When Otis McDonald starts talking about everything he’s got cooking in Hyde Street Studios, it’s a wonder the man has time to change his clothes, let alone make it up to North Beach for some gigs.
The dauntingly prolific San Francisco composer, producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist has turned Hyde Street’s Studio D — hallowed ground in the history of funk — into a nonstop laboratory where he’s generated an astounding flow of music. There are his own productions — he released a track a week for three years in response to the pandemic, though he recently cut back to every other week — as well as collaborations with a regular parade of top soul, jazz, and R&B artists seeking out his services.
A few highlights include producing Eric Krasno’s 2022 album Always, which led to an extensive tour (on bass guitar) with the Soulive guitarist. Moving to the drum kit, McDonald launched the band King Canyon with Krasno and Brooklyn bassist Mike Chiavaro, a trio that released an eponymous album in January. And currently McDonald is working on projects with soul singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc, seven-string guitar wizard Charlie Hunter, and New Orleans multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Payton.
Long before he moved into Hyde Street, Otis McDonald (the nom de guerre of San Francisco’s Joe Bagale) had become a ubiquitous presence online via tracks commissioned by YouTube and Facebook for free audio libraries offering copyright-free music to help video creators enhance their work. He’s recorded hundreds of pieces that have been deployed in tens of millions of videos streamed many billions of times.
“That’s how Aloe Blacc found me,” McDonald said during a recent phone conversion from Studio D. “The work I’ve done with YouTube and Facebook is used in lots of people’s videos, including pieces by organizations like The New York Times and CNN that go viral, and each video includes automatic attribution with a clickable link that takes you to my profile.”
It was Los Angeles organist Wil Blades who connected the studio maestro with Payton, inviting McDonald to join them last July at Keys Jazz Bistro. Blades, a mainstay on the Bay Area jazz and funk scene for nearly two decades before he moved south, returns to Keys with Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola, his longtime duo partner in Amendola Vs. Blades. McDonald joins them as special guest on vocals, bass, and guitar for four shows at Keys, Dec. 8–9.
It’s the first time Amendola and McDonald are performing together, but McDonald and Blades have shared hundreds of hours on the bandstand, particularly in Blades’s funk-jazz combo Starting Five at the Boom Boom Room, where the sets tended to run late and 90 minutes long. McDonald’s expansive skill set kept the music interesting for the band and the audience.
“He’s super funky but also able to improvise,” Blades said. “Sometimes you get with a funk drummer, and they’re like a freight train. They’re not malleable and can’t move with you. I like it so it’s not stuck in one lane. On those long sets sometimes I get sick of solos all night. It was great to have Joe sing a few songs every night.”
McDonald first worked with Amendola Vs. Blades back in 2017 when he curated UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a concert and album celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic Beatles album and featuring a different constellation of musicians on each track. He tapped the duo for a funk-driven version of “Fixing a Hole,” which is likely to be part of the Keys repertoire.
“Scott and I have always done covers, and since that UnderCover show, we’ve performed Joe’s version of ‘A Day in the Life,’” Blades said. “We do a Dark Side of the Moon medley, ‘Life on Mars,’ ‘Manic Depression,’ so instead of doing instrumental versions, we can have him singing. Joe is a pretty different guest for us. It’s usually a horn player or guitarist.”
Raised in New York, McDonald moved to San Francisco in 2003 as a 19-year-old enamored with the sound of 1960s and ’70s Bay Area funk and soul, from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Tower of Power to Sly and the Family Stone. He quickly fell in with the Jazz Mafia crowd, performing widely with various outfits spearheaded by trombonist/bassist Adam Theis. He’s been a central player in Atta Kid since saxophonist Daniel Casares and keyboardist Max Cowan spun the band off the Jazz Mafia family in 2012.
McDonald made a major leap in 2019 when he took over Studio D at Hyde Street, “the same room where Herbie Hancock recorded his seminal funk records, like Head Hunters, Thrust, and ‘Actual Proof,’” McDonald said. “That was a big full-circle moment.”
Originally named Wally Heider Recording after the pioneering sound engineer who created the studio in 1969, Hyde Street’s legacy and ongoing role as a creative hub is the subject of a new documentary project, When the Sound Hits the Walls. Envisioned as a 10-part series that’s part historical chronicle and part present-tense verite, the ambitious undertaking got a major public boost with an August concert by the Headhunters at Menlo Park’s Guild Theater, where McDonald served as emcee.
After the show, drummer Mike Clark and percussionist Bill Summers, who’ve been involved in just about every Headhunters recording and tour since the landmark 1973 album (Clark joined the band after the release of Head Hunters), led a recording session with the latest version of the group.
“They were working in all the studios, A, C and D,” McDonald said. “Bill Summers hung out in my room the whole week. They’d make basic tracks in Studio C, and Bill would lay down percussion tracks with me. Mike would float around. We already knew each other because Wil Blades and I did a trio session with Mike. He showed me where Herbie’s Rhodes went, and of course, I moved my Rhodes to the same place.”