With little professional experience, Dolette McDonald was hired in 1980 as a back-up singer by David Byrne of Talking Heads strictly on the recommendation of a common friend.
Four years of touring and recording later, the band’s commercial success put middlemen between her and Byrne. A gig with Duran Duran fell through, but in no time she was walking on stage in a stadium of 80,000 people with The Police. Few knew it would be their last tour, but the end of that gig led to Sting snatching her up to tour and record his solo debut and follow-up albums.
Over the next 30 years, a constant stream of opportunities and success fell in her lap. She sang on stage or recorded with the Rolling Stones, Don Henley, Gang of Four, Laurie Anderson, Steve Winwood and other new wave and rock giants. Into the late 90s, she toured with legendary Mexican musician Juan Gabriel.
Then, she stopped.
McDonald has been living in Savannah for three years now. She describes her life in three acts.
Act 1 was her life, largely on the road, as a professional singer. Act 3 is her life since “retiring” from her second career, part of which includes her move to Savannah.
Both of those stories have been told. Act 2, however, is where she truly found herself, felt incredible levels of accomplishment, and found the love of her life.
Connect Savannah spoke with McDonald at length about Act 2.
When you were getting near the end of Act 1, were you already thinking about getting out? Is that why you were saving the way you were? Take me to the time you were leading up to that decision.
I'd had the best time, but I had to do something. I was on tour with Juan Gabriel and it was getting hectic, he was in transition. Every year he was getting a new manager and I just I wasn't happy. I was just there to make money.
Was it feeling like a full-time job?
It was towards the end. It was definitely a job and it had nothing to do with him, it's inside with the minions. Everybody wanted a piece of him.
At one point I was unable to go in his dressing room. Before this, anytime I wanted I could have a chat, get my hug, whatever, and then all of a sudden you couldn't do that anymore. It was no longer fun for me. I had a conversation with my sister who was an engineer for NBC News, and we were discussing what my next thing could be, and her question was,
“what do you know best?”
I mulled it over and said I've been staying at hotels for 25 years. So, I know about hotels. It never occurred to me that I would be able to get a job at a hotel, because I have no experience.
So my sister sent me a computer because she said you're not going to be able to get a job unless you know how to use the computer. She had a computer built for dummies for me and it had just the basics in it. I sat in my office at home eight hours a day, like it was a job and learned how to use it. I came out crying some nights, you know, because I was worn out, my brain was fried, but I was determined, and this was preparing me for an office job.
Then you moved to Naples, Florida?
I was still living in Clifton, New Jersey. I had a loft over a law office, and I was there for seven years. And I just decided to move to Florida because I wanted to reinvent myself.
I knew a couple that had moved there, and they were telling me how great it was. I visited them just to see, and it was around Christmas. In Naples, at Christmas time, it’s just magical and I got sucked in.
When I got home, I packed my stuff to move and went back and bought a house in Naples and that's when I started doing the research and learning how to use a computer.
Then the job hunt began.
I only had my professional singer resume and I went to all these hotels and they looked at me like I was crazy. They were nice, you know, but they don't know what you've got in your head and I went to the best. I was at the Ritz Carlton. I was at Naples Grande and places in Naples that only the rich people went to.
I went to all these hotels and didn't get the warmest reception. Very professional, but not very warm. At the last hotel, the director of HR interviewed me, and she was laughing. She's like dude are you serious? Do you really want this? I mean she was unlike the other people that I had dealt with in that she was warm. And it was almost like she knew a secret.
Like she was in on what you were planning.
Yeah, she was in on it and so we chatted, and I told her by that time I was just worn down. I said if given the opportunity I think that you know, you would be pleasantly surprised at what you could receive from me. I said I'm sure that I will be able to learn something new and be successful.
So she had the general manager interview me, and that to me was bizarre because I'm interviewing for a line-level position. Seven dollars and fifty cents an hour. I love saying that because I was so lucky. I got paid to learn something. It was like going to school for me and I got paid. I was I was grateful for sure.
He was very, very upfront and said this is a hard job and it's not for the faint of heart. If you still want to do it, I will mentor you through it. And this was a front desk, entry-level position because that that's what his suggestion was, start at the front desk where you’ll learn everything you need to know about the hotel business. The front desk is where all the action is. He was absolutely right, and I was there for two years until they closed for renovation. Then I moved to a hotel that was called The Registry. That place was the beginning of my real career because I went from a front desk agent to front desk supervisor to the manager of front office operations.
The first two years were almost like boot camp.
Yeah. Grunt work, but I learned so much. And then you walk into the next place in a management position, the place is your oyster, it was great.
I helped transition them into the very first Waldorf Astoria Collection. I went to other hotels that they were opening to transition them from whatever brand they were into a Waldorf Astoria.
So you got to travel?
I was touring again, back in a hotel. But the locations were amazing. Things like that, opportunities like that were really gifts for me, you know, I got to meet normal people, I got to hang out with real people, with real life problems and you know, we were able to get through them together. I had a conversation with Laurie Anderson once when we were out to dinner and I was telling her all about this and she said to me, “aren't you lucky?”
And I said well yeah, but what do you mean? And she said, because you spend so much time around normal people. I looked at her and I felt bad for her for a minute because, you know, it's like she was saying “I can't,” and that was such a blessing and it actually changed my life because I was able to spend time to go to therapy and to you know, actually stop and figure out who I was because at the beginning of that, I had no idea who I was, right?
With a new career on track, therapy that was working, and settling into life in Naples, another major part of your life came to the forefront. Your close friends always knew, but was part of the plan about reinventing yourself being open about your sexuality?
It was part of the plan.
Was it something that came up that was ever an issue? Do you remember the first time you just talked about it as if you weren't hiding anything?
Photo courtesy of Robert Bell
When I met Sue, it was really funny. It was a long time after I had been there, I had been in therapy, which was a huge part of my…not coming out, because I don't believe in that word. My freedom to be me, to live my life authentically.
So, as I'm working and going to therapy,
I found a church called Metropolitan Community Church. They have them all over the world and it was founded by a gay preacher who been thrown out of the
Baptist Church, Rev. Troy Perry, and he founded this denomination for people like him.
I started going and once they heard me singing in the audience, somebody came up to me and said, do you sing? And I'm like, well, yeah. Because I would go in like five minutes before they started, and I would leave immediately. I just wasn’t social. I was not trying to get involved.
Were you just looking for a spiritual place?
Yeah, but Sunday services were not conducive to my work. I was usually working on Sunday morning. I saw this little ad in the newspaper that said MCC at five o'clock Saturday. And that's how I found it.
And then a couple weeks, later Sue came. I didn't really pay her much attention. I thought she was pretty, you know, she was always dressed impeccably. My friend at the church, Robert, said to me one day, “you know, you’d love Sue.”
And I said, I'd scare the shit out of her because, you know, I know me, and
I probably already had. And I started speaking to her more and chatting with her and she always seemed to run away from me.
Then the church had this event. And I created this whole unbelievable scenario that Sue had to drive me to my car. I don't know how I come up with this shit. I had the pastor pick me up, I dropped my car off up the street from the event. After the event all of Sue's friends tried to say I'll take you to your car. They were all being protective of her and I see everybody thought I was some kind of old…
(laughs) Yeah, right? Right? But she took me to my car and we've been together ever since.
Up to that point had you dated anyone at all?
Not in Naples. Now I was married to three
different men years back, but in Naples I was focusing on me.
Was there much of a gay community you were looking to enmesh yourself into?
No, I don’t like labels. I'm weird that way in that I'm not going to go to even a black situation. I'm just not going to go looking for that. I just never did. I don't want to be anywhere where there's only one type of person there.
You just tend to gravitate to good people that get along, different people, and most of the quote-unquote boxes get checked.
We probably would not want to be friends with those people. You know, I know my people, I feel my people. My people have a certain energy and it may or may not be snobbish, I don't know, and I don't care. But my people—it doesn't matter what race, what color, what sexuality—we have an energy. There was this question on
Feature photo by Adriana Iris Boatright. Other photos from the collection of Donette McDonald.
‘You know, I know my people, I feel my people, My people have a certain energy .... But my people —it doesn’t matter what race, what color, what sexuality—we have an energy.’
Facebook that said, if you put all of your partners and a line what would it look like? I was the League of Nations. That's how I've always lived my life.
Back to the story of Sue. I thought she was pretty, and I knew I had to be careful with her because I thought she was a little fragile. Not. That was wrong.
How did you figure out she's not fragile?
She would get so giddy when I would be so honest. Because she loved the fact that I like to keep it real, and that's in quotes. I'm just honest, I've learned over the years how to make it more palatable for people to accept my honesty, but I was always honest. And she would get so giddy and I would say “you like it until I focus it on you.” I said, “you think it's cute, but you just wait because it's going to happen.”
So one day, I can't even tell you what it was about, it was something silly because we never got into a fight about anything substantial, it’s always some bullshit.
And she said, “you’re an ass!” and I said thank you! I know she has it in her. She calls it that Minnesota nice. Sure. I call it Minnesota, passive aggressive. But she's so sweet and so kind and I actually feel very protective of her. I understand how her friends felt. But 15 years later, here we are.
Because you had not done that before, been out as a couple with a woman, was it comfortable?
You know, I've never thought about it. Um, I didn't feel uncomfortable in any way. I mean, we're not PDA people. I've never been. Once in a while we'll grab each other's hand or something, but we're not real PDA outside of our home. I'll never forget one of our first dates.
It was pretty fabulous, a four-star restaurant, and we went to eat dinner there and it's funny because I'll never forget it. We acted like we were the only two people in that restaurant, and we didn't realize until we left.
Sue and I are kindred spirits in that we don't like labels. We don't like, you know, we're not butch at all, we’re very feminine and we are not attracted to that on any level, and we're not attracted to flamboyance at any level, we are not pioneers. We are not trying to, you know, be cheerleaders for anybody.
After they married, McDonald’s career continued until she was offered the general manager position. After thoughtful consideration, she turned it down, satisfied with what she had achieved.
I was working a lot and Sue said we have one day a week together and you'll be 60 years old soon. What about retirement?
And I'm like, I can't retire because for me, retirement meant having to depend on somebody. And I wasn't used to that and that was really tough. That was a really hard moment in our relationship because she's like, “I got you.” But she didn't understand who she was dealing with. I had always been the breadwinner
in my family. Always, always, even with my husbands. I always made more money.
To have to think about the fact that I wouldn't be in control, that was difficult. She made it easy and she gave me a 60th birthday party at the Naples Botanical Garden.
And so, she asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, well, I'll go back to singing. And funny enough, Juan Gabriel called me. He was feeling nostalgic.
CS: This was the start of Act 3?
Yes. I live in a state of gratitude, you know. That is the most important part. I'm just grateful.
As Act 3 began, McDonald toured with Juan Gabriel for a few years more, but they weren’t marathon tours that kept her away from home for months at a time. McDonald was doing what she wanted to do. A couple of years after
Gabriel passed away in 2016, a desire for a bit more diversity that Naples had to offer, led them to Savannah. They had friends in the area and fell in love with the city.
McDonald is now a part of the Savannah Jazz organization and scene.
She performed at the previous four Savannah Jazz Fests and is around town singing and rehearsing for gigs because she wants to.
As a city and a music community, Savannah is incredibly lucky to have her talent, positivity, and gratitude.