How Faith Helped Michael McDonald Let Go of the Past

Singer Michael McDonald had made it big. But why wasn't he happy? Having hope and faith helped him see what was missing.

By Michael McDonald, Nashville, Tennessee

As appeared in

I have this recurring dream. I’m driving a car on a racecourse with no one else around. There’s a turn up ahead. I try to steer, but I bang into a wall. Then another. Desperately, I try to get control. But it’s no use. No matter how hard I try, I keep careening off the walls, losing control.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that dream. But a young boy I met 25 years ago started me on the right track.

In 1980 things couldn’t have been better for my band, the Doobie Brothers. Our album Minute by Minute had sold three million copies and we’d won four Grammys for the song “What a Fool Believes.” I should have been on top of the world. Truth was, I’d never been so unhappy.

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We’d just finished our annual benefit concert at the children’s hospital in Palo Alto, California, and had gone upstairs to visit a 14-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis who wasn’t expected to live much longer.

The moment we walked into the boy’s room, his face lit up. His parents stood near the window. The boy had to lie face down because that was the only position in which he could still breathe, but he never stopped smiling and joking as we signed autographs and played a couple of numbers.

How can he look so happy when he’s so sick? I thought. He’s so young. 

Fourteen. That’s how old I was when I wrote my first song with my dad, called “My Heart Just Won’t Let You Go.” Dad drove streetcars and buses in St. Louis for a living, but his true love was singing.

Sometimes I’d ride with him on the morning local and listen to his Irish tenor soar above the sounds of the street. He and Mom were divorced. Mom worked long hours managing the local S&H Green Stamp store. So it was my grandmother who mainly raised me and my two sisters.

All of us sang. I played banjo and fiddled around on the piano some too. Grandma bought me my first guitar from Sears, Roebuck, and Co.—a Silvertone classic with an amp in the case.

Pretty soon I was in a band with some guys I knew. They were a little older than I was and had grown up singing gospel in church. I loved the passion in gospel songs. The music came from a place deep down.

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I didn’t study music formally, but I still had my teachers: Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. I played their records over and over, learning every note, every inflection, every feeling by heart. 

After that first song with my dad, I wrote more on my own, mostly ballads. Love songs came naturally to me—maybe because I was born just two days before Valentine’s Day. Who knows? Our band would land some little gig—a church dance maybe or a community center—and I’d be thrilled.

My voice was lower than Dad’s, a husky baritone instead of his lilting tenor. I learned pretty fast that trying to direct it got me nowhere. Every show I struggled to surrender to it and let it carry me. 

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18. I got a lot of backup work, but for years I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then I got a break to play with Steely Dan. That led to joining the Doobies in 1975. The lead singer got sick and I stepped in.

I took Dad to my first concert. We pulled up to a stadium and walked in to see thousands of fans. Dad grinned. “This is all right, Son. I think you’re doing all right.” 

It didn’t really hit me until the night we won all those Grammys. A driver had been sent for me. “Could you drive up Highway 1 for a while?” I asked him. I was too wired to go home. So much had happened so fast. I’d made it. A poor kid from St. Louis with a big voice and a lot of luck.

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I knew my family was proud of me. But skimming through the darkness that night, the white crests of the waves in the distance, the crisp salty air blowing back my hair, I felt lost. Do I really deserve all this? I thought. I should be enjoying this. But why does it all feel so empty? 

These thoughts still haunted me months later as I stood at the bedside of a boy who would never get the chance to go on a roadtrip with his pals, take his girlfriend to prom, start his own life. Yet he was making the most of this moment, taking life on life’s terms. He filled the room with love.

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Your Comments (9)

Great Testimony Michael! May God continue to bless you and Amy along with your children. The Power of Jesus Christ is unbelievable and thanks for sharing. My Wife and I cannot wait to see you in person in Windsor, Ontario (Canada) in August (2014).

Thank you Mr. Mcdonald. You and Amy's article was so encouraging to me. God speaks to us through his Earth Angels and you and Amy are both that. Thank you for speaking to us through both this article and so so many songs of love for ourselves and others. Thank you Mr. Michael "Earth Angel" McDonald. many blessings to you and your wife...almost 10 years later...blessings.

I just read the articles written by you Michael and your beautiful wife Amy. I was diagnosed with my cancer this past fall but have been assured of living many more years with my chronic disease. I am so much in awe that you have been such a successful musician and still are married to your wife,love your children ,and love your Lord. You and Amy are both heroes. God bless you both and your family:)
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With tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat I thank God for this story.

Michael thank you for your honesty and your story of your life ! It makes me know that famous people struggle with the same things that we all do ! Addiction , breast cancer etc! Your voice and music have been a blessing in my life ! When I went through a pane full divorce where my wife was unfaithful and learning that my child was not mine after she was 4 years old! The loss of my best friend , my daddy who I miss everyday of my life ! The loss of my brother who decided to take his own life at 24! All the stress from being responsible for the decisions after they leave us! One day I would actually like to see you sing live ! Life's struggles of child support , house and car payments , gas prices and everything there is ! God always finds ways to bless us and I am so thankful that you have had Amy by your side to have and hold and guide you through the most troublesome times ! Thank you for being an inspiration in my life!

God bless you and your family i too was diagnoned with bladder cncer thank God i am cnceDEr free. love you and your family

Michael,

I've loved your music and been quietly in awe of your soaring chords from the first moment I heard your voice, and nothing so beautiful can be anything other than a blessed gift.

I'm so very relieved for you that your wife has recovered, and that your lives together will be long and happy ones.

You've shared your music and that tuly glorious voice with us for decades now. Thank you so much for sharing this part of your life with us, as well.

All the very best to you and your family.

The Lord blessed me with this article and I love him and the entire mcdonald family. may God continue to bless them with all spititual blessings in Christ Jesus.

Michael,

I want to thank you for sharing yourself in this article. As a near-fanatic admirer of your talent and work for more than 30 years now, this article answered a question I've had about you for nearly just as long, which was "are you a man of God?" I was blessed to learn that you do turn to Him in your times of distress and that you recognize that you can't steer your own life. Something that the lure and success of the music industry manages to deceive many gifted people into believing is that they created themselves as a phenomenon and can therefore direct their own life path. The evil puppeteer behind that same deception also makes them think they are super-human and can't lose their status or die behind their "bad habits".
I must confess that at the age of fifty-two, I've never understood the strong lure that substance abuse seems to consistently have on artistically talented people, especially on many exceptionally gifted persons. It's as though the evil one makes them a top priority to be sought out for destruction before they can make the choice to glorify God through their gifts.
Michael, I want to encourage you to get and stay as close to God as you possibly can. I see that you will turn 60 this February. If you haven't done so already, please begin to acknowledge God everyday and in every way possible through everything that you say and do. Be avid reader of His Word. Not that you already have, but don't ever allow an impotent quest for political correctness to steer you away from referring to that "higher power" as God in your interviews, articles and concerts. You exude too much soul in your art and you and your loving wife have been brought through too much for you to not know God extremely well.

Stay Blessed
James H. Kings