The Pacific Northwest’s Kathi McDonald

Kathi McDonald 1948-2012

The late Kathi McDonald was a native of the Pacific Northwest, born in Anacortes, WA in 1948 and raised in nearby Mount Vernon.  In the early sixties, as a teenager, she became the female vocalist for The Accents, a group that eventually morphed into The Unusuals. In 1966, one side of The Unusuals’ first record, “Babe, It’s Me” on the Panorama label, went to #1 at KPUG radio in Bellingham.

The Unusuals (L-R) Bill Capp (guitar), Kathi McDonald (vocals), Laurie Vitt (Guitar and sax), Harvey Redmond (bass), Vic Bundy (keyboards), Pat Jerns (drums)
Laurie Vitt had played in several Bellingham bands and he was a founder of The Unusuals. He recently said of Kathi: “When I first met her she was a kid around 15 years old (actually I think she was 14). Our band at that time, the Nite People, was playing at a grange hall in Mount Vernon, WA. The owner asked if this local girl could sit in with us for a couple of songs. He claimed that she was a good singer. Although we usually didn’t allow sit-ins, we agreed. We knew nothing about her at that point. When we met her, our first impression was so-so. She was short, had stringy blond hair, and looked nothing like a singer. We asked what tunes she might know, and she rattled off a few of the very old Ike and Tina Turner songs. As I recall, we first played the song ‘I Think It’s Gonna Work Out fine,’ and Kathi blew us off the stage. It was like having Tina Turner in the room. She joined our group and after some personnel changes and band name changes (Accents, Ron Peterson and the Accents, The Unusuals), we ended up as Kathi and The Unusuals. When Kathi was on stage, she always had total command of the audience. She was a natural talent.”
Kirk Wilde

QZVX contributor, Kirk Wilde, was a jock and the music director at radio station KPUG when The Unusuals released their first record. Wilde liked the “Babe, It’s Me” side and put it in rotation at the Top 40 station. The song went all the way to #1. Wilde reminisced, “I remember in the first week of April it topped the survey and it remained at #1 for four or five weeks.” “Babe, It’s Me” was written by Laurie Vitt. Kathi and Laurie teamed up to sing the back and forth duet. McDonald was 17 years of age at the time. Click Here to listen to “Babe, It’s Me.”

Below is a photo of the KPUG survey from April 9, 1966. “Babe, It’s Me” had been #1 for at least two weeks.

Jay Hamilton

The other side of the record, “I’m Walking, Babe,” was written by another QZVX contributor, Jay Hamilton. Get this, when The Unusuals recorded Jay’s song he was a KPUG disc jockey.  Jay’s side of the record was a hit in several U.S. cities including Eugene, OR.

Hamilton was the in-studio supervisor for both sides of that first Unusuals’ recording session. Seattle indie record producer, Jerry Dennon, owner of Jerden, Panorama and Piccadilly Records was unable to supervise the Oct. ’65 session, so The Unusuals’ asked Jay to cover Dennon’s in-studio production duties. Jay was a songwriter, had played in rock bands, was a deejay and Music Director at KPUG and the band trusted his musical ear. Famed Seattle recording engineer Kearney Barton and Jay coordinated the technical aspects of the session and worked out the final mix with the band. Hamilton remembers the session well: “some have said that Kathi only sang on the duet side of that record, but I was in the studio that day and she also participated on the “Walking” side… doing background harmonies along with other members of the band.” Click Here to listen to “I’m Walking, Babe.”

That first green Panorama 45 rpm record, with emphasis on the “I’m Walking, Babe” side, has become a garage band classic. An original vinyl copy sells for around $1000 among collectors (and that is for a copy that looks good and maybe barely plays on either side).

The Unusuals released one other 45 rpm — “Summer Is Over” b/w “I Could Go On”– in the late summer of 1966. The A side, “Summer Is Over,” had previously been recorded by Dusty Springfield. McDonald was the lead vocalist on both sides of the Mainstream Records release. “Summer Is Over” got some airplay in Bellingham and in a few other cities. However, it didn’t do as well as their first record even though, in the Sept. 4, 1966 issue, the national publication “Record World” chose it as a four star pick. In a 2005 radio interview McDonald talked about the “Summer Is Over” single and spoke of her early career (Click Here to listen).

Kathi always had her own sense of fashion

When I was a sophomore at Bellingham High School, I saw Kathi around town in 1967. Mainly I recall meeting her when we were both shopping at the same tiny record store. She introduced herself to the proprietor, who was my friend, and he whispered in my ear that I was looking at Kathi McDonald. First impression: Kathi was short, skinny as a rail, with really long eye lashes and she was wearing lots of makeup. At least, that’s what a 15 year old boy noticed. Just the same, it was a big deal to be seeing her. After all, Kathi was a local celebrity. Most weekends I heard ads promoting dances featuring The Unusuals. Then those spots were reinforced by the high decibel ads and music that came blasting out of the loud speaker car that drove around downtown.

Lan Roberts, KJR

It would be inaccurate to assume that The Unusuals, as a small town Bellingham based band, had been relegated to performing exclusively in lesser venues. Teens in Seattle dug The Unusuals and Pat O’Day booked them for his dances. Here’s a Nov. 1965 recording of KJR’s Lan Roberts (Click Here) plugging the band’s appearance at the Target Ballroom. The Unusuals received lots of good exposure when they toured with Dewey Martin, who later became the drummer for Buffalo Springfield. If fate hadn’t intervened, The Unusuals might have been very famous. Life Magazine committed to doing a feature article on the band. The photos and story were all complete. Life had even sent Laurie Vitt a wire confirming the article would run in Nov. 1965. Then the big NE power blackout of ’65 happened and that crisis bumped The Unusuals right out of the pages of Life Magazine.

In 1967, The Unusuals disbanded and went in separate directions. Laurie Vitt got serious about college and became a PhD expert on snakes, lizards and creepy crawlies. In that old KJR spot, Lan Roberts described the giant boa that appeared with the group on stage….yeah, it was Laurie’s snake. After the band split up, Kathi at age 19 headed to San Francisco. She’d previously tried out for the female lead in Big Brother & the Holding Company. That gig, of course, went to Janis Joplin. After Joplin formed her own band in 1971, McDonald began recording and appearing with Big Brother. (Click Here to see Big Brother, with Kathi as lead vocalist, perform “Call On Me” in a 1978 reunion show).

In the early ’70s, McDonald was one very busy vocalist. On Ike and Tina Turner records (in recording sessions, but not on stage) she was an Ikette. Another Ikette, Claudia Lennear (the lady who was Mick Jagger’s “Brown Sugar”) asked Kathi to join her on Joe Cocker’s 1970 tour. McDonald’s soulful voice is preserved today on the live album “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Leon Russell was on that Joe Cocker tour and he enlisted McDonald to perform on his 1971 album “Leon Russell and the Shelter People.” She went on tour with Russell as one of the Shelter People and was a vocal force in Russell’s “Homewood Sessions” — a TV special (with a cult following) that was filmed in 1971 at the Vine Street Theater in LA. Kathi was 22 years old, with a new baby in arms, singing alongside her friend Claudia Lennear.  (Click Here to watch these two great backup singers perform “Crystal Closet Queen” and “So Strange” with the late Leon Russell.

Left: Kathi with Big Brother & the Holding Company. Right: Claudia Lennear and Kathi performed with Leon Russell
Michael Boss

McDonald’s first solo album “Insane Asylum” came out in 1974. Despite receiving good reviews and considerable radio airplay, it failed to become a big seller. McDonald never really broke out to become a major star on her own, but even today many jocks remember playing her early solo work. Michael Boss, a contributor to QZVX, said, “I was programming KBRE-FM (Southern Utah’s first AOR station) when Kathi’s initial solo effort was released. The emotive power she brought to ‘All I Want to Be’ put me on the killing floor. Neal Schon’s stellar guitar work only added to the magic. Without thinking twice, the track went on my A List!  Three years later I was still playing tracks from her ‘Insane Asylum’ LP and introducing Kathi to new audiences!”

Insane Asylum” (1974)
Publicity photo

Beginning in 1976, and for decades to follow, McDonald collaborated and toured with the late Long John Baldry (an iconic British blues performer). In her lifetime, Kathi was highly regarded as a prolific background vocalist, singing on more than 180 records by artists such as the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, Nils Lofgren, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Delaney & Bonnie, Dave Mason, and Elton John.

Cascadia Weekly, 2011

By the mid-1990s, Kathi had moved back to the Pacific NW where her career had begun some 30 years previously. She became a frequent headliner at concerts, rock and blues festivals and venues ranging from Seattle’s Bumbershoot, to the Triple Door Lounge, to the Mount Baker Rhythm and Blues Festival to the Winthrop Blues Festival. I recall when McDonald played at Wild Buffalo in Bellingham in the 1990s. Then in 2011, only a year before she passed away, Kathi appeared at The Muse in the tiny town of Conway in Skagit County. At one point she fronted her own band “Kathi McDonald and Friends.” Up until the end, McDonald often performed and recorded with the northwest blues guitarist Nick Vigarino.

This “Found Performance” is from a Long John Baldry show at the Bottom Line Club in NYC. It was 1979, so Kathi was in her early 30s. They sang a duet that had been their biggest radio hit  — a cover of the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.” Baldry had become a permanent resident of Vancouver BC. In Vancouver, media reported that Righteous Brother, Bill Medley, said he liked the Baldry/McDonald cover of “Lovin’ Feelin'” better than his own timeless duet with Bobby Hatfield. Not surprisingly, the record peaked in the top 5 on the charts at CFUN and CKLG in Vancouver. Internationally it reached #2 in Australia, #45 in Canada and it stalled at #89 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Baldry and McDonald toured together for more than 20 years. Long John Baldry might have been the star of the show in NYC, but Kathi’s voice and dynamic stage presence carried this song. (The video is at ad free Vimeo, so click on the play button 2x – once to get to Vimeo and again to start the video.)

Note: Since 2016, Steven Smith has been the webmaster of The Unusuals’ YouTube page. There are about 50 videos posted at the channel, including rare recordings, concert performances, and interviews. Dr. Laurie Vitt, a founding member of The Unusuals (and that guy who sang “Babe, It’s Me” with Kathi) helps keep the channel up-to-date and historically accurate.

Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with QZVX.COM in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions. View other articles by Steven Smith

14 thoughts on “The Pacific Northwest’s Kathi McDonald

  1. Kathi and I were roommates in Toronto, Ontario when she had a house gig there with LJB. She sang backup vocals on our band TORONTO’s 4th album “Girl’s Night Out on the song “Ready to Make Up” and she stacked all the parts herself and the song is still one of favorites to sing because of Kathi’s out of this world background vocals. I had been an avid fan of Kathi’s since I bought her Insane Asylum album when I was about 16 yrs old, going to high school in my hometown in North Carolina, I never imagined she’d be singing background vocals on my own album and be my roommate too! I started singing myself while I was in high school and after joining a band that eventually lead to my moving to Toronto I heard that Kathi was in town with LJB and couldn’t wait to go see her sing with John. Her voice and stage presence just knocked me out, as her record Insane Asylum did so many years before I actually met her. we had some incredible times together as roommies and I think of her often. Her sense of humor was sharp as a tack, still making me laugh when I think of some of the things she did and said. She could be such a little mischievous girl when she wanted to and the joke would always be on someone in our friend group, haha! I didn’t get to see her before she left us, makes me so sad but I listen to her voice whenever I want to. Thank you for being my friend Kathi, I will always miss you and remember the laughter

  2. I got to drum briefly for Kathi and Laurie Vitt in 1969 in a short lived band called The Gold from Bellingham. I’ll never forget a practice session in my parents garage. She had dyed red hair, wearing an old fur coat from a Salvation Army store and was crossed eyed at that time. I broke my drum sticks as she shouted, “get down!” When we opened up the sliding garage door, there were a bunch of young neighbor kids sitting outside listening. One shouted, “My God, it’s a girl!” Kathi responded, “I hope the f–k I’m a girl!” It was a priceless memory that I’ll never forget, as it’s etched into my mind deeply. She and my red headed Lucille Ball mom really hit it off too. Both were wild crazy women! In 1992, I was doing college at Skagit Valley College and looked her up. We went grocery shopping together and I met her grown up daughter that I’d seen as a baby on that TV show with Leon Russell. I’ll never forget her, Little Miss Dynamite! She will always be famous to me, a priceless treasure!

  3. Well, I was doing research on Baldry…I had assumed he and Cathy were in a LTR, but I was wrong, I guess…he was gay, and came out, as they say, in the late 70s….BTW, who was the father of her daughter?…Cathy had a few grandchildren by the time she died…Baldry was 6’7″….making Cathy look like a midget when they were seen together!…truly an “odd couple”!

    1. Jack……yes. a few years back I had wondered the same and learned that. From what I saw part of his moving to Canada was motivated by British law that at that time had homosexuality on the books as a jailable crime. I have read some accounts on her daughter, Erin, who has no tie to the music biz, but no clue as to the dad. She was in San Francisco, LA, on world tours with the famous, and living the rock n roll life so I do not know that the info is public or who might know. A number of people who knew her fairly well are around, including her brother still in Skagit I think, so somebody might pop in with an answer. In one of the videos….Crystal Closet Queen (which was about Little Richard in fact) Kathi’s baby is present.

  4. Jack…their contrast in height is very apparent in the ‘Lovin’ Feelin’ video. So you are right on that.

  5. The NW was just percolating with talent back then!…I hope Cathy made some decent money, while touring with her more famous bandleaders….Growing up here, I feel guilty for not being aware of her, back in the day!….Long John Baldry was a trip!…I remember a refrain from one of his hits…”Don’t try to lay no boogie woogie on the King of Rock and Roll”…..I remember him as being really tall, must have been quite a contrast, seeing Cathy onstage next to him!

  6. Steve ~ You and I have had a number of conversations about this very talented lady. I had the pleasure of seeing her sing with The Unusuals, saw her on the debut of that Leon Russell TV special & have seen her in a number of great videos. I’ve always felt that it was a case of never being at the (absolutely) right place at the right time … or she would have been a massive superstar, on the order of someone like Tina Turner. She is one of a very few singers who I personally find so amazingly talented that she will bring tears to my eyes simply because her voice and talent triggers that emotional response in appreciation of her unique and obviously special talent. Her version of the Blues Classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” is a perfect example of that amazing talent on display.
    Steve, I know you’re aware of this video, but for others here’s a performance from 1993, on the popular German TV concert show “Ohne Filter”, of Kathi doing “Blind”:

    Warning: It may bring tears to your eyes‼

  7. Mike…I never saw her perform. Only he saw her in the record store when we were both kids and have listened to her records.

  8. I saw & heard Kathi perform a few times with John Baldry at the Vancouver Jazz Fest & a couple of other venues in that city. What an awesome voice & stage presence. The two of them dueting on blues and R&B numbers showed what a great pairing of these musicians were and their performances over time reached a high level of intricacy as it was evident how comfortable they both were tackling a wide range of material both original & cover tunes. Sadly, they are both gone.

  9. Not only a great singer, but a great person as well. Chatted with her on facebook a month before she passed. Sorely miss her.

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