By Chris M. Junior
The drastic changes in the music industry over the last few years are not lost on Doobie Brothers singer-guitarist Tom Johnston.
“People now put out product to back up touring. It used to be the exact opposite,” he says. “It used to be you toured to back the album. Now you put out an album to let people know you’re there.”
That reality played a big part in the recording of “World Gone Crazy,” the first new Doobie Brothers studio effort since “Sibling Rivalry” in 2000. And Johnston is pleased to report that songs from the latest album have been going over well in concert.
“Even though we’ve been touring steadily every single year, without a break, for more than 20 years once we got back together,” Johnston says, “we still play shows and people come up and say, ‘You guys are killing. When did you get back together?’ And it really gets old. One of the things you need to do is gain visibility on a national level, and, of course, the fastest way to do that is release an album.”
The Doobie Brothers are committed to promoting “World Gone Crazy” throughout 2011, which marks the 40th anniversary of the California-bred rock-pop band’s debut album. During a break in their touring schedule, co-founders Johnston and singer-guitarist Pat Simmons talked with Goldmine about their roots, success and what’s ahead.
The Skip Spence Connection
Northern California was in the midst of a golden era in rock and roll when The Doobie Brothers released its first album in 1971. One of that era’s most fascinating musicians played a key role in The Doobies’ formation: Skip Spence, who, after leaving Jefferson Airplane, co-founded Moby Grape.
Tom Johnston: “I knew Skip and played music with him, sometimes on a daily basis in San Jose. He was over at the house a great deal. We played in some bands together and did gigs together — they weren’t really [formal] bands, we’d just throw them together and play shows.
“He’s the one who got (original Doobies drummer) John Hartman and I together ... (and at one of those shows) I ran into Pat Simmons for the first time. He was doing an acoustic thing, and we were impressed with Pat’s playing. So John and I invited him over to jam, and he did.”
Pat Simmons: “We already looked to our peers before we ever put the band together. We were already looking to people who we liked and admired ... I think our band is a little more original than a Jefferson Airplane or Quicksilver Messenger Service or Grateful Dead or Santana — or even Moby Grape. We do our own thing ... we’ve done a little bit of psychedelic rock ’n’ roll; we’ve done a little bit of Latin funk; we’ve done some jamming-type songs; we’ve done some heavier rock stuff. But it all comes from writing a song and letting the band run with it.”
Defining Characteristics and Enduring Hits
The band’s self-titled debut, released on Warner Bros., was anything but a commercial success. The single “Nobody” didn’t make a huge public impression, either: It spent two weeks on Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 110 chart in 1971, peaking at No. 122 (upon being reissued in 1974, the song stalled at No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100).
That first album, though, marked the beginning of producer Ted Templeman’s relationship with The Doobie Brothers. And starting with “Toulouse Street” (1972) and continuing through to “Stampede” (1975), Templeman and the Johnston-Simmons-fronted Doobies recorded four consecutive gold-certified albums that spawned Top 40 hits as well as FM-radio favorites.
Among the notable songs from that fruitful period were the Johnston-fronted “Listen to the Music,” “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin’” — and a common factor was the percussive rhythm guitar style Johnston calls “chunka chunka.”
Johnston: “There was a period of time when I played a lot of acoustic guitar. I developed this rhythm style where I was playing drums with my feet, and the rest of the drum kit was on the guitar with how I strummed it. I think Bo Diddley had an influence there from when I was young. All that stuff kind of intertwined, and when it came to an acoustic instrument, you could just strum or play it with some fire, so that’s where that whole rhythm pattern came from. Quite a few of my songs have that kind of rhythm structure, and it all came from that rhythm style I developed basically on acoustic and transferred to electric.”
In 1975, The Doobie Brothers scored its first No. 1 Billboard pop hit with the Simmons-penned “Black Water.” The song gave him the opportunity to musically tap into the folk blues he played in his formative years and lyrically share his deep appreciation for New Orleans, where the band set up camp in the early 1970s when it toured around the Deep South.
Simmons: “I was going uptown to do my laundry (laughs). I was on the streetcar going through the Garden District, and I just started writing down lyrics. It was raining, [so I wrote] ‘Well if it rains, I don’t care/Don’t make no difference to me/Just take that streetcar that’s going uptown.’ And there’s the line ‘I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland and dance a honky-tonk” — I had been going down to the French Quarter as often as possible and going into the clubs and listening to Dixieland, just hanging out. The first verse is my childhood imaginings of the South from reading ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer,’ and the second verse is actually being there and what it’s really like.”
The Michael McDonald Era
By 1975, lineup changes were nothing new for The Doobies, but a big blow arrived that spring, when a peptic ulcer forced Johnston to take a leave of absence. To help fill the void, The Doobies brought in singer-keyboardist Michael McDonald, who, like, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (another recent addition) was best known for his work with Steely Dan.
Initially, Simmons remembers, McDonald was viewed as a temporary sideman. But as the band was scrambling for new material to finish up a studio album for 1976, McDonald’s role became much more permanent and prominent.
Simmons: “I had mentioned to Ted that I thought Mike had a few good songs. I didn’t really know how they would translate to what we were doing, but I told Ted that I thought they were certainly worth listening to. So Mike sat down at the piano and played ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’ for Ted, just a rough version, and Ted’s eyes got as big as silver dollars. That pretty much sealed the deal.”
That song would hit No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and serve as the title track to The Doobies’ 1976 album, which had a slicker, more soulful sound than the band’s previous efforts.
After regaining his health, Johnston returned to the fold, only to leave for good in 1977, citing a need to “get away from it for a while.” He eventually spent a year doing nonmusical activities, including playing a lot of baseball.
Meanwhile, The Doobies carried on — and in a big way. David Gest, their publicist at the time (perhaps better known many years later for his brief stint as Liza Minnelli’s husband), arranged for band members to appear as themselves in back-to-back episodes of the TV sitcom “What’s Happening!!” The episodes, which aired in late January and early February 1978, focused on main characters Roger, Dwayne and Rerun and their quest to see The Doobie Brothers, who are playing a concert at their high school. When Rerun fails to buy tickets before the show sells out, a stranger offers him three front-row tickets for free — in exchange for bootlegging the performance.
Simmons: “The writer [Sally Wade] came up with the idea and asked what we thought of it, and we said it was a great idea, because that’s something we were faced with all the time. So we thought, ‘Not only will it be funny and entertaining, but it will send a message.’”
That same year, The Doobie Brothers released “Minute by Minute” (1978), the band’s third album with McDonald. It reached platinum status in early 1979 and catapulted The Doobies to a new level of success. The smash single “What a Fool Believes” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year; its writers, McDonald and Kenny Loggins, took home the Grammy for Song of the Year. The album’s title track, which peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s pop-singles chart, also scored Grammy gold, beating songs by The Commodores, Little River Band and others in the category Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
Johnston: “I was still in touch with the band, even though I was out doing a solo thing [by that time]. I felt good for them; I really did. I thought it was pretty cool that they were able to finally land some Grammys; I thought the band was deserving of them before that.”
Breaking Up and Reuniting
In 1982, two years after the release of the “One Step Closer” album, The Doobies disbanded following an official farewell tour that ended in Berkeley, Calif. McDonald and Simmons released solo albums in the ensuing years, and other ex-Doobies played in different bands and did session work.
Sparked by longtime drummer Keith Knudsen, The Doobies reunited in 1987 to play a benefit concert for the National Veterans Foundation.
Johnston: “He called every guy in the band and asked if we’d be interested in doing a benefit to help the Vietnam vets. And everybody said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So that incorporated a lot of guys playing at one time.
“After doing that gig and two more benefits, we did 10 shows to pay for all of that — the money it cost for rehearsal and to work up a set. Ted Templeman sort of helped with that. He made the suggestion that the band reform and make an album. That was supposed to happen in ’88, but it didn’t happen until ’89 — and it wasn’t with Ted, and it wasn’t on Warner Bros. It ended up being on Capitol.”
The album was “Cycles,” with Johnston and Simmons together again, leading the way. Produced by Eddie Schwartz, Charlie Midnight and Rodney Mills, it featured the Johnston-fronted rocker “The Doctor,” which reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Johnston: “It was everybody bringing whatever experience they’d had since we parted company. Some of the guys who were in the band who played on ‘Cycles’ weren’t in the band when the band broke up: (drummer) Michael Hossack and myself, for example. We brought (bassist) Tiran (Porter) back. We had (percussionist) Bobby LaKind with us.”
The lineup shuffled once more for “Brotherhood” (1991) and again for “Sibling Rivalry” (2000), but Johnston and Simmons remained constant, as did the band’s touring schedule well into the 21st century.
In Their Own ‘World’
The Doobie Brothers — the core lineup which currently consists of Johnston, Simmons, Hossack and multi-instrumentalist-singer John McFee — ended the band’s longest gap between studio albums with the 2010 release of “World Gone Crazy.” In addition to a dozen new, original songs (two listed as bonus tracks) and appearances by some notable guests (including McDonald and Willie Nelson), the album also includes a re-recorded version of “Nobody,” and credit for that idea goes to producer Templeman.
Johnston: “Initially, I thought he was nuts. However, I couldn’t fault him on his reasoning, because (the original) wasn’t a good recording. So we just tore it apart and completely built that thing from the bottom up. John McFee came up with this really cool picking part on the Dobro to go over the top of the ‘chunka chunka’ rhythm stuff, and it really complemented the whole thing. Mike put in a new drum pattern, so it took on a different feel. And Pat came up with an idea for an intro, which John played slide Dobro over the top of, and Guy (Allison) came up with some keyboard parts.”
Simmons: “I thought it would be fun to be updated, and it’s fun to hear it with instrumentation that it should have had in the first place. Everything about it is a little bit better.”
Johnston: “I was really happy with the tunes that we had, and one of the biggest contributions Ted made was picking the tunes for the album. I didn’t want to do what we did on the last album, which was produce it ourselves. To me, that was not a good idea. When you work in a democratic society as far as picking tunes, you don’t get your best stuff. You need somebody who stands on the outside and says, ‘No, not that one.’”
Looking to the Future
According to Simmons, an album of Doobie Brothers material featuring the band playing with other artists is on tap for 2012. The group has already contacted Train singer Pat Monahan and vocalist Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame about participating in the project.
As for the Doobies recording and releasing all-new studio albums more often in the years to come, both Johnston and Simmons hesitate to make any predictions, especially while “World Gone Crazy” is still a priority for them.
Johnston: “There certainly are tunes. I write all the time because it’s a hobby of mine; I have about 50 songs on the hard drive right now, but it doesn’t mean they’ll all be perfect for the next Doobies album.”
Simmons: “We’re kind of lazy bones (laughs). (Making an album) does take a lot of work, and you do have to stop almost everything to go in and start recording. It always comes back to, ‘Well, it’s time to make some new music and do some new songs live.’ Being a writer, you’re always working on something. I always have a pile of lyrics sitting around — little poems and life’s observances. So at some point, it just weighs so heavily on you that you go, ‘I got to do a recording.’”