Soulful singer Michael McDonald looks back in his new memoir, 'What a Fool Believes'

Something stopped Michael McDonald from telling his story publicly — him

NEW YORK (AP) — Something stopped Michael McDonald from telling his story publicly — him. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer with multiple Grammys just didn't think he had one.

McDonald, a member of both Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers who became a singular soul solo artist with such hits as "On My Own″ and "Sweet Freedom," believed he was just a small player in the history of rock.

“I was afraid that, ‘Well, how much of a story is here, really?' My experience is pretty much me living vicariously through other people’s accomplishments,” McDonald said in an interview.

Prodded by a friend — actor and comedian Paul Reiser — McDonald is finally owning his story this spring in the unvarnished and humble memoir "What a Fool Believes," out May 21.

It's the portrait of a remarkable singer-songwriter who had career highs and terrible lows, who battled alcoholism and self-doubt, endured popularity, mocking and then rejuvenation.

“I think we both discovered that this is really just a story about how random life really is — no matter how much we think we have a plan, and no matter how much we think we have a direction we want to go," he said. "What we really have to do is be ready to let life change on a dime and go with the flow.”

Reiser said in a separate interview that the book grew from conversations the two had, mainly him asking lots of questions about McDonald's life. “It’s entirely selfish. I just wanted to read it,” Reiser said.

“Everybody’s in awe of his voice. Everybody loves the music he’s done. But I don’t think anybody knows anything about him,” he added. “He just sort of floats on this frequency that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”

The book opens in 1971 with the author hungover in county jail. A 19-year-old McDonald has been arrested after falling asleep in a pancake house following a 48-hour cocaine- and Jack Daniels-binge. It is a foreshadowing.

It then goes chronologically, tracing the path McDonald took from humble roots in St. Louis, Missouri, to touring around the world with two classic rock outfits despite a “propensity for making poor choices."

McDonald went from his first band at 12 playing picnics and civic events with a homemade guitar, to the local pro band Jerry Jay and the Sheratons and then the touring The Delrays. At 18, RCA Records gave him $3,000 and flew him to Los Angeles, but his debut album was scrapped and he was dropped from the label. “My quickly rising star came crashing down to earth,” he writes.

He would return to California a few months later — by car this time — with a more secure offer of session work. “I was determined not to return to St Louis until I had something to show for my efforts,” he writes.

His career took an upswing when he was asked to sing backing vocals and play keys for Steely Dan. His distinctive, soulful voice graced memorable tracks on classic Steely Dan albums, including "Katy Lied," "The Royal Scam," "Aja" and "Gaucho." (That's him singing background on "Peg.")

When Steely Dan stopped touring, McDonald jumped to another '70s icon, The Doobie Brothers. In 1975 — on the eve of the release of their fifth album — their original lead singer, Tom Johnston, was hospitalized and unable to tour. The band drafted McDonald into the line-up to replace him, giving him 48- hours to learn their entire set.

McDonald was asked to join the Doobies permanently — $1,500 a week plus a $100 per diem — and would become somewhat divisive for changing their direction from country rock and blues boogie to a smoother, more soulful sound.

“There was an undeniable atmosphere of internal strife building within our ranks. And I will be the first to claim my share of the blame in that department,” McDonald writes.

McDonald isn't shy about showing life's ugly parts — from having crabs as a young man to acid reflux as an older one. He admits to showing up drunk to a rehab support group two days in a row and once could be found in a bathrobe, a joint in his mouth and a salad bowl full of Lucky Charms on his chest.

“If you’re going to tell a story, tell the whole story,” he says in the interview. “We all get where we’re going in spite of ourselves, you know? And I think that’s what the story is kind of about.”

Musicians who read the book will get lessons in touring etiquette and songwriting, including hyper-specific details like chromatically descending II-V passing chord progressions.

Fans will also get stories about playing basketball with James Taylor and some good advice about opening for Cher: “Generally speaking, when you see some guy all made up in a Cher wig and gown standing on a chair giving you the finger, it’s time to go.”

In addition to his solo albums, McDonald sang on songs by Elton John, Luther Vandross, Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross (That's McDonald singing "Such a long way to go" on Cross' "Ride Like the Wind.") He earned a Grammy nod for "Sweet Freedom" from the movie "Running Scared" and teamed up with James Ingram on "Yah Mo B There" and Patti LaBelle on "On My Own."

Eventually, McDonald became a butt of jokes for his propensity to show up on other artists' tracks. “No one wanted to hear another Michael McDonald background vocal — I had dipped into that well perhaps once too often, somewhere between 50 and a thousand times,” he writes.

Redemption occurred in the 2000s when McDonald began issuing well-received albums of Motown covers. He recorded with Solange Knowles and Grizzly Bear and showed up at the Coachella festival in 2017 with the jazz-funk bassist Thundercat.

McDonald, 72, says that writing the book gave him the chance to look back and let go of resentments to people he long perceived as standing in his way. “I probably owe those people more than I have a reason to hold a grudge,” he says.


Mark Kennedy is at