Favorite Bands: The Doobie Brothers

The Doobies had a name that should not have been mentioned in my household when I was a kid. I mean “doobie”? Tolerance for marijuana was not something we were raised on. But my mom liked the Doobie Brothers’ music. So she turned a blind eye to the name. ‘Cuz damn, they knew how to play.

It would probably be easier to point out what Bay Area musicians working from 1970 to 1981 were not in the Doobie Brothers. Their collective line-up makes bands like Deep Purple, King Crimson, and Yes look positively stable. And like those bands, they benefited from the changes.

Rather than try to guess which line-up defines what era of the band, it’s easier to define them by the two primary songwriter/vocalists. The band was founded by, among others, Tommy Johnston. It ended under the leadership of Michael McDonald. In between?

“Long Train Running” was one of the early hits for the Doobies, when they transitioned from the Hell’s Angels’ house band (not literally, but almost) to a national act. It typifies their approach to music as they threw away the rules. They weren’t a power trio. They had twin lead guitars (later three with the addition of Steely Dan’s Jeff “Skunk” Baxter) and even tried playing with two drummers on stage. Tying these early sounds together was Tiran Porter’s fat thumping bass lines. Johnston (and later McDonald) shared lead vocal and song writing duties with co-lead guitarist Patrick Simmons. Simmons would be the only Doobie to be part of every line-up.

The band toured hard, to the point where Tommy Johnston’s health collapsed. He left the band in 1976, which left them in a lurch. They needed someone to take up Johnston’s vocal and songwriting load. Baxter suggested a session player from his Steely Dan days, Michael McDonald. McDonald was a keyboard player, but could he handle some of the rigors of Johnston’s work? The first rehearsal prompted Tiran Porter to be amazed that “that big black voice was coming out of that little white man.” McDonald got the job. When Johnston decided not to come back after his hospitalization, McDonald became a permanent member.

[Sorry I couldn’t find video from the 1970’s that didn’t sound like it was recorded in a rain barrel on VHS.]

Of course, this shifted the band’s sound from swamp rock, as typified by Simmons’ signature song, “Black Water” to blue-eyed soul and soft rock. They began with the very Doobiesque “Taking It to the Streets” but began drifting toward more Fleetwood Mac-style fare such as “You Belong to Me” and “What a Fool Believes.”

Numerous personnel changes gutted the Doobies’ sound. Baxter and Porter left. By the end in 1981, Simmons and McDonald were the only members of note. Simmons did not want to be a member of “The Michael McDonald Band,” and apparently, neither did Michael McDonald. He said in an interview that they could not get any further from the Doobie Brothers’ sound if they tried. They did a farewell tour with a reluctant Simmons before packing it in.

However, the late 1980’s saw one-off reunions, various members playing here and there together. In 1987, a significant number of former Doobies regrouped for a brief tour benefitting veterans groups. The tour was so successful that talks began over a permanent reunion. With McDonald’s solo career flying high, the band opted for the early “China Grove” line-up, releasing a new album, “Cycles.” They’ve toured ever since, with Johnston and Simmons as constants and Michael McDonald either touring as a member or occasionally appearing as a guest. Current bass player Skylark was hired to take on some of McDonald’s vocals. With Johnston’s recent vocal surgery, McDonald has come back to take on some of the load for Johnston on their next tour.

While digging up videos for this piece, I saw a comment on “What a Fool Believes,” which features a significant number of mid-seventies Doobies. A woman commented that her father used to play that song all the time, and that watching this, she wondered when it became passe to play an instrument live the way the Doobs were doing in this video. She said the music sounded more organic back then.

That was the Doobies secret. When it stopped sounding like that, they quit.