By Mike Greenblatt
The recent Doobie Brothers boxed set — “The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1983” (shown at right) — features their first 10 CDs, each in its entirety, for a 111-song bonanza. It’s an incredible trip through the first 12 years of a band that would go on to sell more than 46 million albums, despite having a dramatic midstream change-of-direction upon the controversial entrance of Michael McDonald. When Goldmine caught up with band co-founder Tom Johnston, fresh off almost a full year of non-stop touring, he proved to be honest, forthcoming, entertaining and owner of a hell of a memory.
GOLDMINE: The Doobie Brothers are still vital — performing and composing.
Tom Johnston: I wrote a song this morning.
GM: This box is great. So much stuff got past me the first time. Ten CDs! Let’s run through them all and beyond …
TJ: … if I can remember it all.
GM: You start out in the 1960s jamming with Skip Spence of Moby Grape and playing a lot of biker bars in a Northern California cover band. Weren’t you a Hells Angels favorite?
TJ: Well, I did hang out with Skip a lot. He was never a Doobie Brother but he was at the house all the time. He lived around the corner from me in San Jose. And as far as the Hells Angels are concerned, that’s actually a misnomer gossiped through the years that we were a Hells Angels band. Funny, we go to one Hells Angel’s event and we’re forever branded as a Hells Angels band.
GM: You played the Chateau a lot and that was a biker bar, no?
TJ: That’s not the same thing as playing at Hells Angels events. Well, we did do one of those as well at a place called Losers North. We were there but we never actually played that night because the first band up — with Skip — never got off the stage (laughs).
GM: On the cover of your self-titled 1971 debut, you’re holding a beer.
TJ: Oh man, you’re right, I totally forgot about that.
GM: Yeah, you seem so lackadaisical, as if you didn’t want to put your beer down for the shoot.
TJ: (laughs) That was shot by Jim McCrary (1939-2012) who also shot Woodstock, the Stones and Dylan. He went on to become quite the well-known photographer.
GM: It was probably his idea to keep the beer. You’re in denim and leather, looking like someone I wouldn’t want to meet in an alley after midnight. Yet the sound on that album hardly approximated what you were doing live at the time.
TJ: Right. It was acoustic. Even the material was nothin’ like our sets. (Future Warner Brothers President) Lenny Waronker produced it. (Legendary record producer) Ted Templeman was his assistant at the time. Funny, Lenny had this acoustic vision of the group. I mean, sure, we’ve always knew how to play acoustic, but we wanted to rock out with electric guitars in bars. Pat (Simmons) was and is a good acoustic finger-picker. The only song that kind of mirrored a little bit of what we were like live was “Nobody.”
GM: You’ve recorded “Nobody” three times. It led off your debut. It’s also on 2010’s “World Gone Crazy” in a totally revamped arrangement. You also put it on 2014’s “Southbound” as a duet with country singer Charlie Worsham. Do you still do it live?
TJ: On occasion. Not recently, though. Actually, we did whip it out five or six months ago. And that 2014 version is my favorite out of the three.
GM: Fame hit you square in the jaw with the release of 1972’s “Toulouse Street,” one of the best albums of that year. Did you have any idea whatsoever upon completing it that it would be so artistically satisfying and commercially accepted? I’ll still never forget discovering “Listen To The Music” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and playing them both for my friends when I was 21.
TJ: I don’t think anybody knows that kind of stuff in advance. I was 24, green in the ways of business. We had no clue what was about to happen to us. Hell, we thought the first album was going to totally take off. It was a combination of optimism and hope. We’d never been in a professional studio before on that debut. The second album, though, we thought we knew it all. We went in without Templeman because we were arrogant enough to want to do it on our own. We didn’t like how he softened us up the first time. We hungered to go full-blown electric like how we sounded onstage. Anyway, we start doing that by ourselves and all we did was waste a lot of money and time. Finally, we had to admit we didn’t know what we doing after only having been in a studio once, and now twice, in our lives. Once Warner Brothers started talking about cutting off our funding, we brought Ted back in, and thank God we did. He got us headed in the right direction.
GM: Didn’t Little Feat’s Bill Payne play on that record as well?
TJ: He did. And it started a long association where he’d play on a lot of our records. And now he’s our keyboard player.
GM: Open up the “Toulouse Street” packaging and the whole band is naked in the center spread with carefully arranged artifacts hiding the privates of each musician, but not the breasts of a few of the girls.
TJ: They were some locals from San Jose. I wish I could tell you their names.
GM: Did you consider yourself a hippie band in 1972? Because all my friends and I certainly did, and loved you for it.
TJ: No, not really. We certainly never talked about that. Life was good. I had a place to live for $40 a month. I was going to school and playing music every free moment. Wait, I finished school in ’71. That’s right. It’s just that whole period of time, the word that comes to mind is “free.” You could do what you wanted, whenever you wanted. We didn’t answer to anybody. That made making music fun. And we’d get together, write these tunes and really work them out. It was a great time in my life. I’m so glad Ted came back. That’s when we really started seriously writing. If it wasn’t for him …
GM: We always thought “Jesus Is Just Alright” an oddball choice to include.
TJ: Nah, we knew it from The Byrds’ 1969 cover version. Now they were a real hippie band. Pat (Simmons) recently finally played me the 1966 Art Reynolds Singers original. I had never heard it.
GM: In 1973, “The Captain and Me” yielded one of your biggest hits, “China Grove.” You had to have felt on top of the world at that point, no?
TJ: Oh yeah, we were all deliriously happy. By then we were touring in a major league way. But I have to stress that it was “Listen To The Music” that really popped the Doobies cork. That’s the one where we actually heard ourselves on the radio for the first time, and any artist will tell you, it’s always a watershed moment. It was a big deal for us. We all marveled at it. We were like, “Wow.” Not so much for making the big time, so to speak, but hearing your song done by you on local radio sandwiched between all these people who had already made it, musicians we’d been listening to for years. They were stars, we were kids, yet we were being played right alongside them as if we were also stars. You never forget something like that. It was mind-boggling.
GM: I remember going to see you about 100 years ago and you played “Without You” for what must have been 45 minutes. Did I dream that or did you used to take that tune and stretch it out Allman Brothers-style for the better part of an hour?
TJ: (laughs) That’s entirely possible. We used to do it with “Long Train Runnin’” too. Although we never considered ourselves a jam band, that term hadn’t been invented yet anyway, but it was just a thing that bands did back then. I’ve seen footage of us from England and France where we just went on and on and on and on. We always had a signal, though, where we’d pull it back into the basic song and ride it out.
GM: So Skunk Baxter joins the Doobie party in 1974 for another great album, “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.” He was in Steely Dan when Donald Fagen refused to tour for years, so he became a Brother. That’s the album with my favorite Doobies song of all “Black Water.” It also has you using The Memphis Horns for the first time. That must have been a thrill.
TJ: Yeah, me being an R&B freak, I was in heaven. So uplifting. I mean, man, they were on all those old Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke and Sam & Dave hit singles!
GM: Not to mention Aretha, Joe Tex, Elvis, Isaac Hayes, Joe Cocker, Al Green, James Taylor and dozens more. So then “Stampede” comes out in 1975. Here you get ill, no?
TJ: I did, yeah. The album was done. We were on tour. And I got a bleeding ulcer. It got really bad and I got really sick, ending up in the hospital. I had to leave the tour and felt terrible. I kind of left them high and dry. Not on purpose but because I had to. Now, I wasn’t there to watch this unfold, but that’s when they brought in Michael McDonald to finish the tour, sing back-up vocals and add a keyboard. Pat was still singing all the lead stuff in my absence. So they completed the tour without me, then went into the studio to record “Takin’ It To The Streets.” That’s when everything changed. I was still dealing with the stomach thing. It was pretty bad. I did write one song for that album (“Turn It Loose”) but that was all. I came over and watched them record a little bit but wasn’t really heavily involved with that album.
GM: But they do a song for you on that album: “For Someone Special.” That’s you.
TJ: I do believe so, yeah. (Bassist) Tiron (Porter) wrote that (and sang lead on it).
GM: That’s a very nice loving gesture. The album was a radical departure. It made the Doobie Brothers into a different kind of band. I’ve got to be honest with you here — as a longtime Doobie Brothers fan, I was not particularly enamored of Michael McDonald. I’m still not. And I know I’m not the only one. He changed the whole band into his backup band! Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.
TJ: (long pause) I’ve heard about this to death, so I understand what you’re talking about. It’s what Michael was doing. It’s where he was coming from. Frankly, had he not done that, the band could’ve very easily broken up or gone away for good. I was back for the tour in the spring. He brought a different sound that caught on with a lot of people and took us to a higher plane of popularity. Now we’re back to the original format — since 1989 — and put out two albums right off the bat (1989’s “Cycles” and 1991’s “Brotherhood”). My point is, though, that had he not done that, the band could have folded, so I’m very grateful that he showed up when he did, man. He kept the flame going. If it’s not a style that you’re into, I understand that. I certainly know where I come from musically and I was totally into it. The odd dichotomy in all that is the fact that I grew up with R&B and blues. Michael came up on R&B. It’s just a different kind of R&B, that’s all.
GM: But the band sound evaporated in the face of his faux-soul white-boy vocals.
TJ: Look, that fingerpicking element by Pat, plus Tiran’s very special style of bass playing, combined with the harmonies and that R&B feel in the rhythm — listen to “Listen To The Music” and “Long Train Running” — is what made the Doobies the Doobies. That was and is the quintessential Doobies sound ever since we were a garage band playing in our basement. A basement band.
GM: You cover a 1965 Motown song by Kim Weston — “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While) — on your 1975 “Stampede” album, and it becomes a bigger hit than the original.
TJ: We still play it.
GM: And you have two drummers!
TJ: (sighs) Everyone always made a big deal about the two drummers, but in the studio we never used two drummers, except on “Without You,” which we recorded live. Usually, it was always just guitar, bass and drums on the basic tracks and everything else got added on during the over-dubbing. We’re basically what I call an American band. None of it was intentional. We never sat down and talked about trying to go in any one direction. We just did what we did and that’s how it came out. We’re just very fortunate that it worked. So when Michael came around, that sound, you’re right, went pretty much away, except on certain tracks. But the rhythm guitar style I’m known for with Pat fingerpicking atop, that kind of took a walk, OK?
GM: Then came “Livin’ On The Fault Line” in 1977. You’re healthy again. But your role in the band is diminished. You write five songs for that album and none of ‘em made it. So you quit!
TJ: That’s not exactly accurate. It was four songs, and it’s not that they didn’t make the album, I took ‘em with me when I left the band. Looking back on it now, it probably was a dumb move. I always thought Michael was real good and I still do. He’s an incredible talent. I love all his stuff. But back then, I decided to just take some time off and I took my songs with me.
GM: Thus, they had no hit single on that album.
TJ: I was out of music completely.
GM: What did you do?
TJ: Gained weight. Played softball. Played bass. Drank beer. Hung out. After about a year of that, I readied my solo album (“Everything You’ve Heard Is True,” 1979). They kept on with their career. I did another solo album (“Still Feels Good,” 1981). They kept on having success, won a few Grammys and a lot of attention was drawn to the band’s name. So we all owe Michael a great debt. He kept the flame alive with the tunes he brought in. Without him doing that, there might not have been a Doobie Brothers after 1975. I think it’s a good thing the way things worked out – especially considering that when we came back, everybody embraced that as well. So that was also cool.
GM: That must have felt great. Now we’re up to 1978 with “Minute By Minute” and the mega-hit “What A Fool Believes,” which even I like. You’re still not back in the band yet. Tensions flare between Michael and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, causing a major rift in the band, ultimately leading to its demise.
TJ: That’s what I heard, yup. I didn’t see any of it and I don’t know firsthand what exactly happened, but I heard stuff. That’s when Jeff took off. He was replaced by John McFee (who had played with Huey Lewis in Clover).
GM: “One Step Closer” was in 1980 but within the year, it was over.
TJ: Not really. The band broke up in ’82, actually. Once again, I was not there for any of this, but it’s my understanding that Patrick (Simmons) and Michael (McDonald) had a chat with Pat saying, “We’ve gotten so far away from what this band is supposed to be all about, I’d like to just take a break for now.”
They also felt they owed the fans a farewell tour to say goodbye and thank you for sticking with them all those years. And I’ve got to admit, the fans have really been great. No matter which version of the band they liked, the fans have always been very faithful to us. So they did. They played a farewell tour and invited me in on the last night in Berkeley, Calif. They made an album out of that tour, too (1983’s “Farewell Tour,” the 10th CD in the box set). It was quite a night. A lot of us who used to be in the band were all there. It was a lot of fun.
GM: So after six years of silence, you reform for a 1989 Vietnam veterans benefit concert.
TJ: (Drummer) Keith (Knudsen, 1948-2005) got that one together. He deserves all the credit. He called everyone in the band and asked them if they would do it. And pretty much everyone he asked said yeah. (Bassist) Willie (Weeks) didn’t do it, I remember. But I think we had like four drummers and four guitar players that night. Michael was on keyboards and vocals on one side of the stage and Cornelius Bumpus was also on keys, sax and vocals on the other side of the stage. It was a huge entourage. It took us about two weeks of rehearsing to put all that together. We did a warm-up gig first in San Diego. I believe it was the Sportatorium, the place they used for the “Almost Famous” movie. So we get up on stage for the first time not really expecting anything. We hadn’t even really been a band for quite awhile. The place went nuts. We got standing ovations and they just wouldn’t stop. We all looked at each other that night. I’ll never forget it. It was one of those “wow” moments. Not one of us was expecting that! Absolutely nobody. We were so blown away. So we played the set, and the next night we were in The Hollywood Bowl and it was the fastest-selling show there since The Beatles. It was very successful for the Vietnam vets so, once again, hats off to Keith for doing that.
GM: And it went so well that you guys said let’s keep on going?
TJ: Thanks to Ted Templeman, again, who was there for a lot of the rehearsals. When we got to the point where we were just about to take it on the road for 13 shows to pay for a lot of start-up costs, Ted said, “Why don’t you guys get back together in the original format?” — Pat, myself, Tiron, John Hartman and Mike Hossack (1946-2012). Keith and John McFee were doing Southern Pacific at the time. So we went to Russia with the original format, came back, went in the studio for 1989’s “Cycles,” which went gold and had one hit, “The Doctor.” I wasn’t exactly nuts about the song, but it served its purpose. It got us back in the public eye.
GM: How was Russia?
TJ: Wild! It was still Communist USSR. We went over as part of Bill Graham’s 1987 package with Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Santana. It promoted the “American-Soviet Peace Walk,” which started in St. Petersburg and ended up in Moscow. I saw some of the walk’s footage and it was really fascinating. Walkers would sit with people whose houses lined the route, and although the language was different, music overcame that. We weren’t on the walk but remained in Moscow playing in a gigantic soccer stadium surrounded by Russian military and police. I always felt it was a case of too much security because none of us were about to do anything illegal. A Russian band, Autograph, played too. They had Russian folk dancers and some jazz guys. It was a wild mixture of music. The place was packed and it went over well. We ended up staying in the Olympic Village from the 1980 Olympics that the U.S. boycotted. The place was falling apart, but we got to hang out in Red Square and see all this stuff we had been seeing on the news in black and white our whole lives.
TJ: The ‘90s for us was, indeed, all about the stage. “Brotherhood” wasn’t successful. We were on Capitol by then. We wanted Ted but he was locked into other projects. Oddly enough, the guy who originally signed us to Warner Brothers, Joe Smith, signed us to Capitol. But, without Ted, I didn’t think the production on “Brotherhood” was that great, to be honest with you. I mean, sure, there’s some good songs on it, but I remember producer Rodney Mills speeding most of the songs up before they were mastered and I didn’t think they sounded good that way. Pat’s “Dangerous” was the single, and we thought it was going to do something at first but didn’t really. We still do it live sometimes.
GM: The band was subsequently dropped by Capitol and wouldn’t be back in the studio for nine years.
TJ: Yeah, but we toured our asses off that decade.
GM: Until you had throat surgery.
TJ: Where’d you hear that? I didn’t have throat surgery.
GM: What happened to you in 2007?
TJ: I had an operation for an over-the-top case of acid reflux. It was causing me to have an inordinate amount of phlegm when I tried to sing. I was away from the band for two weeks before getting right back at it. Worst part of that was the procedure didn’t do a damn thing for me.
GM: Last year, the “Southbound” album had the Doobies doing their hits with country music singers, and it turned out pretty damn fine.
TJ: We’re skipping over an album, though, that I thought was one of our best, even though it didn’t get to the public’s eye as much as we would have liked. To me, it was a seminal album for the band. We had put out “Sibling Rivalry” on Rhino in 2000 and it didn’t do much despite having a few good songs. But “World Gone Crazy” in 2010 was a phenomenal album. I thought we had some of our best songs since “Stampede.” Ted was back producing. It came out on HOR Records, a made-up label for just a couple of guys with a (financial) backer. A few singles made the radio but not enough people ever even heard that album. They released the title track to country but mistakenly kept the horns on it. I had envisioned a New Orleans feel with horns, but Nashville doesn’t seem to embrace horns. It’s a great tune and we do it live still. So “Southbound” comes out last year and it’s another case of bad timing because our Sony contact leaves the company. But, man, the Nashville musicians on it were jaw-dropping good. Everything was done in one or two takes and the country singers who we collaborated with were all such professionals. The only Doobie in the studio was the author of each song. Everything else was fleshed out by studio players. Every track came out so well. The producer, David Lyndon Huff, did such a good job. He had the writer of each song sing it all the way through, then the guest artist sing it all the way through, and he spliced them together for the final mix. So well done. So creative.
GM: You just finished a huge tour. What’s next?
TJ: We want to do another studio album. GM