Born and raised in Fulton, MO, keyboardist/singer Joe McBride began playing the piano at age four. His uncle Bake McBride was an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians. His earliest influences were gospel music, bebop, straight-ahead jazz, Motown, and '70s R&B and funk. As a teenager, he began singing and playing at jazz clubs. Around this time, McBride was stricken with a degenerative eye disease that eventually claimed his sight, but his passion for music didn't diminish. He continued his musical studies at the Missouri School for the Blind and Webster University in suburban St. Louis, where he majored in jazz performance. He also attended the University of North Texas. Around 1983, McBride trekked to San Diego, CA, a bastion of smooth jazz radio. He began playing with the band Fattburger and guitarist Steve Laury.
In 1985, McBride visited his brother in Dallas, TX. What was originally planned as a two-week visit evolved into an abundant opportunity. He was flooded with performing offers, leading to McBride becoming a popular musician of the city's jazz club scene. During that time he met a young trumpeter named Dave Love at a function for North Texas State University. The two became fast friends and when Love ventured into the other side of the music business and started the Heads Up International label, the executive remembered the soulful pianist/vocalist he had met in Dallas and signed him to a record deal. In 1992, the keyboardist was featured on Heads Up labelmate Kenny Blake's debut, Interior Design, and began touring with the Heads Up Superband along with Blake, Gerald Veasley, Keith Carlock and Henry Johnson.