Early life and early career
McDonald was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in El Monte, California, where he was student conductor and president of his high school marching band. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Navy for three years and was stationed in Japan. After his enlistment, he attended Los Angeles City College for a year. In the early 1960s, he began busking on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. His father, Worden McDonald, from Oklahoma, was of Scottish Presbyterian heritage (the son of a minister), and worked for a telephone company. His mother, Florence Plotnick, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and served for many years on the Berkeley City Council. In their youth, both were Communist Party members before renouncing the cause, and named their son after Joseph Stalin.