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What a Doob believes: How the Doobie Brothers survived '50-ish' years to finally get their due

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Now that they have, they're taking full advantage of the recognition. In October, the band released a new studio album, "Liberté," and this week Johnston and Simmons published a memoir, "Long Train Runnin': Our Story of the Doobie Brothers," which includes input from former bassist Tiran Porter, one of the relatively few Black men in the mostly white '70s rock business, and the band's longtime producer, Ted Templeman. With McDonald on board, the group is using its current live set — which also features guitarist John McFee, a Doobie since the late '70s — to showcase the breadth of its catalog.

And what a crazily broad catalog it is, with hard-riffing biker-bar rock alongside fingerpicked acoustic blues and swank, jazz-inflected R&B. The easy way to look at the band's initial run, which yielded 16 Top 40 hits, is to split it into halves: the early years when the growly-voiced Johnston was fronting the band and the later years when the smoothly soulful McDonald had the job.

"Kind of like Fleetwood Mac," Simmons pointed out, invoking another classic-rock act with distinct eras (in Fleetwood Mac's case, before and after Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham joined).

But the truth is that the Doobie Brothers — whose multiracial lineup reflected, and fueled, the diversity of their deeply American music — were always evolving, even when the singer stayed the same.

"We just kept trying things," Johnston said during a break from rehearsal. Dressed in an array of dad jeans and sensible sneakers (except for McDonald, who wore flip-flops), the core Doobies had convened near the Burbank airport from their homes scattered around the West — Johnston in Marin County, McDonald and McFee in Santa Barbara, Simmons on Maui. Yet as they recounted the old days, they joked around like the lifelong pals they are. "Went from the first album, which didn't sell s—, to the second album, which had a song that got on the radio — couple of them, actually," Johnston continued. "Then the third album, we started trying synthesizer stuff. Album after that, we had the Memphis Horns.

"We've had a lot of players too. I mean this in the most respectful way, but we've had an exploding drummer problem," Johnston said, referring to the "Spinal Tap" gag. "And bass players, we've had a few of those. They all brought something of their own to the music."

 

The Doobies grew out of the Bay Area biker scene at the Chateau Liberté, a rough-and-tumble roadhouse in the Santa Cruz Mountains with a loyal clientele of Hells Angels. "It was the real deal — guys with guns taking big slugs from bottles of Jack," said Templeman, who remembered heading up from Los Angeles to check out the band after plucking its demo from the slush pile at Warner Bros. Records. "But when Pat and Tommy would sing together, it was so beautiful. Kind of incongruous." According to Templeman, the group asked for $20,000 to sign to Warner: "10 for equipment and 10 for cocaine," the producer said.

The Doobies' self-titled debut came out in 1971 and was quickly followed by 1972's "Toulouse Street," which went platinum, and 1973's "The Captain and Me," which went double-platinum. In 1975, the group topped Billboard's Hot 100 with the folky "Black Water." But as their success grew, Johnston's health was deteriorating as a result of a bleeding ulcer; forced to bail mid-tour, the singer was replaced on the road by McDonald on the recommendation of guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who'd played with McDonald in Steely Dan before Baxter joined the Doobies.

"The second I heard him open up his mouth, I said, 'holy s—,'" Porter writes of McDonald in "Long Train Runnin'." "My mind was blown right there."

McDonald stuck around and began contributing to the band's albums beginning with "Takin' It to the Streets" in 1976; by the next year's "Livin' on the Fault Line," the Doobies' sound had changed dramatically to suit his nimble keyboard playing and quiet-storm vocal approach. Johnston insists today that he didn't resent the shift. "But I didn't feel like I was adding enough to the band at that point," he said. "I wasn't comfortable." So he quit.

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