Motown With A Twist
Like all of us,
Michael McDonald grew up with the songs of Motown. Stevie Wonder, the Temptations,
the Supremes, and many others influenced McDonald's singing and songwriting
with the Doobie Brothers and in his solo career. Now McDonald is paying tribute
to the music that inspired him with a new album of covers called Motown,
released, appropriately, by Motown Records.
"The idea was brought to me by Ian Snodgrass and Tony Swain of Universal Music Group," says McDonald. "They came backstage after a show we did at Royal Albert Hall a couple of years back and they mentioned that they were thinking of doing such an album. They wondered if I would be interested in being the artist to do this project and, I of course, jumped at the chance."
McDonald enlisted Simon Climie, who had produced Eric Clapton's The Pilgrim, to helm the project. "I just liked his work and I felt that this was something he might be interested in."
The biggest challenge, however, involved the choice of songs. McDonald realized that the label would want a tribute to the big hits. "On the other hand, as an artist, I would have probably done nothing but obscure B-sides." Their compromise was a combination of well-known songs made fresh by new arrangements, and less-heard songs that McDonald feels are "really classic Motown."
Among the tracks are the Supremes' "Reflections" with a reggae flavor, a "more exotic" arrangement of "How Sweet it Is," and a stripped-down rendition of the Temptations' "Since I Lost My Baby." "[It's] a classic record and one of David Ruffin's greatest vocals," says McDonald. "But I just felt the song had such a sweet sentiment - such an innocence, that I said to the guys: 'I would like to try a version of this with just piano and voice.' " The album's book-ends are a faithful performance of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," and a jazzy reading of Stevie Wonder's cautionary "Too High."
One plan that didn't click was obtaining a female vocalist for the Marvin Gaye - Tammi Terrell duet "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." "To do a duet is such a tricky thing nowadays. It turns into such elongated discussions between attorneys and you spend so much time figuring it out legally - in the end we just chickened out." It was far easier getting ace musicians to play on the album. "You can just call them up the same day if they're in town and say 'What are you doing?'" Motown's players include guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Bob James with his band Fourplay.
McDonald's set list for shows on his current North American tour includes several songs from Motown. He hopes to do a longer show spotlighting the album at a later date. What songs get the best response in concert? "All of them!" he says. "You can tell how much these songs have endeared themselves to generations of people - they're remembering where they were when they first heard those songs."