Hugh McDonald reflects on his musical career
September 13, 2013
Hugh McDonald fully supported his stepson Jake Johnson’s desire to sell some CDs to raise money for the Rockport fire victims last month.
McDonald hosted a party at his home in Hoytsville where Johnson’s band played and sold some CDs, raising more than $1,000. (See story entitled "Hoytsville resident Jake Johnson’s world is music").
McDonald understands the need to do good things with music because he is a professional bassist player who has appeared on records by Willie Nelson, Cher, Gladys Knight & the Pips, John Prine and Steve Goodman.
The bassist, whose ongoing gig is with multi-platinum-selling rock band Bon Jovi, said he was inspired to play music because of the Beatles.
"I saw them on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ because I’m that old," McDonald said with a grin during an interview in his home office in Hoytsville. "I saw them and that did it, and for me, Paul McCartney is 100 percent the reason why I play bass to this day."
Growing up in Philadelphia also helped feed McDonald’s love of music.
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"I don’t even know if you can call music a hobby for me then, because our neighborhood kids just did it," he said. "We put bands together or played music, and everything grew from that."
McDonald would drive to New York for recording sessions and was referred from one job to the next.
His first, big-time session was with singer and songwriter Steve Goodman, who wrote the song "City of New Orleans" that was recorded by Arlo Guthrie, McDonald said.
"Steve needed a bassist and the guitarist who was working with him played in the same band as me in Philadelphia," McDonald said. "They called me and it was right after my father died. So I left straight from the funeral and went to New York to start the album."
The project was helmed by legendary producer Arif Mardin, McDonald said.
Mardin, who passed away in 2006, is known for his work with Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Phil Collins, Norah Jones, Richard Marx, Jewel, Willie Nelson and Bette Midler, to name a few.
"If one of the first things you would ever do in the so-called big-time was with Arif, you couldn’t do any better," McDonald said. "It was perfect timing and just what I needed to get over my father’s death, but also one of those experiences that was just great."
Mardin liked what McDonald and the session band did with Goodman and recruited them to work on Willie Nelson’s 1973 breakout album, "Shotgun Willie."
"The problem was Arif didn’t know Willie had his own band," McDonald said laughing. "But instead of telling us goodbye, Arif set it up so one band would play one song and the other would play the next. It was great."
That project really started McDonald’s career, and he has since then worked and performed with Ringo Starr, Cher, Michael Bolton, Lita Ford, Ricky Martin, Phoebe Snow, David Bromberg, Andy Pratt, Carlene Carter, Alice Cooper and producer and songwriter Desmond Child.
When McDonald replaced Bon Jovi’s long-time bassist Alec John Such in 1994 after the hits compilationof hits, "Cross Road," it was like reunion of sorts, because McDonald recorded with lead singer Jon Bon Jovi on a song called "Runaway" in 1981.
The song, which was officially released in 1983 and reached No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100, was recorded at the Power Station studios in New York.
"Jon was sweeping floors and making coffee at the time and he had this song," McDonald said. "The producer [Lance Quinn] was in a band with one of my friends Obie O’Brien who I had known from Philadelphia."
Quinn called McDonald for a recording session one morning at 2 a.m.
"At that time, Bruce Springsteen was in one of the studios, so they asked his keyboardist Roy Bittan to play on the song," McDonald said. "In one of the other rooms, John Waite was doing his first album, so they asked [drummer] Frankie LaRocka and [guitarist] Timmy Pierce to play. And that was the band."
Although McDonald has played for thousands of people in hundreds of cities, he still has one regret.
"I was stupid in a lot of ways, and relied primarily on my ears and didn’t learn to read music," he said. " That’s something I beat myself up about every day.
"I was an old dog when I got into the studio to do some commercial jingles and it was such a beating that it wasn’t fun for me," McDonald said. "I should have become more rounded as musician with being able to sight read."
Still, McDonald loves his career.
"The stuff that I have done and the people that I have played with have been great," he said.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some challenges throughout the past 40 years.
"You have to be able to get along with everybody and get along with people you may not normally be able to get along with," McDonald said with a knowing smile. "That’s very important.
"Also, being at the right place at the right time is extremely important," he said. "You have to know the basics and be ready when the chance comes, but the chances, nine times out of 10, are pure luck."
The rewards of being a professional bassist, however, are priceless, McDonald said.
"There are things that I have that are irreplaceable," he said. "I have a Hofner violin bass that I had Paul McCartney sign and I had my picture taken with the Queen of England."
McDonald said it was also surreal standing on the coast of Africa a few Bon Jovi tours ago with his friend Obie O’Brien, whom he has known since his days in Philadelphia.
"We stood at the edge of the continent, and looked at each other and said who would have guessed after all these years that we’d be here together," McDonald said. "But the biggest reward about where my career has led me is meeting my wife Kelli."
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