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It Keeps You Running 

Icon or joke, Michael McDonald adjusts as he goes.

click to enlarge art34_music_michael_mcdonald_300_0.jpg

When Michael McDonald's phone rings, he knows it's likely someone wanting to make fun of him. It's OK, he's used to it. 

The distinctive singer was sent up along with other singers of his era in an online series called “Yacht Rock.” The animated sitcom “Family Guy” and the film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” also have made a punch line of the St. Louis native's music and image. McDonald even spoofed himself with a song on the soundtrack for “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”

“People don't hire me for my music as much as they do for my pathetic comic value,” McDonald says, reflecting on his altered status in popular culture. “If you stick around long enough … you have to be kind of malleable and adjust as you go.”

McDonald was first noticed as a supplemental member of rock band Steely Dan. He joined the Doobie Brothers in 1975 and wrote a string of hits for the group, including “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin' It to the Streets” and “Minute by Minute.” Later he embarked on a solo career and earned a Grammy for “Yah Mo B There,” a duet with James Ingram. But it was with the Doobies that he might have reached the apex of his career, or at least the acting part of it, with an appearance on a very special episode of the 1970s situation comedy, “What's Happening!!”

“I remember it was a week of rehearsal,” he says. “We had a great time. They put up with some pretty bad acting on my part.”

In this episode, three high school students (Dwayne, Raj and Rerun) are coerced into recording the Doobie Brothers concert at their high school by a bootlegger. Their plan is exposed when a large tape recorder falls from Rerun's overcoat onto the floor. By the end of the two-parter, the band members forgive the fellas and set a trap for the criminals. McDonald says the abundance of pirated music on the Internet has given that show more meaning. “Looking back now, it's kind of prophetic and profound,” he says.

These days McDonald treads familiar waters. In 2008 he released “Soul Speak,” his third album, which is heavy on R&B covers. His prior two albums were both tributes to the music of Motown. It's a predictable move for an aging singer, but McDonald offers no apologies.

“I grew up in that era. I remember all that stuff being so fresh and so new,” he says. “I wanted to make records like that.”

McDonald shares some simple advice for young artists trying to make their mark in today's ailing music industry. “If this [singing] makes you happy, just do it,” he says. “Don't take it too seriously.” S

The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue, featuring Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, will perform at Innsbrook After Hours on Aug. 29 at 6 p.m. Tickets $26.50. Information at innsbrookafterhours.com.

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