Dolette McDonald, world-famous pop and rock backing vocalist, finds harmony in Savannah.
One of America’s most revered rock background singers, Dolette McDonald has performed with such enormous and diverse artists from alternative pop with the Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, mainstream rock with Sting, to singing in Spanish with El Divo de Juarez, Juan Gabriel — and will be performing with Savannah Blues sensation at the 38th Annual Savannah Jazz Festival on Thursday, September 26 in Forsyth Park. A resident of Richmond Hill for five years now, she talked about all she loves about Savannah and being behind the spotlight.
You’ve recently made the Savannah region your home for what you call your Act III moving from Naples, and before that, New York City. What drew you here?
Both my parents are from the South. My BFF and her husband moved to Pooler about five years ago, and my wife and I would visit often and really enjoyed Savannah every time we came. We decided that we wanted to move and were looking in the Naples area, but it had no music scene, which we always enjoyed in Savannah. We live in Richmond Hill, which is just close enough to Savannah for us to go and enjoy and then come home to live in a very natural environment where we can kayak, bike ride and walk for miles right in our own community.
We know you don’t like labels as you have performed in so many genres with many different artists, what is the common thread of creativity that drives you to explore so many styles?
For me, the common thread of creativity is the challenge of being open to finding that perfect place vocally to fit into whatever genre that I’m singing in. I really have to let go of ego and just let the vocal spirit flow — which is the most challenging and rewarding at the same time when it’s a success.
The film about legendary back-up singers, “20 Feet From Stardom,” chronicles the life of singers who make acts like the Rolling Stones and others great successes. Although you weren’t in the film, like so many others, tell us about the reality of being a powerful back-up vocalist for huge stars?
The reality of being a professional background singer is that it could be as wonderful or horrible as you make it. The ability to observe what’s going on around you and fit in to the situation because it’s really not about you, it’s about the artist that you’re supporting, so ego goes out of the window and team playing is in. Sometimes you might have to change your sound to fit the situation. For example, when I went to work for The Police, the first thing I learned was that I couldn’t use vibrato because Sting didn’t like it — as he had none (at that time). That was one of the most difficult lessons I had to learn because I actually didn’t know how to sing without it. I had headaches after each show for about a month because I had to train myself to sing that way. With that said, I learned a skill that would help me in the future.
What are your favorite musical events in the Savannah area?
My very first musical event in Savannah was sitting in with the Peter Fish Band at the Savannah Jazz Festival. That’s when I realized how much Savannah had to offer and we believe it was truly the “Aha” moment that gave us the inspiration to move here. Once we moved, we became members of the Coastal Jazz Association — and we try to go to as many of their concerts as we can. These shows are fabulous with the best of the best musicians performing.
Do you have any local places you like to eat and shop?
I absolutely love historic Savannah. I always start on River Street and make the rounds. I enjoy City Market and each square to Lincoln Street. I’ve enjoyed Telfair Museum and actually found a church that we like right across the street. On Broughton, I love 24e Design, Kayak Kafé and Avalon Exchange. My favorite restaurants are Alligator Soul, The Olde Pink House, Sorry Charlie’s, 17Hundred90, Local 11ten, Rancho Alegre Cuban and so many other places that I have on my list to check out. As you can see, I love to eat.
You will be performing at the Annual Savannah Jazz Festival with Savannah Blues man Eric Culberson. What excites you about this new collaboration in this setting?
I’m excited about being inspired by a true Blues man. Just speaking to Eric over the phone has given me a certain comfort that we´re going to have an absolutely amazing set. Because I´ve studied the history of the songs that I´ll be singing and the women who sang them, discussing them with someone who is knowledgeable, makes for an easy and fun collaboration. I feel very blessed that he’s the person that I´ll have this experience with.
For details on the Savannah Jazz Festival visit savannahjazzfest.com.