The Doobie Brothers, like so many classic rock acts, are easy to take for granted. For the past 50 years, the band has always seemed to be there. They’re a mainstay of the summer concert schedule and should be on the road right now to celebrate their golden anniversary if not for the pandemic. Too, the California rockers remain in constant rotation on radio stations around the world. Go scan the dial in your car or on your satellite radio receiver right now and I guarantee you’ll hear one of their 16 Top 40 hits.
While that level of ubiquity is great for any artist’s bank account, it does come at a small cultural price. Whether due to a lack of mystery about the group or the fact that they’re name-checked as an influence most frequently by big country stars, the Doobies have yet to score the kind of crossover retro respect that their friends, like touring mates Steely Dan, have benefited from in recent years.
Critics have also viewed the band with some suspicion, even from the beginning. As former bassist Tiran Porter put it in a 1979 Rolling Stone profile, “We have been overlooked by the press. After the first LP [The Doobie Brothers, 1971], the only people who seemed to accept us were beer-crazed bikers. By the time our second album, Toulouse Street, was released, we got a lot of attention because of [“Listen to the Music”], but we were dismissed as hippie hard rockers. Then we hit in 1973 with a couple of singles [“Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove” off The Captain and Me] and critics called us Top 40 rock bubble-gum.”
Could all this be why it has taken until this year for The Doobie Brothers to get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — some 25 years after their initial eligibility? Maybe so. But rather than lament that they have waited this long to earn such an accolade, let’s instead celebrate it and use it as a chance to take stock of the band’s history and discography, which is much wilder and runs much deeper than their omnipresent radio hits.
Growin’ A Little Each Day (1970-1975)
When drummer John Hartman made his way from Virginia to the Bay Area, the idea was to reform and join his favorite band, Moby Grape. The closest he got to that dream was long conversations with that group’s reclusive former leader, Skip Spence. But it was Spence who introduced him to another budding musician: guitarist/vocalist Tom Johnston who, in turn, helped connect Hartman with roadhouse rocker Patrick Simmons.
Taking advantage of cheap rent and forgiving neighbors, the three hunkered down in the basement of a San Jose house, hammering out a sound that combined their various influences of R&B, country, and psychedelic rock. And with the addition of bassist Dave Shogren, the newly-christened Doobie Brothers found the final crucial piece: crisp, irresistible vocal harmonies.
Things moved fast for the Doobies from their earliest jams. The group was snapped up by Warner Bros. Records and, capitalizing on the groundwork laid by like-minded artists such as Neil Young and Three Dog Night, quickly had a hit on their hands with their second album, 1972’s Toulouse Street, and its rambling, entreating single, “Listen To The Music.” To begin a journey tracking the long runnin’ train of the Doobies’ career, this should be your first stop. Alongside the album’s other breakout hit, a cover of gospel classic “Jesus Is Just Alright,” Toulouse shows off the band’s varied strengths from stout blues-rock (“Disciple,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me To Talkin’”) to Muscle Shoals-inspired funk (a version of Seals & Crofts’ “Cotton Mouth”) to front-porch pickers (“Snake Man,” the glimmery title track).
Toulouse Street marked the template for the first part of the Doobies’ history. Their next two albums would be progressively more successful than the last, culminating in the raging popularity of 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. Anchored by their first No. 1 single in the U.S., “Black Water,” the record was an appropriately bigger and lusher affair, with the band able to use their commercial clout as leverage to draw in contributions from Stax session players the Memphis Horns, New Orleans piano legend James Booker (his solo is a highlight of the sashaying blues cut “Down In The Track”), and folk scion Arlo Guthrie.
This period also introduced another significant element of Doobie Brothers’ lore: their ever-changing lineup. Even throughout their first five years, the shape of the group shifted considerably. Founding bassist Dave Shogren was replaced by Tiran Porter for Toulouse Street, Hossack was swapped out for Keith Knudsen, and by the time they set out to record 1974’s Stampede, they had welcomed former Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter into the mix.
The latter addition was central to the even bolder Stampede, which leaned into the group’s three-guitar attack that fills up every last corner of songs like “Neal’s Fandango” (an ode to Neal Cassady, the infamous road trip partner of Jack Kerouac and the well-known driver of the Merry Pranksters’ bus), show-off instrumental “Slack Key Soquel Rag,” a Wall of Sound-inspired run through Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Take Me In Your Arms,” and the soulful Southern rocker “I Been Workin’ On You.” Stampede may not have sold as many copies as the Doobies’ previous three albums, but it affirmed the band’s growing strength as songwriters and performers.
No Stoppin’ Us Now (1976-1980)
The next big evolution in The Doobie Brothers’ sound came at a steep price. During the tour for Stampede, guitarist/vocalist Tom Johnston started developing stomach ulcers that got so bad that it nearly killed him. As he told Rolling Stone in 1979, “Luckily I quit when I did, ’cause when I got home, I started throwing up blood … I made it to the hospital posthaste, whereupon I actually died — I was bleeding internally and they lost my heartbeat temporarily, but they brought me back.”
To help fill the gap in their sound, the rest of the Doobies took Baxter’s suggestion to call Michael McDonald, a keyboardist and smoky-voiced talent whom Skunk had worked with in his Steely Dan days. After one audition in New Orleans, McDonald was invited to join the group — at first just to take over Johnston’s spot in the live mix, but eventually as a full-time member, contributing his own material and lead vocals to their next run of albums.
McDonald proved to be the catalyst to propel the band to even greater heights right from the start of his tenure in the band. Some of that had to do with the band veering into more soft rock territory, but it wasn’t as if the Doobies made a hard left turn with 1976’s Takin’ It To The Streets. The tracks that Simmons wrote still had some sharp edges to them, with “8th Avenue Shuffle” showcasing his Southern funk interests and opener “Wheels of Fortune” calling on their deep roots in blues.
The surprise came with how well the band adapted to McDonald’s smoother approach to rock. Hit single “It Keeps You Runnin’” adapts a gritty Dr. John rhythm to the coming computer age with a primitive drum machine rhythm and overdriven electric piano. His spritzing synth tones on “Losin’ End” sets in motion a hip-swinging tune that perfectly framed McDonald’s broken-hearted sentiments.
By the time of their eighth album, 1978’s Minute By Minute, McDonald was allowed to take a stronger creative hand, and in doing so, helped smooth out the Doobies’ sound even more. So much so that even Simmons was adapting his songwriting to the new soft rock regime, rendering his Chet Atkins-style instrumental “Steamer Lane Breakdown” as an outlier and adding a strange gloss to the bluesy grind of “Don’t Stop to Watch The Wheels.”
“As far as I was concerned, I liked what was happening,” Simmons told Ultimate Classic Rock about the album in 2014. “I liked what had happened before, and I really liked where things were going. I liked Mike’s tunes, I liked his sensibility musically, and I felt comfortable with the music in general.”
The rest of Minute By Minute is as sleek and creamy as 1,000 thread count sheets. The opening trio — the light funk shuffle of “Here to Love You,” the band’s second No. 1 hit “What A Fool Believes,” and the breezy title track — are pure sun-kissed bliss elevated by layers of synthesizers, conga drums, and McDonald’s syrupy tenor. The album dovetailed perfectly into an era that was on a slow comedown from the disco explosion and wound up scoring the Doobies three Grammy awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.
For all their commercial success, the grind of recording and touring started to wear on The Doobie Brothers. After the tour for Minute By Minute, Baxter and drummer John Hartman both left the group, with bassist Tiran Porter following them out the door after the recording of 1980’s One Step Closer. Even with the injection of fresh blood like saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus and session guitarist extraordinaire John McFee, the center couldn’t hold. Simmons left the group in 1981 and only offered to rejoin one year later for a tour on the condition that, when it was over, the band would be no more. After one final rousing show in their old stomping grounds of the Bay Area in the fall of 1982, the various Brothers went their separate ways.
No one involved in The Doobie Brothers had any plan to get the band back together. In truth, the only reason that a retinue of past members of the group were willing to share a stage again was to support drummer Keith Knudsen’s work raising money for the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation. But that one planned show turned into a 12-date tour in 1987 featuring members from every incarnation of the group. Even longtime producer Ted Templeman agreed to join them as a live percussionist.
Recognizing an opportunity when they saw one, the Doobies decided to reunite more permanently soon thereafter with the early ‘70s lineup of the group centered on the trio of Simmons, Tom Johnston, and original drummer John Hartman that kicked off this decades’ long ride. Cycles, the album that came out of this first flurry of activity, was written with a mindset of getting back to their rough and tumble early days. The emphasis was on sturdy rock songs that homed in on the guitar and vocal interplay of Simmons and Johnston and allowed the band to dig their heels in on the influence of blues, garage rock, and R&B. (The latter was especially in play in their warmly rendered covers of the Isley Brothers’ “Need A Little Taste of Love” and the Four Tops’ “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison)”.) Not even the highly compressed production sound that marks this as a product of the late ‘80s could dampen the spirit and energy of the re-energized Doobies.
The Brothers have since become a constant presence in the world of rock music, even as members have continued to come and go from the group. At the moment, the core of the Doobies is Simmons, Johnston, and John McFee (who, again, came on board around 1980). And perhaps recognizing the diminishing returns of releasing new music into a marketplace that is focused instead of pop and hip-hop, there have been few full-lengths from the group.
By that same token, knowing how much people continue to clamor for the band’s many hits and wanting to nod to the young bucks that have cited the group as an inspiration may have helped inspire the decision by the Doobies to head into the studio to re-record a dozen of their classic cuts with the help of Nashville superstars.
Dismiss 2014’s Southbound if you wish, but, much like seeing them in concert these days, it is a blast to hear the band slip into these old jams like a comfy pair of jeans. And they’re given a sharp boost of energy with the help of the artists joining them along the way. Chris Young leans into “China Grove” with authority, Brad Paisley applies his trademark guitar fireworks to “Rockin’ Down The Highway,” and the Zac Brown Band prove to be the perfect foils to pull “Black Water” back to its swampy origins. Best of all is Sara Evans popping up to sidle up next to Michael McDonald for a slinky duet on “What A Fool Believes.”
In the nearly six years since Southbound was released, The Doobie Brothers have taken a knowing turn into the life of a legacy act, one that can still rouse audiences of all ages with just the sound of the opening chords of “China” or hitting that stomping breakdown in “Black Water.” New fans aren’t hard to come by either, as long as the band continues to get namechecked by country superstars, finds its way into the playlist of classic rock and adult contemporary stations, or forces the yacht rock ironists of the day to admit that the group has much more to offer than the Michael McDonald hits. Not counting their brief breakup, The Doobie Brothers have managed to keep their long train on the tracks for five decades and counting. If that doesn’t inspire you even a little bit, listen to the music and you might just change your mind.
Published in partnership with Rhino.