Few bands rocked harder or had more success than The Doobie Brothers
By Phill Marder
(No. 50 in a series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
This one’s for John Lecco.
John’s been a good friend for a long time, but when I told him back in 2010 that I was writing this column (in the old days, we called it a column, not a blog) he swore he wouldn’t read a word until I wrote The Doobie Brothers. I didn’t tell him, but I then decided not to write the Doobies until John admitted he was reading my series of rants.
He never said a word, but he blinked a couple weeks ago when he couldn’t hold out any longer, sending a comment on the Grand Funk Railroad story.
So, if you’ve been waiting impatiently for The Doobie Brothers to appear in this series, wait no more. And John, thanks for being a great guy and “a faithful reader.”
From 1972 until 1975, no band in the States spoke Rock & Roll more than the Doobie Brothers.
They were one “smokin’” band, if you’ll pardon the expression, coming along just in time to take over for the disintegrating Creedence Clearwater Revival as the favorite band of Rockers and Bikers everywhere.
With their second album, “Toulouse Street,” climbing to No. 21 in the States, thanks to the breakout single “Listen To The Music,” which hit No. 11 and the follow-up cover of The Byrds “Jesus Is Just Alright,” which reached No. 35, the Doobie Brothers established a driving sound, powered by the twin guitars and vocals of Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the bass of third vocalist Tiran Porter and the double drum attack of John Hartman and Michael Hossack and later Keith Knudsen.
With the release of their third LP, “The Captain & Me,” in 1973, the Doobies cemented their position as one of the world’s premier bands. While the first two albums had been sprinkled with a cover here and there, this LP was entirely group penned except for the 48-second instrumental interlude “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners.” The results were spectacular, the No. 8 “Long Train Runnin’” and the No. 15 “China Grove” becoming guitar riff classics. “South City Midnight Lady” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” balanced the pile-driving Rockers nicely.
“Another Park, Another Sunday” and “Eyes Of Silver” failed to duplicate earlier success, but the album from which they were pulled, “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits,” became the group’s highest-charting long-player (No. 4) when “Black Water,” a bluegrass workout featuring a violin solo and an a capella chorus, broke to everyone’s surprise. Originally buried as a B-side to “Another Park, Another Sunday,” it became the Doobies’ first No. 1 single.
“Black Water’s” success and the Western-themed “Stampede” album, which duplicated its predecessor’s No. 4 album-chart peak, gave the impression it was business as usual in the Doobies’ camp, though stomach ulcers were starting to limit Johnston’s participation. In turn, the band added Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a veteran of Ultimate Spinach and Steely Dan. This move would prove critical to the band’s future.
As the 1975 “Stampede” tour progressed, Johnston was hospitalized. Baxter suggested Michael McDonald as a fill-in, and the group’s future course took a path no one could have envisioned. Johnston’s input was limited to just one song on the next LP, which featured the keyboards of McDonald and the jazz-oriented guitar of Baxter. More importantly, McDonald’s voice was upfront and he penned both hits from the No. 8 album, the title track “Takin’ It To The Streets” and “It Keeps You Runnin’,” also a hit for Carly Simon.
The change of sound didn’t appear to go over too well with the group’s hard-rocking fans and the next album, “Livin’ On The Fault Line,” yielded no hits. However, the album sold well, reaching No. 10.
But if Doobie followers expected a return to classic guitar riffs, the next album, “Minute By Minute,” put the squash to that, becoming the band’s first LP to hit No. 1 in the States, holding that perch for five weeks. The impetus came from the group’s second No. 1 single, “What A Fool Believes,” a brilliant piece of soft rock penned by McDonald and Kenny Loggins.
This success turned out to be a two-edged sword as Baxter and McDonald began disagreeing over the Doobies’ musical direction. With McDonald turning out No. 1 hits, there was little question who would prevail and Baxter left. Hartman, with the group since its inception, also split, joining Johnston’s new group.
Though the next LP “One Step Closer” reached No. 3 and produced the No. 5 hit “Real Love” the band essentially was finished at this point. Porter left as soon as the LP was finished and Simmons quit before the next year (1981) ended. Simmons did participate in a 1982 farewell tour and the other originals popped up for their “last” appearance.
Members participated in various projects after the dissolution, but none came close to the Doobies’ triumphs. Surprisingly, in 1989, Simmons, Johnston, Porter, Hartman and Hossack got back together, the result being “The Doctor,” a No. 9 single, and “Cycles,” an LP that climbed to No. 17.
The follow-up “Brotherhood” didn’t do as much, but different variations of the band have continued to tour, led by Johnston and Simmons, with even Baxter and McDonald making occasional guest appearances. In 2000, the Doobies released the LP “Sibling Rivalry” and in 2010 “World Gone Crazy” became their most recent album.
In essence, the Doobie Brothers actually were two separate bands, the difference between the original group and the McDonald-led configuration being that distinct. But both lineups had great success and, as a whole, deserve induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That may even get John Lecco to Cleveland.