The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald on Co-Writing Van Halen’s “I’ll Wait”: I probably made more money from that song than I made from all the Doobie songs – 2022 – INTERVIEW – Steely Dan

Dean Delray: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Michael McDonald stops by Let There Be Talk for a great conversation on his amazing career with The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and his solo career.

You can listen to the entire interview via the embedded iTunes widget below. An excerpt from the conversation has been transcribed.

INTERVIEW EXCERPT (transcribed by full in bloom):

On Recording Keyboards w/ Engineer Donn Landee:

Michael McDonald:

I think some of the synth sounds that became popular later on in early rap music, which were really kind of squirrelly sounds, I think they actually sampled them off of early Doobie Brothers records. And at the time, they were considered some of the worst sounds ever developed for any record.

I remember our engineer, Donn Landee, whenever I would do keyboard overdubs – especially with synths – Ted (Templeman) would make up some excuse for why he had to leave, and poor Donn would be left alone with me. Donn, without reservation, would make it apparent to me that this was the last place on Earth that he felt like being right now. He would sit at the console and go, “Oh, jeez.” Ted would be out the door. So, I would be sitting there for hours, and we’d finally get an okay strings or brass sound, and I would go, “Ok, it just needs a little,” and Donn would go, “Don’t touch it.” I’d say, “Well, no, just a…” All of a sudden, this sound would go from lush to “Weeeeeee.” (laughs) It would be another two hours to get the sound back.

Actually, I knew one day he had it. I was working on some sound for way too long, and he was over working on a reverb unit. At one point, the frustration of listening to me and not being able to fix this unit, he just took it and hurled it across the room into the wall. (laughs) I realized it was probably time to call the session for the day.

On Producer Ted Templeman & Donn Landee:

Ted was kind of Renaissance producer to me, as were a lot of those guys in that era, Russ Titelman, Lenny Waronker. They had an amazing scope of what an artist had to offer. Ted always brought out the best in us. Whatever it is we thought we had going on with originals, we would rehearse for weeks maybe a month up at our house in San Francisco and come up with these, what we thought were great arrangements of the songs. Typically, we would go into the studio, and Ted would rip them apart and start from scratch, many times. The work we did was worth something, but Ted could really deconstruct things and put it back together to where the focus would be more on what the song really had to offer. I always marveled at that; we all did. We all felt very fortunate to have his input, and we all looked forward to it.

He did everything from play drums on some of the tracks to helping come up with some of the background parts, guitar parts. He was a real jack-of-all-trades. Even though he didn’t really play any of those instruments, he knew what worked musically.

Donn was an artistic and talented engineer. His ear went so far beyond just the technical part of it. We’d get a track to a certain point, and we’d leave it with him to mix. He would do a rough mix, and he would decide what went on certain versions of the mix. In a way, he would kind of arrange the song himself, omit certain parts that he thought were getting in the way of the record having something to offer sonically for radio. We were always amazed when we heard the mixes. We’d be like, “Wow, that’s something else.”

Then when they’d master, the mastering always made a big difference. Everything they did really brought the music to the next level in very noticeable ways for us.

On Co-Writing Van Halen’s “I’ll Wait”:

The track was done, and Eddie Van Halen did all the synths on that. The band had actually cut the track, but they didn’t have a melody or lyric. It was just kind of a track. Ted gave me a copy of it and said, “Don’t play this for anybody, but see if you can write a lyric.” Apparently, that became, “Well, you and David (Lee Roth) get together and come up with a lyric, so that he feels good with it.”

I got together with David in Ted’s office. My experience was, he seemed okay with it. We didn’t really make any real changes, just kind of ran it by him, and they went in and recorded it. And I put it down on cassette with their track, and I sang over it for him. So, he went away with that.

They cut the song, and the record came out. Low and behold, I wasn’t on the writing credits. (laughs) You would’ve never known (that I was a co-writer) had I not bitched and moaned about it. Eventually, we worked that out. Those guys sold so many records, for my 1/5 of the share of the record, I probably made more money from that song than I made from all the Doobie songs up to that point. They were selling crazy amounts of records. That was that new generation where, you know, “We just sold 100 million records on the last record, and we only sold 90 million units on this record, so they’re going to drop us.” Before that, if you sold platinum (1 million units), you were like the shit.

Anyway, it was great experience. I always loved Van Halen. I remember the first time we heard Van Halen; Pat (Simmons) and I were in the studio talking with Ted, and Ted came in and said, “You’ve got to listen to these kids.” He had their demo. It was “Pretty Woman,” which came out much later for them, but one of the first demos they turned in to Warner Brothers was “Pretty Woman.” Here’s Eddie playing a version of “Pretty Woman” that Roy Orbison never dreamed of…it was crazy. We were just like, “Oh, my God.” And I think it was “You Really Got Me” was the other song they did by The Kinks. We were blown away by Eddie’s playing. We had never heard anything like it. Of course, the rest is history.