The Doobie Brothers
An American Musical Institution
As durable as American steel, Northern California’s four-time Grammy winning Doobie Brothers sound has become part of America’s musical firmament, sampled on dance records, reinterpreted on “American Idol,” and a fixture on radio formats from top 40 to classic rock. They continue to write and record new material, tour the world, boasting one of the most loyal fan bases in music, all while breaking new creative ground in the exploration of their musical connection with Nashville.
Singer-songwriter-guitarist Pat Simmons says, “We have entered a territory that we never imagined for ourselves, as far as being a part of the cultural landscape. It’s kind of odd when you see your songs in television commercials and hear yourself as background music in a commercial business, but it’s cool. I hear B.B. King in the same places. We’re in good company”
The Doobies have rung up a glittering track record that would be the envy of any band. Beginning with their multi-million-selling sophomore collection Toulouse Street (1972), the Doobies have 3 multi-platinum, 7 platinum and 14 Gold albums. Their Best of the Doobies (1976) has sold more than 11 million copies – a rare “diamond record.” The Doobies propulsive roots-based, harmony-laden, guitar-driven style has sold more than 30 million albums.
Their No. 1 singles “Black Water” (1974) and “What a Fool Believes” (1979), both gold, lead a catalog of indelible songs that include “Jesus Is Just All Right”, “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, “Long Train Runnin’”, “China Grove”, “Take Me In Your Arms”, Takin’ it to the Streets”, “Minute by Minute”, “You Belong to Me,” “The Doctor” and more. In all, the Doobies have tallied up five top 10 singles and 16 top 40 hits.
In 2011, the band marked a new chapter. They filmed a CMT Crossroads special with superstar Luke Bryan, and appeared for the first time ever on the Grand Ole Opry. Their relationship with Nashville continues to unfold, with a new country-based Doobie Brothers project recorded with some of country music’s biggest stars set for release later this year.
Formed in 1969 by Simmons, singer-songwriter-guitarist Tom Johnston, founding drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren, the Doobies made their mark with a run of punchy, melodic hits on Warner Bros. Records. They attained radio and chart ubiquity in the late ‘70s, when the group’s expanded lineup was augmented by Michael McDonald, whose soaring lead vocals pushed the band to new commercial and critical heights.
The years have witnessed many changes in the Doobies, but the band’s most recent studio lineup harkens back to their earliest days. Simmons and Johnston continue to front the group. And multi-instrumentalist John McFee’s history with the Brothers dates back to 1978.
Simmons says, “The sound of the band is the same. Tom and I are still involved in writing the songs and arranging. It brings the sound of the early ‘70s back to the forefront. Tommy and I now have been working together longer than any other time the band has been in existence, steadily working every year, touring.”
The Doobies’ familiar and inimitable sound effortlessly draws from virtually every imaginable tributary of American music.
“We’re basically an American band – we cover a lot of areas,” says Johnston. “We cover blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s based on rhythms, rhythm structures, picking, and harmonies. That’s been the signature of the band.”
He continues, “Think about the influences that come into this band. You take Pat, who comes from a folk-blues background, with a lot of picking and stuff like that – he was a big fan of Rev. Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk. I come from a blues, soul, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll background. Then you stick John McFee into that mix – John came from a country background when he started out, and was in a country band, Southern Pacific. And he is a session musician – he’s played with everybody from Steve Miller to Van Morrison to Elvis Costello. If it’s got strings, he can play it.”
The Doobies’ unique blend of native styles came about with a lack of calculation that remains one of the key sources of their continuing appeal.
Simmons notes, “We didn’t really sit around and think, ‘Oh, we need this element or that element.’ The music has always been an honest representation of whatever we happen to be working on at the time. We had all been playing music for a long time before we put the band together, and our roots influences are what come out. Those influences always overtake whatever conceptual ideas you might have. It’s always been that way with this band — you always return to who you really are.”
While the Doobie Brothers continue to draw their sound from the deep well of the past, their music has always been grounded in the here-and-now, dating back to their very first hit single, issued at the height of the Vietnam War.
Johnston notes, “‘Listen to the Music’ was written thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if world leaders could get together and, if they could communicated through music, as opposed to words, they might be able to find some sort of a bridge to get through our disagreements?’”
That approach is little changed in the new millennium. Their recent release World Gone Crazy’s title track, penned by Johnston, dwells on the economic tumult of 2011, while Simmons’ “Far From Home,” a moving reflection about a child taking leave of home, has a subtext familiar to any American family that has sent a son or daughter off to war. The band’s concern for family and those who serve our country is reflected in their having raised over $3 million for veterans related causes.
The ability of the Doobie Brothers’ music to deal with the essentials of people’s lives in direct, tuneful, affecting songs has developed an audience that spans generations today.
Simmons says, “We have a hardcore fan base that has handed our music down through the years to their children and their children’s children. Repeatedly, people go to our concerts and come up to us and say, ‘My dad turned me on to you guys years ago, and I’ve loved you guys all this time, and my kids are listening to you now.”
“And the songs that people all know, be it ‘Listen to the Music’ or ‘Black Water’ or ‘China Grove,’ are still getting played,” Johnston adds. “Any song that stands the test of time for 40 years or is getting played around the country on a daily basis – that to me is a testament to the quality of the tunes, and that they had something to say that resonated with people. I’d like to say this band has been relevant – it’s been relevant musically, it’s been relevant lyrically, and we’ve always put out a high quality of music.”
The band took a five year respite then regrouped in 1987 for a series of gigs benefiting veterans’ groups and children’s charities, the Doobie Brothers have been taking their music to their fans regularly on tour.
Modest almost to a fault, the co-founders of the Doobie Brothers sometimes grope to define the characteristics that have led their band to become one of the country’s most enduring musical institutions. The fundamental appeal that has drawn listeners to his group for four decades may be best expressed by Simmons:
“In a certain sense, what this band has always had in common with everyone else is the word ‘hope,’” says Simmons. “We hoped we would make some good music, and we hoped there would be some acceptance, and we hoped that things would get better in the world. In that respect, we’re just the same – we’re still hopeful about the future. In my lifetime, there has always been struggle and challenge and some darkness, but with the sun shining through, and that’s what we all live for. You have to look towards the future and recognize that as long as there are thoughtful, intelligent people on the planet, there’s hope for the rest of us.”