The incomparable and prolific Dolette McDonald
Our group FSQ, and the pleasure of working with a legendary and versatile vocalist
Dolette McDonald — maybe you know of her work with the Talking Heads, or Sting. She was a member of both groups — both touring and recording. But Dolette’s catalog goes much deeper — how about backing vocals for Nile Rodgers’ Chic, The Rolling Stones, Gang of Four, Laurie Anderson, Steve Winwood, Juan Gabriel for example!
In this essay we delve into how we came to work with Dolette, and reveal other important surprises hidden deep in her amazingly diverse career.
Background: FSQ’s “Shaking My Damn Head” featuring Dolette McDonald
Funk Style Quality, also better known as FSQ, was conceived in 2013 as a disco — funk dance music project both to deliver both original music and remix productions. It evolved out of a jazz-funk project I had, fONKSQUISh.
Oakland California based producer GKoop helped me update fONKSQUISh and we started a new project with a sleeker dance music sound. Sa’d The Hourchild Ali and G Koop were the first two founding members along with myself; we cooked up a new group named Funk Style Quality or FSQ for short.
One of the new FSQ members to join in late 2013, was Philadelphia based multi-instrumentalist Matt Coogan, aka One Era. Matt brought me an instrumental track that sounded so much like a extra disco-fied Talking Heads jam. I asked if we could put the instrumental towards the new FSQ project.
I had some lyrics that seemed to go with the instrumental. “Shaking My Damn Head” or SMDH, it’s a term that really expresses how I was feeling about Facebook and Twitter in 2013, three years before the 2016 election and all the ranting and raving that later proliferated these social media platforms to an even higher degree. My friend Mary Pryor used to always be hashtagging posts on Facebook with #SMDH so I kind of just adopted that expression and general feelings of social media angst that I put into the lyrics.
That funky instrumental Matt wrote did become the music for FSQ’s “Shaking My Damn Head”. Since I heard the perfect Talking Heads vibe on the track that One Era had put together, I reached out to Dolette McDonald to see if she would sing on this track.
I thought of Dolette McDonald because I knew of her work as a vocalist for Talking Heads and this instrumental screamed the need for a connection to the group. I was also in love with Dolette’s one solo single that was already a staple in FSQ DJ sets; a jam called “Xtra Special”.
This “special” boogie funk number also features Busta Cherry Jones who was also a bassist and guitarist in the Talking Heads from about 1980 until just before the Stop Making Sense album. Busta was an in demand session player as well.
People really associate Dolette with this track which is just a wonderful showcase for her crisp, ultra-clear soulful, and well annunciated vocals. She sometimes applies the slightest vibrato to her voice without bending the words, and you can hear that trademark style on “Xtra Special”. To me that’s really her thing — you’ll never ever mishear lyrics sung by Dolette.
The words are important: Dolette is going to sing you a story and totally own any song.
In fact “Xtra Special” originally was composed by the British funk group Atmosfear but it certainly really belongs to Dolette now. I was reading a post from Atmosfear on Facebook that Dolette’s version actually hit the US market before Atmosfear’s version! Both were released in 1982
Another favorite Dolette McDonald vocal session of mine is one she did for Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison’s first solo record, “The Red and The Black”. On the album she’s joined by songwriter and vocalist Nona Hendryx (also of Labelle) and Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell (who also was part of the Talking Heads during this time). Dolette and Nona are a wonderful combination here the vocal tone is just funky unreal. I knew this was the sound I wanted for “Shaking My Damn Head”.
I consider Dolette to be a close friend today but this is after several years of us communicating regularly and also performing together. She’s super inspirational — you can get a taste on social media of her joie de vivre. She’s almost like a motivational speaker. To me, she’s my Rabbi and full of divine wisdom that I can draw upon at any moment.
I don’t want to take any mystery away from how we came to work together or why she agreed to join the FSQ track “Shaking My Damn Head”. In fact, despite the fact we’ve only been friends for about 6 years or so, I’m foggy on how this all came together. Our first collaboration appeared on Midnight Riot Records’ “Riot in Lagos” afro funk compilation in 2016 and received a 10/10 review from Mixmag.
Beyond the Talking Heads — Dolette’s important catalog
I remember when I was a baby teen music fan seeing Dolette’s name on other records beyond the Talking Heads but the most amazing thing to me is that I actually got to see Dolette perform live; let me explain. This immutable fact probably didn’t dawn on me until recent years.
Dolette in “the Movies”
I was a little too young to catch her with the Talking Heads in 1980 and she’s not in their 1984 movie “Stop Making Sense”. The mid 1980s seemed to be a good time for music documentaries though and Dolette was a star in a few of these films.
I wasn’t a fan of Sting as a kid really so I missed the Michael Apted directed documentary called “Bring on the Night” when it was released. In this film, Apted documents Sting putting together an all star band with Branford Marsalis and a bunch of other jazz superstars like Omar Hakim on drums. In the French countryside, Sting’s band gathers for practice and recording sessions in the run up to live shows in Paris. As a musician, the idea of settling into a big French chateau to work on music with legendary musicians seems so romantic.
Dolette receives a lot of screen time in “Bring On The Night” and you get to hear her voice so clearly in the scenes where the band is practicing. She’s joined with her long time vocal partner Janice Pendarvis. Janice is a legend in her own right and today is an associate professor of voice at the Berklee College of Music. I’ve watched this film more than a few times now to catch my friend Dolette close up. I wasn’t really aware of Dolette’s work with Sting until just a few years ago.
Dolette is also prominently featured in Sting’s 1985 music video for the mega hit “Set Them Free”. Check out her dance moves and tambourine playing along with her partner Janice.
Now a concert film I DID catch at the time — 1986 — was Laurie Anderson’s “Home of the Brave”. I was a huge Laurie Anderson fan! I even found her address somehow and asked my mom if we could go wait outside her house somewhere in Greenwich Village, New York. I digress, but it gives you a sense of the lengths I’ll go to fulfill my fandom.
Dolette and Janice Pendarvis are featured in “Home of the Brave” not just as vocalists but more like role players in Anderson’s intricate music focused performance art. Check out Dolette and Janice here on Anderson’s “Smoke Rings” from the film
Just like I can hear how Nona Hendryx’s voice contrasts against Dolette’s — it’s the same for Dolette and Janice Pendarvis. To me, and hopefully I’m hearing it right, Dolette’s voice is in a register just slightly higher than Janice’s. I think Laurie Anderson’s “Smoke Rings” is one of the best vehicles to hear this harmonic contrast between their voices especially on the “doo doo doo doo” lines that close out the song. The duo are just so beautiful together on that part.
The movie “Home of the Brave” came out April 27, 1986. Apparently the concert at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia to promote the Laurie Anderson movie and companion album was just a few days later on May 1st, according to Concert Archives. My mother took me to this show, so I indeed saw Dolette perform live? Question mark? Maybe not. I definitely saw the film but according to the New York Times review of the live shows about this time, Ms. Anderson carried two male vocalists instead of Janice and Dolette. Ahhh Google research just took away some of the mystique from this story. It is possible I did see her on the live date, who knows. Regardless, it’s just amazing to me that I didn’t take note of Dolette working with Laurie Anderson. Maybe I did in the album credits, but I must have tucked it away in my subconscious for many years.
I was in the nose bleed seats at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium on September 18th, 1988 for the Amnesty International concert “Human Rights Now”. Dolette was certainly on all the dates with Sting on this Amnesty tour so I saw her — at least a very tiny version of her from those seats.
There is some footage of this 1988 multi-band mega tour on the net and I love that you can hear Dolette’s trademark voice on this clip. Her voice blends just so well with Sting’s as it did with David Byrne’s. Again, I am floored that I didn’t know I was witnessing my now friend Dolette perform back then.
Catch Dolette here with the black jump suit laden with bright red hearts, and her brilliant tambourine accents on some of the changes in The Police classic, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”. Oh yeah and Sting runs Dolette and the band through their paces in terms of dancing…
Dolette McDonald Solo Work and 👂 “Hearing Dolette” 👂
It’s pretty amazing to think Dolette is really essentially the co-lead vocalist to Sting and David Byrne at times during their careers.
Because I’ve spent so much time listening to Dolette McDonald sing background or backing vocals, I can clearly identify her on a track. But for those of you who want to hear Dolette as the lead vocalist — what records are out there for you so you can get a better idea of her amazing vocal work?
According to Dolette her first professional recording gig was for the Afro Cuban Band. Dolette has the lead vocal duties on the track “Black Widow Woman” from the studio band’s 1978 Arista Records album “Rhythm of Life”. The project was put together by producer Michael Zager and while it was a disco project - it did have a bit of a latin flare to serve the New York City dance club market — as per the band’s name having “Cuban” in it.
Beyond Dolette’s performance on “Xtra Special” where she is billed under her own name, “Black Widow Woman” is one of the few times Dolette is the featured lead solo vocalist in over 100 vocal credits that you can find on the record collector site Discogs.com.
Zager also had another studio album project that was a bit more straight ahead disco and certainly more poppy — named after himself — The Michael Zager Band. Dolette came to work with Zager via Cissy Houston, as both are from the Newark, New Jersey area and were active in gospel choirs including Donnie Harper’s Voices of Tomorrow choir.
Cissy Houston worked with Zager on several projects including the Michael Zager Band. You can hear Dolette and Cissy on the 1978 Zager track “Life’s A Party”, with Dolette usually being in that higher harmony range. Unfortunately Zager did not credit the musicians very well on his projects which is a truly ashame, so I can’t find the citation of that duo on this track. You can also clearly hear a 15 year old Whitney Houston — Cissy Houston’s daughter — singing the lead line at about 1:05 in the song ..
Another hit for Zager — also from 1978 — where you can hear Dolette prominently is called “Let’s All Chant”. Again with studio projects at the time, the original studio vocalists weren’t credited well or presented to audiences for live performances. “Let’s All Chant” sold 5 million copies worldwide and hit #1 on the Billboard Disco Chart.
An Xtra Special Black Widow Woman — We Want More Dolette !!
We want to hear more of Dolette singing as the star of the show, the leader of the band!
While I can hear Dolette on any record she sings on — which I find to be quite a pleasurable talent of mine after all this listening — I am sorry to say there is no full length Dolette McDonald solo album. At least not yet.
Dolette hinted at making one in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1988. My take is that maybe there were too many female R&B albums hitting at the time to find room for the proper feature for Dolette. I’m not sure what the story is and it’s not mine to tell. Frankly, I find the lack of a solo album besides the point given her large body of amazing work.
But there is more Dolette as lead vocalist to check out and more coming:
FSQ is proud to put Dolette McDonald at the front of our songs as a featured vocalist, both on “Shaking My Damn Head” a 2016 one off single for Midnight Riot Records, and a cover version of the Talking Heads “I Zimbra” also for the same label, coming mid-March 2019.
We wrote about making our FSQ cover of “I Zimbra” with Dolette here:
FSQ and Dolette McDonald’s “I Zimbra” (Midnight Riot Records)
How our group Funk Style Quality (FSQ) and vocalist Dolette McDonald came to cover the Talking Heads’ dadaesque anthem
As I mentioned throughout this piece, I believe Dolette to be the crème de la crème in the world of vocalists because of her clear annunciation, perfect pitch, deep soul and most importantly her ability to tell someone else’s story through song. Obviously David Byrne and Sting felt that way too.
Therefore I sheepishly asked if she would give a new FSQ song life — it’s called “What They Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Them”. She went beyond the call of duty as the featured vocalist on the tune which is an ode to “partying to avoid the pain of life”. “What They Don’t Know” will appear on our full length FSQ album titled “Reprise Tonight” — out Spring 2019 for Soul Clap Records.
Dolette was in my life all the time! The New Wave Years ..
Of course I couldn’t escape Dolette singing with Talking Heads or Sting when I was kid, but via Discogs I discovered she’s singing on some of my favorite and more obscure new wave / pop funk records from the 80s. I wore these records out back then — better believe it ! Imagine my surprise via very recent research that she sings on these tunes.
Show Dolette and your ears some love — Go Explore Discogs!
I don’t want to give away all the surprising guest appearances Dolette makes on other artists work so that you can experience some of the same delight I did in exploring her catalog.
Explore releases and tracks from Dolette McDonald at Discogs. Shop for Vinyl, CDs and more from Dolette McDonald at the…
And you might uncover something more and new and I’m sure I will too — I’m still digging!
I won’t even reveal who I just found out she did an album with — let’s just say I uncovered a review where she’s applauded for her work on a famous mormon pop singer’s album. WOAH! Or how about this seemingly very funky Japanese obscure album where Dolette carries most of the English vocals along with the Japanese female lead vocalist. The only thing I know about it so far is that her Talking Heads colleague, percussionist Steve Scales plays on it.
Ok I’ll stop here because I don’t want to detail the whole catalog! Anyways that would take months more of writing. One more ok?
There recently was a very tender moment when I asked Dolette about a 1973 record by gospel soul artist Gerri Granger that I discovered on Discogs.
“Dolette I thought your first record was released in 1978! Black Widow Woman for the Afro Cuban Band” I exclaimed.
Dolette back offered a plain “yes that’s correct”.
“What about Gerri Granger though?,” I asked. The name didn’t ring a bell with Dolette.
Dolette was stumped but she asked me who the other credited vocalists are on the album. I went back to Discogs and revealed they included Yvette Glover (who happens to be the mother of tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover). Dolette realized that yes she had sung with Yvette on a gospel session like this.
So I had just discovered Dolette’s first appearance on record and was able to share the experience with her in real time. It felt quite amazing. I’m pretty sensitive, I definitely shed a tear of joy.
I absolutely love this gospel soul tune, and yes given my talent, I can hear Dolette here. Can you hear Dolette?
Dolette in her own words — there’s still so much to her story!
It’s really important to note that Dolette overcame some tremendous challenges in her music career, like a battle with vocal chord polyps. I’m sure there were 100 other skirmishes while she spent time on the battlefield that is rock and roll. If I ask her about such experiences, I know she will tell it like it was and like it is, even though she is a tremendous optimist. On a positive note, Dolette has led several amazing lives thousands of miles apart from the world of music and these always include her enjoyable life stories.
I wrote this article as a tribute to Dolette, but it’s written through my own experiences of connecting with her music over the years. I am by no means trying to tell her story. Instead, I’m telling a story of my discovery, wonder and excitement by examining someone’s art and deeply relating to it and the artist personally.
Therefore I recommend you read the full 1988 interview of Dolette McDonald from the Sunday Los Angeles Times, following, and also listen to this 30 audio minute interview by podcaster Jamela Zarha Williams. Get to know Dolette in her own words!
Some Up-Front Analysis From a Back-Up Princess
What do Sting, the Talking Heads, Stevie Winwood, Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel all have in…
In Print ..
You made it to the end of this tribute — now listen to this Spotify playlist, “The Spirit of Dolette McDonald”