By Gary Demuth

The Salina Journal

Michael McDonald learned to love music on the streets of Ferguson, Mo.

That's why the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter was devastated to see the anger and pain of the residents of his hometown as they protested the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, unarmed, black teenager shot to death Aug. 9 by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

McDonald said Ferguson was where he learned to appreciate R&B, the blues, the music of Motown and songs of the British invasion of the 1960s.

"To see my town in such shambles is heartbreaking," he said. "We all suffer from this, and unless we work together and look out for each other and not fear each other, we aren't going to come out of the other side of this."

Through the influence of the classic R&B songs that he grew up loving, McDonald developed a soulful singing voice that has made him one of the most distinctive and recognizable singers of the rock era.

In his four-decade career, McDonald sang and played keyboards for the groundbreaking jazz/rock group Steely Dan. Also, as a member of the legendary Doobie Brothers, he sang such classic songs as "What a Fool Believes," "Minute by Minute" and "Takin' It to the Streets."

McDonald will be in Salina to perform "Holiday Songs and Hits" with his band Tuesday at the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts, 151 S. Santa Fe.

About half of the concert will consist of classic Christmas music and original holiday-themed songs written by McDonald and his band members, while the second half will feature some of McDonald's greatest hits, including his work with the Doobie Brothers and solo material such as "I Keep Forgettin' " and "Sweet Freedom."

McDonald's six-piece band also will include a female backup singer and a 10-voice choir "for our gospel numbers," he said.

"It's tough to be away from home this time of year, but we enjoy playing Christmas material as a band," he said.

Hittin' the big time

McDonald hit the big time after moving from Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. There, he honed his talent as a session musician and singer before being invited to join Steely Dan as a keyboardist and backup singer.

During the course of four classic Steely Dan albums -- "Katy Lied," "The Royal Scam," "Aja" and "Gaucho" -- McDonald became an intregal part of the group's jazz-rock sound. He said he learned how to be a better musician from Steely Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

"It was the gig of a lifetime to me," McDonald said. "It was my favorite band in the world before I joined them. I learned so much about timing and composition from Donald and Walter, as well as song structure from different perspectives."

Redefining a band

In the mid-1970s, McDonald was invited to join the Doobie Brothers when lead singer Tom Johnston became ill during a national tour. McDonald helped the band redefine itself by using his experience with Steely Dan (along with former Steely Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who also had joined the Doobies) to give it a more funky, jazzy, R&B sound through songs like the Grammy-winning single "What a Fool Believes," and classics such as "Takin' It to the Streets" and "Real Love."

"Steely Dan influenced us, but it was a collective decision we made as a band to move in this direction," he said.

McDonald left the the Doobie Brothers in 1982 when the band decided to call it quits (they would reunite in the late 1980s). Although he would embark on a highly successful solo career, McDonald said he missed being a Doobie.

"I shared being the front man (with Patrick Simmons)," McDonald said. "I miss doing a two-hour show and only having to sing about half the songs. Now I have to sing everything, and it's a lot harder."

Going solo

McDonald has remained friendly with his Doobie bandmates through the years, appearing with them live onstage on occasion and recording tracks for their newest album, "Southbound," released in November.

During the next 30 years, McDonald recorded several solo albums that produced a number of hit songs; worked as a session singer and keyboardist for Kenny Loggins, Toto, Bonnie Raitt and Christopher Cross; recorded duets with Ray Charles, Patti LaBelle and James Ingram; sang the satirical song "Eyes of a Child" for the "South Park" movie; and toured with Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs as part of the soul supergroup, The Dukes of September.

He's also been an active humanitarian for many causes and benefits, including MusiCares, the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and the 7UP Grammy Signature Schools Program.

Message of hope, faith

McDonald said he tours with his Christmas show infrequently but enjoys it because of the message it sends of hope and faith, especially in these troubled times.

"The holiday season should teach us that peace is not an option, it should be a goal," he said. "People should go away from this concert with the sense that humanity is unique, with the innate ability to take tragic and heartbreaking situations and turn them into something good."

(c)2014 The Salina Journal