He's on the write track

He's on the write track

CHAMPAIGN — When Michael McDonald was taking it to the streets as a struggling musician, a lot of that time it was Green Street.

Barely out of his teens, he moved on from the Red Lion to Los Angeles, first with Steely Dan, then the Doobie Brothers, with hits "It Keeps You Runnin'," "Takin' It to the Streets" and "What a Fool Believes," among others, as well as "On My Own" (with Patti Labelle).

When McDonald plays Sunday at the Virginia Theatre, it's a homecoming of sorts.

The bands that were regulars in Champaign are a long way from what he would become.

The story of McDonald in The Blue and The Guild, bands you've probably never heard of, is also the story of his childhood friendship with a onetime REO Speedwagon member.

Steve Scorfina shared a house, also on Green Street, with another future star, Dan Fogelberg.

Scorfina played lead guitar for REO from 1969 to 1970, only to be replaced by Gary Richrath, who like Fogelberg is no longer with us.

Long before all that, Scorfina was besties with McDonald in their hometown of Ferguson, Mo. (He's not happy with the town's recent reputation).

Scorfina was 13 and McDonald 11 when they started playing together in the mid-1960s. Later it was Mike and the Majestics.

"But that first band, he didn't play keyboards. He played banjo. It was sort of a vaudeville show: old folks homes, dances. My dad sang 'Danny Boy,'" he said.

It's murky how McDonald made the transition from childhood bands to arena rock.

In the meantime, he was honing his skills, even backing Chuck Berry. As a teen, he played in one of the pick-up bands that backed Berry on the road, in this case, Ferguson, Mo.

In a News-Gazette article on a Red Lion reunion, REO's Bruce Hall recalled McDonald as getting to Los Angeles based on his work in the The Blue.

But The Guild also had a recording contract.

Even Scorfina isn't entirely sure which band, represented by Irv Azoff and Bob Nutt's Blytham Limited, got McDonald his shot. (It was Pavlov's Dog for Scorfina).

Scorfina remembers McDonald playing a lot in Champaign, but the names of the bands could change, and his younger friend really should have been in his high school classroom instead of locales where he was not of legal age.

Even the bands' musical style could change.

"When we were all at the Red Lion, REO was a covers band, and he was into blues," Scorfina said.

Scorfina's REO number was "Sympathy for the Devil."

McDonald, meanwhile, had not yet been recognized for his vocal abilities. His fellow Guild members thought his voice was "too high," an Internet history said.

The Guild at the time was McDonald, Rich Lang and brother Jim Lang, Denny Henson, Tom Kelly, Fred Shaugnessey and Terry Dugger.

Kelly had quite a career of his own. He joined Fogelberg's band for a while. Then came the tunes, for which he was inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011.

Along with writing partner Billy Steinberg, he wrote five No. 1 hit singles: "Like A Virgin," "True Colors," "Eternal Flame," "So Emotional" and "Alone."

Scorfina won't be at the Sunday show, though he played at a fundraiser recently with his bud.

"Mike and I usually play with him when he comes back to St. Louis," he said.

If you go

What: Michael McDonald.

Where: Virginia Theatre.

When: 7 p.m Sunday.

Tickets: $49.95 to $79.95.

Box office: 217-356-9063.

Topics (1):Music