The soulful songs, the floppy mop of premature gray, the bluesy baritone: "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks can hardly avoid comparisons to former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald.
Not that he's tried. Hicks sang the Doobie's "Takin' It To the Streets" on the show and recorded it for the B-side of his first single, "Do I Make You Proud."
McDonald, who once epitomized the blue-eyed soul that Hicks has introduced to a new generation, is flattered by the comparisons.
"I think he's fantastic, I really do," McDonald said in a recent phone call from South Carolina. "He seems to have that basic, well-developed talent that comes from playing a lot of nightclubs and paying your dues."
The 54-year-old singer should know; The veteran, currently on the comeback trail, has been performing on stages for decades. This summer he's reunited with Steely Dan, the jazz-inflected rock group he worked with as a sideman in the early 1970s.
"I'm not sure I can reach some of those pitches anymore, but I'll give it my best shot," he said.
It's a shot of nostalgia for baby boomers who saw McDonald rise to fame 30 years ago as a singer-songwriter and keyboardist with the Doobies, transforming them from a guitar-driven rock band to a smooth R&B-tinged outfit just as disco was taking hold. With his husky voice, the group reached their commercial peak with hits like "What A Fool Believes" and "Minute by Minute."
He launched a solo career in 1982 that spawned the adult contemporary radio staples "I Keep Forgettin,'" "Sweet Freedom" and "On My Own." This year, he even added a little twang to his resume, performing for the first time on the Grand Ole Opry in a tribute to Ray Charles and recording with country stars Alan Jackson and Vince Gill for their upcoming albums.
Dipping his toe into various musical genres makes perfect sense to McDonald.
"I came up in a time when most artists tried to touch a lot of different bases," he said. "In the 1960s and '70s, it was kind of like the doors flung open for artist to make very eclectic records. The Mike Bloomfield Band was a blues band but also had steel guitar. And then James Taylor would go from having a calypso track to a country track to 'Steamroller Blues.' So back then it was something we all kind of sought to do."
And they did it well. The glossy West Coast pop of the Doobies, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Toto and Kenny Loggins was all over the radio by 1980.
McDonald, in particular, became ubiquitous. Besides his own music, he sang on records by Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Christopher Cross, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Ricki Lee Jones and many others.
But McDonald's career cooled in the 1990s. His wife, singer-songwriter Amy Holland, was diagnosed with breast cancer (she's now cancer free), and the couple were raising two young children. He kept working, but the hits quit coming.
He relocated to Nashville from Los Angeles to be near family and found a creative energy that had faded for him in Southern California.
"It was at such a ground level," he recalled. "Everyone played in clubs, everyone was looking for a record deal."
His comeback began in 2003 with a collection of Motown classics that seemed tailor-made for him. The album, simply titled "Motown," took off when his interpretations of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing Baby" were used in TV commercials for MCI.
"We went from selling maybe 3,000 units a week to 30,000 units in a week — in about a week," he said "It was crazy. All of a sudden we're on our way to platinum with a record that was probably destined to sell 100,000 units."
"Motown," which is approaching double platinum sales (2 million), revived his career. His last three records, including the follow up "Motown II," have all gone gold.
Ironically, while classic soul seems so obvious now, it wasn't always to McDonald.
"Previous managers had tried to talk me into doing a classic R&B record, but at the time I still fancied myself a songwriter-artist, and I saw it as possibly being dissed as a songwriter or something," he said. "But in hindsight it was probably my own problem, not anybody else's.
"All things happen at the right time, I think."