Let's get the facts out of the way first: Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins did not write "What a Fool Believes" on a threat from The Doobie Brothers' guitarist, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Despite the pilot of the beloved web series Yacht Rock may have told you, it was a little less intense than that. So how did the Doobies' signature song - which helped codify a new type of soft rock with a cool edge, anchored by dense musicianship, come to be?
The group was no stranger to the charts since coming onto the scene in the early '70s. "Listen to the Music" was an early, feel-good Top 20 hit, and rockers like "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove" were also chart favorites. 1974's swampy "Black Water" even earned them a No. 1 record. A year later, after stomach ulcers sidelined lead singer Tom Johnston, the group recruited McDonald, a session vocalist known for his work with Steely Dan, to fill in. McDonald's soulful songwriting proved to mesh well with the group's style, and the title track of their first album together, "Takin' It to the Streets," proved to be another radio staple.
McDonald had sketched out an idea for a tune about two lovers reuniting to discover the passion just wasn't there anymore. But he'd had a hard time figuring out how to really flesh out the song. Doobie bassist Tiran Porter suggested McDonald meet up with Loggins, one half of the hit folk duo Loggins and Messina about to set off on a solo career - and the song started coming together before they'd even met.
"I was unpacking my guitar and the door to his house was open," Loggins recalled their first meeting to the Los Angeles Times, "and I heard him singing ideas around 'What a Fool Believes.' He had that verse melody; it was pretty solid. Then he stopped where he had no more ideas, and my imagination kept going and I heard the B section in my head. So I knocked on the door and we shake hands and I go, 'I think I know the next part of that song.'”
McDonald later admitted that, had Loggins not heard his idea, he might not have played it for him. "I thought, ‘This is just kind of a strange pop ditty. I don't know that I'd play that for Kenny,’" he told Zane Lowe in 2021. "And when I answered the door he goes, ‘Before we say anything, you were just playing something on a piano, I could hear it through the door. Is that something new?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I was actually thinking of playing it, but I wasn't sure.’ And he goes, ‘That's what I want to work on first.’ So, thankfully he heard it through the door, or I might never have played it for him.”
When finally completed - down to that soaring chorus - the song first ended up on Loggins' solo album Nightwatch (1978). Five months later, the Doobies released Minute by Minute, and "Fool" became its first single. On April 14, 1979, the track became the 500th song to top the Billboard Hot 100 - and a year later, the Doobie Brothers' staple would earn Grammy Awards for Record and Song of the Year.