Gates and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1961 and Gates became a songwriter and became involved in producing. He worked as a music copyist, studio musician, and producer for many artists including Pat Boone. Success soon followed, with his composition "Popsicles and Icicles" hitting #3 on the US Hot 100 for The Murmaids in 1963. Another song, "Saturday's Child", was recorded by The Monkees. By the end of the 1960s, he had worked with many leading artists, including Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Merle Haggard, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. Gates also produced the 1965 Glenn Yarbrough hit, "Baby the Rain Must Fall." In 1966 he also produced two singles on A&M Records for Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band which were hits in the Los Angeles area.
In 1967, Gates produced and arranged the debut album of a band called The Pleasure Fair, which featured Robb Royer as a member. A little over a year later, Gates and Royer got together with Jimmy Griffin to form Bread. The group was signed by Elektra Records, where they would remain over their eight-years as a recording act. Their first album, Bread, was released in 1967, peaking at #127 on the Billboard 200. The first single, "Dismal Day," written by Gates, was released in June 1969 but did not sell very well.
Bread's second album, On the Waters, with new member, drummer Mike Botts, was released in 1970 and became a breakout success. It contained the #1 single "Make It with You" and was the first of seven consecutive Bread albums to go Gold in the U.S. Their next three albums, Manna (1971), Baby I’m-a Want You (1972) (featuring Larry Knechtel as a new member of the band, replacing Royer) and Guitar Man (1972) were also successful, yielding more chart singles and gold records. From 1970 to 1973, Bread charted 11 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, all of which were written and sung by Gates. That caused some antagonism between Gates and Griffin, who was a significant contributor to Bread's albums as a singer and songwriter. Bread disbanded in 1973, much to the surprise of fans and the music industry.
Gates recorded and produced his solo album First in 1973. The single "Clouds", an edited version of the album track 'Suite Clouds and Rain', peaked at #47 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and #3 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The full album version was also played extensively by Radio Caroline Presenter Samantha Dubois, at the end of her early morning radio programme, and become her closing theme tune. A second single, "Sail Around The World", reached #50 on the singles chart and #11 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The album reached #107 on Billboard's album chart. In 1975 Gates released the album Never Let Her Go. The title track was released as a single and reached #29 on the Hot 100 chart and #3 on the Adult Contemporary chart. The album itself reached #102 on the Billboard 200.
Bread reunited in 1976 for one album, Lost Without Your Love, released late in 1976. The title track—again written and sung by Gates—reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Bread then disbanded again, and at the end of 1977, Gates released what would be his most successful single as a solo artist, " Goodbye Girl," from the 1977 film of the same name. It peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. To capitalize on that success, an album was put together in 1978 that featured material from Gates' first two solo albums mixed with some new material. It yielded another hit single, "Took The Last Train," but the album itself only made it to #165 on the Billboard 200. Botts and Knechtel from Bread continued to record and tour with Gates. On one tour they were billed as "David Gates & Bread" which brought a lawsuit from Griffin and an injunction against the use of the Bread name. The dispute was resolved in 1984.
Gates released the albums Falling In Love Again in 1979 (featuring "Where Does the Loving Go", peaking at #46 on the Billboard Hot 100) and Take Me Now in 1981 (featuring "Take Me Now," which peaked at #62). He recorded a duet with Melissa Manchester, "Wish We Were Heroes," included in her 1982 album Hey Ricky. Gates was less active in music during the remainder of the 1980s. He concentrated on operating a cattle ranch in Northern California, located on land he purchased during the 1970s. He returned to music in 1994, releasing Love Is Always Seventeen, his first new album in 13 years.
Gates and Griffin put aside their past differences and reunited for a final Bread tour in 1996-1997 with Botts and Knechtel. The David Gates Songbook, containing earlier hit singles and new material, was released in 2002. Gates currently lives in California. Gates' songs have been recorded by many artists, including Telly Savalas, who had a UK #1 hit with "If" in 1975, Boy George, who took "Everything I Own" to #1 on the UK chart in 1987, Vesta Williams made a rendition of "Make It With You" in 1988 and Ray Parker Jr, who recorded "The Guitar Man" in 2006.