8 Songs You Didn’t Know The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald Wrote for Other Artists (1977-2017)

After a brief stint in Steely Dan from 1973 through ’74, as a singer, songwriter, and keyboardist of The Doobie Brothers from 1975 and on and off through the present, Michael McDonald wrote and performed many of the band’s biggest hits, including “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “Minute by Minute.” 

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In between his time with The Doobie Brothers and building his solo career, beginning with his 1982 debut If That’s What It Takes, McDonald was everywhere throughout the late 1970s and 1980s—and has continued writing and performing through the present.

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with The Doobie Brothers in 2020, McDonald has won five Grammy Awards and has built his own catalog of songs spanning 10 solo albums with hits “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),” “Sweet Freedom,” the Grammy-winning James Ingram duet “Yah Mo B There” in 1983 and his 1985 duet with Patti LaBelle “On My Own.”

As a songwriter, McDonald’s credits have also crossed everyone from Wynonna Judd, Alison Krauss, longtime collaborator Kenny Loggins, Paul Anka, and Van Halen among others. McDonald’s recent collaborations include co-writing Thundercat’s “Show You The Way” with Kenny Loggins, along with performances with Willie Nelson, Allen Stone, Solange Knowles, Snarky Puppy, and more. 

Celebrating McDonald’s still-growing catalog of songs, here are eight tracks the Doobie Brother wrote for other artists in the 50-year span from 1977 through 2017.

1. “Empty Hearts,” O.C. Smith (1977)
Written by Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson

R&B and soul singer Ocie Lee Smith, known as O.C. Smith, started out as a singer for jazz musicians Sy Oliver and later for Count Basie, while recording for a number of labels before releasing his 1968 hit “Little Green Apples,” which sold a million records. Nearly a decade later, Michael McDonald co-wrote the track “Empty Hearts” with folk singer Michael Johnson for Smith’s seventh album, Together. The song was never released as a single but was covered by Jack Jones in 1977 and co-writer Michael Johnson in 1980. Alison Krauss even took on “Empty Hearts” nearly 20 years later with her own rendition, released on her 1999 album, Forget About It.

Did you think you could lose that feeling without me knowing
All the losing and the knowing that you love her still
Could be nothing to what empty hearts must feel
Tell me what an empty heart must feel

2. “What a Fool Believes,” Kenny Loggins (1978)
Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins

Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins had wanted to write together for a long time and first came up with “What a Fool Believes.” Loggins first released his version on his second album, Nightwatch, in 1978, but it was the Doobie Brothers’ version released several months after that would become a hit. The Doobie Brothers (with McDonald on vocals) released it and featured it on their album Minute by Minute, and the single went to No. 1 and received two Grammys for Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1980.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see
Tryin’ hard to recreate
What had yet to be created once in her life
She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say
Only to realize it never really was

The duo then co-wrote “This is It,” off Loggins’ third album, Keep the Fire. The song also featured backing vocals by McDonald and won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1981. Loggins and McDonald continued to collaborate on numerous songs over the years with Loggins co-writing “I Gotta Try” for McDonald’s 1982 solo debut, If That’s What it Takes (which Loggins would also cover on his fourth album, High Adventure).

Both also co-wrote two more tracks on High Adventure, including “Heart to Heart,” along with David Foster and “Only a Miracle.” McDonald also contributed the song “No Lookin’ Back” on Loggins’ fifth album, Vox Humana. McDonald would also release his own version of the song in 1985, and use it as the title track of his second solo album.

3. “I Hang On Your Every Word,” Amy Holland (1983)
Written by Michael McDonald and Amy Holland

Married to Michael McDonald since 1983, Amy Holland worked with her husband on her 1980 debut self-titled album, which he produced and co-wrote the tracks “Show Me the Way Home” and “Here in the Light.” For Holland’s second release, On Your Every Word, which McDonald co-produced, the couple co-wrote the song “I Hang On Your Every Word.” McDonald also co-wrote three additional tracks for Holland’s album and covered “I Hang On Your Every Word” on his 1985 album, No Lookin’ Back.

McDonald has continued to collaborate with his wife, including writing on her 2008 album, The Journey to Miracle River, and providing vocals on her 2016 release, Light on My Path.

So easily said in passing
Always followed by some way out
You got me so dizzy
I’m wondering what it’s all about

All this talk about us and the future
How real is this future you see?
Maybe love’s just a word thrown around
But it’s important to me

4. “Walk a Fine Line,” Paul Anka (1983)
Written by Michael McDonald and Paul Anka

In 1973, The Doobie Brothers were guests on Paul Anka‘s musical variety show, Midnight Special, along with Tammy Wynette, Bobby Darin, George Jones, and The Coasters. A decade later, Michael McDonald co-wrote the title track for Anka’s 1983 album, “Walk a Fine Line.” A few years earlier, Anka also co-wrote “Dedicate This Heart” for The Doobie Brothers’ 1980 album, One Step Closer, a song covered by Dionne Warwick for her Hot! Live and Otherwise album in 1981.

Here, where black turns to white
It’s good or it’s bad, wrong turns to right
But when it’s worth it, babe
You gotta hang on
Learn to hang on
You’ll learn what it means
To walk a fine line

5. “I’ll Wait,” Van Halen (1984)
Written by Michael McDonald, David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony

When Van Halen was working on their sixth album, 1984, the band got stuck on one track: “I’ll Wait.” Producer Ted Templeman, who worked with Michael McDonald when he was in the Doobie Brothers, asked if he would help work through the song with Van Halen. “Ted Templeman called me up and said, ‘Hey, these guys have a track and they need some lyrics, so I mentioned you could do it and they said fine, so why don’t you come down?'” remembered McDonald of being asked to work with Van Halen. “He sent me the track, and I got some ideas going so I’d have something when I got to the studio.”

He added, “I met David Lee Roth at Ted’s office. That was … an interesting experience. He kinda liked what I had going, so we sat there in the office with the demo playing on a cassette recorder, singing lines and melodies.”

McDonald worked his magic, and the song went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

You’ve got me captured I’m under your spell
I guess I’ll never learn
I have your picture yes I know it well
Another page is turned
Are you for real, it’s so hard to tell
From just a magazine
Yeah, you just smile and the picture sells
Look what that does to me

6. “Happiness,” Alison Krauss & Union Station (1997)
Written by Michael McDonald and Viktor Krauss

For Alison Krauss’ third album with her bluegrass group Union Station, So Long So Wrong, Michael McDonald wrote two tracks for the singer, “Happiness” with her brother Viktor Krauss and the song “I Can Let Go Now.”

If a single star I see
Ever made a wish come true
It would bring you back to me
But the best my heart can do
Is to love again, I don’t know when
Still it’s worth all I fear, the heartaches and the tears

So Long So Wrong reached No. 4 on the country chart and picked up three Grammy Awards: Best Bluegrass Album; Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Looking in the Eyes of Love”; and Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Little Liza Jane.”

7. “The Kind of Fool Love Makes,” Wynonna Judd (1997)
Written by Michael McDonald, Brenda Lee, and Dave Powelson

Michael McDonald teamed up with legendary singer and songwriter Brenda Lee—made famous by the very first recording of the holiday classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958 and her 1960 hit “I’m Sorry”—to contribute one song to Wynonna Judd‘s fourth album, The Other Side. The result was “The King of Fool Love Makes,” a tender ballad on taking a chance on love.

Anyone can read the sign
Or the writing on the wall
It’s all right there to see
Except someone like me
Who can’t see the truth at all

It takes a special kind of fool
To stand out in the rain
Somewhere in between
Nothing left to lose
Nothing to be gained

Kenny Rogers later covered “The Kind of Fool Love Makes” in 1999, and released it on his 23rd album, She Rides Wild Horses.

8. “Show You The Way,” Thundercat (2017)
Written by Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Stephen Bruner (Thundercat)

Thundercat’s third album, Drunk, features guest appearances from Pharrell, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, and late rapper Mac Miller. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald also appear on the album on a track they co-wrote with Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), “Show You The Way.”

Let me show you, show you the way
On the edge of dark there’s a brightest light
A burning one, on the edge of dark
Where no one can tell their worlds apart
We’ll live with dark, just take the ride

Heavy-hearted, a lover ends life
I just wanna live, learn how to fight
When it’s all over, breathe into the light
Sink or swim, I’m not scared to die

Photo: Sacks & Co.

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