The subject of yacht rock can be a polarizing topic – in particular what fits and doesn’t fit with the genre. Kenny Loggins could be considered a godfather of the format, but even he wonders where it came from.
The topic came to light during a lengthy discussion about Still Alright, a new memoir which leaves no stone unturned when it comes to covering Loggins’ career in great detail. He talked with UCR about a number of subjects, including his substantial success with film soundtracks, but also his longtime collaboration and friendship with Michael McDonald.
Loggins says he tried to put McDonald and Tom Johnston together as collaborators long before the Doobie Brothers‘ on-going reunion tour. He also offers thoughts on yacht rock, which his music ultimately became a big part of – though Loggins would change things if he had input on the subject.
I enjoyed the things you wrote in the book about your collaborative relationship and friendship with Michael McDonald. What is interesting to you about what Michael will do with your songs vs. what you did with your own versions?
The main thing that I learned is that when you record a song that you’ve written with Michael, he has to be on the piano. No studio piano player comes anywhere near what he does – because he’s self-taught and he [learned] from a direction of Black gospel and [artists like] Ray Charles. With Michael, the feel of the tune is always in his hands. Even when [David] Foster and I had the chorus of [1982’s] “Heart to Heart,” when I went to Michael for the verses, he set the vibe of the song. It was that part [Loggins imitates the section] which set the whole lope of the tune from that point on.
It really is in Michael’s hands, with the way he plays, as you say.
Absolutely. The most important thing about Michael and his style is in the hands. I pushed him out of his style a couple of times. You’ll notice that when we co-wrote [1988’s] “She’s Dangerous,” that’s more of a Kenny thing – but he’s still trying to put his vibe into that. I love his voice on that song. He really sings his ass off [with that] faster tempo thing. We also did one [in 2003] called “It’s About Time,” which we came together later on. I wanted Tommy Johnston to write the verses, just because I wanted to be the force for reconciliation among those two. It never quite came together. Tommy didn’t want to cross the bridge. So I went to a white sort of James Brown [approach] on the verses. [Loggins imitates a bit of Brown’s signature vocal style.] I mean, it’s almost like a speaking verse and then going into that big melodic chorus.
Listen to Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald Perform ‘Heart to Heart’
How does Michael push you artistically?
Oh, to simplify. I think his melodic forms are all about pocket and all about the essential elements of that melody. Keep it simple. You can hear the difference in [1982’s] “I Gotta Try,” where he brings the groove way back. [Loggins sings the verse.] I’m not sure what era of Four Tops he’s coming from, but it feels like that thing. [Laughs.] And for me, I always end up in a little more of the white front-edge nervous thing. To me, that was maybe more akin to Daryl Hall’s version of Philadelphia [soul], the tempo being a little more up and a little more aggressive. [Loggins demonstrates the rhythm.] I’m not sure, that could be the Four Seasons, you know. They always put that straight-four hand clap on. I love that era of R&B that Michael seems to be primarily fixated on. It’s very easy, very mellow.
Where did the yacht rock thing come from, in your opinion? I get asked that all of the time. For me, I always say that we weren’t trying to invent a new style of pop music. We were assimilating the soul that we had been raised on. We were kind of doing Isley Brothers; we were doing Marvin Gaye. You can see with Michael’s Motown albums, his influence from that era. We were all coming at it bringing what jazz assimilated really, [with] R&B. That era of smooth jazz was assimilating R&B and R&B was in a smoother place then. Speaking of Tommy Johnston, Tommy was coming from an earlier vibe. To me, Tommy was more of the Aretha Franklin era. [Loggins sings a section of “Long Train Runnin.’] “Down around the corner/ Half a mile from here,” that’s R&B. I always thought that Tommy and Michael should write together, because they’re both coming from very similar eras, where their roots are – but that’s neither here nor there.
Now that Michael is back touring with the Doobie Brothers, hopefully that will happen. It would be a really interesting match.
Yeah, to put that rock edge of Tommy in with the soul edge of Michael would be a fun thing to hear, if they can marry it. But yeah, where the hell did we invent that thing that became called yacht rock? I’m hosting a yacht rock show for SiriusXM when I get to New York. They wanted me to pick 25 of my favorite yacht rock songs. Well, I didn’t have 25 of my favorite yacht rock songs. [Laughs.] Some of those are not great songs, but they have that smooth pop thing that became very popular for a period of time. I don’t know where it actually came from.
It’s interesting, because it seems like it started out with a little bit of humor about it all.
If you listen, they seem to have defined yacht rock as blue-eyed soul. In other words, white guys’ version of Black music, and that’s going to be the death of it. It’s going to be that racist attitude towards the music that really is – you know, I could have picked out 25 yacht rock songs that were Black artists doing offshoots of the Isley Brothers.
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