It’s only mildly annoying, Michael McDonald jokes, when strangers confront him with their Michael McDonald impressions, singing the famous “You don’t know me but I’m your brother” line from the Doobie Brothers song “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
“Part of me is just grateful that they even know who I am,” he said. “I get that much less than I get people coming up to me and mistaking me for someone else. We’d be in airports, and people would walk up to me and go, ‘Kenny Rogers!’ or “Bob Seger!’ One person actually asked if I was Captain Kangaroo.”
While his trademark beard might have prompted some misidentifications — Captain Kangaroo? — there’s no mistaking his husky vocals. It was that voice, paired with McDonald’s keyboard-based writing, that introduced sophisticated soul to a rock band with a biker following.
“The band deserves so much of the credit on those records,” said a modest McDonald, who will perform at Cal Poly on Tuesday. “It was really a collective approach that we had.”
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A native of St. Louis, McDonald got his first break in the early 1970s, when he joined the stable of side musicians in Steely Dan. In 1975, Tom Johnston — the Doobies’ guiding force — had come down with a bleeding ulcer that was so bad his heart once stopped in the surgery room. So as he took a break to recover, the band offered McDonald a spot.
“I didn’t even see this job lasting beyond the tour,” he said.
Despite Johnston’s illness, the Doobies were contractually due for another album. So the Doobs solicited songs within the band. McDonald had recorded a demo with bass player Tiran Porter, but he didn’t think anything of it.
“It was purely a fun project,” McDonald said. “We were having dinner at his house, and he said, ‘Come and see my new studio,’ and I said sure. And he said, ‘Let’s put something down,’ so I showed him this song I’d been writing, and it was nothing like the Doobie Brothers would ever do.”
After producer Ted Templeman heard “Losin’ End,” he had the band record it.
“And I had a song called ‘It Keeps You Runnin’ ” and I had a song called ‘Takin’ It To the Streets,” said McDonald, who hadn’t realized their potential. “Mostly, I’d been so busy working with bands, I didn’t really take my writing that seriously.”
The Doobies were excited about the new songs but also a little nervous about what would represent a shift in sound. Before the songs were released, Pat Simmons nervously played them on a cassette recorder for a Rolling Stone writer, asking, “What do you think?”
“It’s a new direction, I know,” Simmons told the writer, Timothy White. “People won’t expect it from us.”
The album, “Takin’ It to the Streets,” was a hit.
“I was kind of happy for them,” Johnston told the Tribune in 2012. “I thought it was pretty cool.”
It wasn’t the musical direction Johnston was into, though, so after a brief return to the band, he bowed out, officially making 1976 the beginning of the Michael McDonald Era of the band. The Doobies continued to record and tour, and in 1978 the band famously appeared in a two-part episode of the sitcom “What’s Happening.”
“We were terrible actors,” McDonald joked. “People at the time were going, ‘That’s the worst thing a rock band could do.’ ”
In the episode — “Doobie or Not Doobie” — the rotund character Rerun gets busted for secretly recording a Doobs concert.
“It’s amazing how fortuitous that episode was,” McDonald said. “Back then they were talking about bootlegging and things that have all come to fruition in terms of music being passed along for free, undermining the industry. So, looking back, I have to laugh.”
McDonald went on to have success as a solo act, scoring big hits with “Sweet Freedom” from the movie “Running Scared,” and “On My Own” with Patti LaBelle. Along the way, he garnered a reputation for being a “yacht rocker,” famous for singing soft rock music that would appeal to wine sippers. But he does have hard rock cred few know about: He co-wrote “I’ll Wait,” a drum-heavy song on Van Halen’s blockbuster “1984” album.
“They had this track that they had no melody or words for,” McDonald said. “Ted (Templeman) suggested I write it with them, and they were open to the idea, so I met with David Lee Roth at Ted’s office at Warner Brothers, and we came up with the melody and lyrics for the song.”
McDonald said he’d long been a fan of the band.
“I think the first time I heard those guys was a demo that Ted played for us,” he said. “I’m not sure there were any original songs on the demo, but they were just so blazingly fantastic. It was like nothing you’d heard before.”
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Tuesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$40 to $90
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org