The Meaning Behind “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers and How It Transformed Michael McDonald’s Career

“What a Fool Believes” represented a major departure from The Doobie Brothers‘ boogie-rocking style. Ironically, it became the track for which the group is most known. It even pulled off a rare double-dip by hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts and winning Grammy Song and Record of the Year honors.

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What is the song about? How did it team up two great songwriters and artists? And how did it help turn Michael McDonald from famous guest vocalist to the guy whose name was on the marquee? Let’s take a closer at the phenomenon that is “What a Fool Believes.”

Different Doobies

The Doobie Brothers managed to adjust their sound based on their personnel, and maintain their success through those changes, as well as any band of their era. Their lineup changed often, but none of those changes affected the band quite like when McDonald took over as lead vocalist. Known to that point as a session vocalist and keyboardist, he immediately delivered as a songwriter with the band on songs like “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “It Keeps You Running,” both hits from 1976.

In 1978, the band set about recording the album Minute by Minute, and McDonald had become the band’s chief artistic force, co-writing and singing lead on more than half the album’s songs. During the writing process, he had been messing around with a piano piece that he wasn’t sure had any potential. Producer Ted Templeman liked what he heard, and encouraged McDonald to work on the lyrics with a co-writer.

At that time, Kenny Loggins had already embarked on a solo career after his successful partnership with Jim Messina had dissolved. When he came together with McDonald, the two really had only just begun to get to know each other. But they were about to co-write a track that would change both their lives.

Finding the Feel for “Fool”

McDonald told The Guardian what happened next:

“Kenny Loggins and I had been chatting about getting together to write some songs. He came over to my house in LA just as I was playing what I had for ‘What a Fool Believes.’ He said: ‘You were just playing something at the piano. Is that new? That’s what I want to work on first.’ He had already come up with the song’s hook line—She had a place in his life—before he’d got through the door.”

Once the writing was finished, the recording proved to be a bear for The Doobie Brothers. Templeman helped to lock down the rhythmic feel for the song by playing a second set of drums alongside the Doobies’ Keith Knudsen. Even then, the band didn’t have a complete take they loved. Templeman made the risky decision to cut and paste from the tapes that they had of the song, which could have meant lost progress if he made a mistake. But he eventually assembled the version that would be a hit.

Incidentally, Loggins released his own version of the song on his 1978 album Nightwatch, which came out a few months before the Doobies’ version. Loggins took a jazzier, slightly more experimental approach on his take.

What is “What a Fool Believes” About?

“What a Fool Believes” delivers a profound look at the lies we sometimes tell ourselves about our former romances. The protagonist of the song runs into an old flame, and believes not only did he make a major impact on her life the first time around, but he can rekindle that spark. But he barely registers in the woman’s memory (He never made her think twice) and certainly doesn’t sway her this time either (He’s watching her go).

Along the way, the lyrics of McDonald and Loggins candidly capture the flop sweat of this meeting: She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale / Never coming near what he wanted to say. Yet even for all the evidence presented to him by her indifferent reaction, he still holds on to utterly futile hope: Someday, somewhere / She will return.

In the chorus, the lyrics deliver a clever twist on the old saying “You have to see it to believe it”: What a fool believes, he sees. This guy is likely to continue kidding himself all the way to lonely old age. In another irony surrounding “What a Fool Believes,” its success helped grease the wheels for McDonald’s departure from The Doobie Brothers; he would last just one more album before diving headlong into his solo career. But, with the help of Loggins, he left behind this unforgettably wistful gem.

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

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