known him to be one of the most seductive voices of his generation. When he marries rock and soul, they stay married, as he did as singer and writer or co-writer of countless hits from his years with the Doobie Brothers, such as It Keeps You Runnin’, You Belong To Me, Minute By Minute, Real Love and the timeless, triple-Grammy winning What A Fool Believes. Then again during his seamless transition to a solo career, on such songs as I Keep Forgetting, Sweet Freedom and vintage duets such as Yah Mo B There with James Ingram and On My Own with Patti LaBelle.
“Not unlike a lot of people, I grew up in the Motown time frame,” he explains. “Motown music was something I really gravitated to as a kid, as did most kids in America. Marvin Gaye’s Super Hits album  and the Diana & Marvin album  were just records I played thousands of times. This was at a time when I had some time on my hands, as a musician living out in California, I think I was listening to more (Motown) then than when I was back home. The Stevie Wonder albums, Music Of My Mind, Talking Book and Songs In The Key Of Life, they were all albums that when I was on my own were always on the turntable.”
He knew the challenges of these amazing songs, the baggage that goes with them, the respect they demand. “I had to force myself in some cases not to mimic the original vocals, because to me they're so much ingrained in my head as the melody,” he confesses. “So I found myself in some cases walking on a tightrope, trying to be true to what I felt the songs were because of those vocals, and at the same time not just doing an album where we’re trying to imitate records that have already been made. For a lot of people worldwide, they were historic events, almost.”
McDonald had been wanting to work with Climie for some time. I had first become aware of him when he did Eric Clapton’s Pilgrim album, I loved that record, the great sonic sense it had. I enjoyed every minute of working with Simon, he's a tremendous talent.
Early outline tracks were cut in London, with overdubbing in Michael’s adopted home of Nashville, but the body of the vocals were recorded in Nice, in the south of France, where Climie lives. “It’s just a wonderful spot, I fell in love with the place. The original tracks were programmed, they were sketches of what would be, but I wanted to bring it over to a live musician feeling, so we overdubbed organs, bass and real drums on everything. We were able to experiment with tempos and keys, and really nail what made the original records work so well.”
McDonald would never say, but we can, that he walked that tightrope he mentioned with his customary style, bringing new sophistication to all-time Tamla greats such as Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Since I Lost My Baby. Indeed that last-named Temptations gem holds a special place, as one of the very first Motown singles he remembers buying.
“I loved that tune, and I really pushed for that one, in fact I verged on annoying. Everybody hoped I’d forget about it, but in the end Simon said ‘we’ll cut that one live and maybe use it as a bonus track.‘ It turned out in its own little way like a special moment. This is one of those songs that without much production at all will really shine, just strip everything away from it and it’s still a great song. We wanted to let it breathe, let the tempo down, and see if it stood alone with piano, voice and bass. It represents some of the best stuff that Smokey Robinson had written.”
In his caring hands, Junior Walker & the All Stars’ joyful 1966 party number How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) springs the surprise of a lazy, finger-snapping gospel groove. “That was really an idea of Simon’s to move away from the original. That song had been cut enough times and everyone had pretty much stayed true to the original, in some form or fashion. As you know, James Taylor had a huge hit with that, in the States anyway, and we felt that was one that really could stand a departure arrangement-wise.”
Other songs called for different approaches. On Grapevine, says Michael, “I just felt I had to let myself go there and sing the song the way I heard Marvin sing it.” On Reflections, “the original idea was to do that in a reggae groove, but it wound up more of a West African thing. That was one of the songs of the Motown era that I felt was one of the more pop things they ever did, the psychedelia of it all. That was one we felt was a real candidate for a departure.”
And so on, throughout an album that celebrates both the songs Motown shared with a world of pop radio, and on numbers heard less universally these days but no less brilliant, such as Marvin’s Distant Lover and Stevie’s All In Love Is Fair and I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).
McDonald’s lifelong relationship with these songs goes back beyond his days in California. Born in St.Louis in 1952, he was the teenage keyboard player, guitarist and singer in local combos such as Mike and the Majestics, the Del Rays and an outfit called Blue. “When I was really young and singing Motown stuff in clubs, we were also doing a lot of James Brown and Mitch Rider & Detroit Wheels, screaming our lungs out. Vocally, that would have lasted about ten years and been over.“
“Working in clubs, I had to develop a style of singing that would allow me to sing all night long without being hoarse the next day. My style came as much from that as anything. But emulating soul singers over the years, I just always enjoyed the way those artists sang, they all had their own little trademark. You wind up copping those things when you learn top 40 songs to play in clubs. But over the years, those things get a little dog-eared and they fall into something that eventually becomes your own.”
So to California, his first record deal with RCA in 1972, and then into a long arrangement with Steely Dan, adding his distinguishable timber to career songs for the band like “Peg” and “Time Out of Mind.” Then, by 1976, it was into the lion’s den of the Doobie Brothers, whose future he transformed with a series of superb compositions. But as Michael readily admits, for all their rock credentials, they were never far from a soul mood. The Doobie’s hit with Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me) just as McDonald was joining their inner circle in 1975, and again in 1977 with Little Darling (I Need You). It’s an inspiration he carried into his solo career, notably with his cover of the Freddie Scott gem Hey Girl on 1993’s Blink Of An Eye.
“In a way,” he says, “it’s always been a challenge to pick a song that was a classic record and try to bring something to it that doesn’t hurt or expose you too much, but is maybe a new and different perspective on the song.”
The mission is truly accomplished on Michael McDonald Motown, and he will be emphasising the point with his band on tour to bring these songs to live audiences in due course. “This record was a joy,” he concludes. “If all records were this much fun, I’d do one a week.”