Sometimes a goofy gag turns out to be a brilliant idea. The name “The Doobie Brothers” was supposed to be a puerile reference to the amount of pot the band smoked, a filler name until they could come up with something real. Now, 51 years after its founding, the band still takes that moniker to the bank.
An early iteration of the group was called Pud, formed when Virginia-born drummer John Hartman moved to San Jose, California and looked up one of his favorite musicians, singer-songwriter Skip Spence (of Moby Grape). Spence’s friend and fellow singer Tom Johnston joined the effort, bringing his power-chord guitar style along. In 1970, with Spence pretty much out of the picture, they added bassist Dave Shogren and another singer-songwriter, Patrick Simmons, who had the bonus skill of being an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist. At that point, a pal jokingly suggested they call themselves the Doobie Brothers.
With all those singers, the band was destined to become known for its vocal harmonies. They helped push the polyphonic approach of groups like the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas into a funkier, more instrument-focused sound. When a Warner Bros. A&R man heard a Doobie Brothers demo, he knew he had struck gold and convinced the musicians to come to North Hollywood to lay down some music at Amigo Studios.
The band’s debut, The Doobie Brothers, came out in 1971. Its tracks were mostly written by Johnston, with a few by Simmons and a cover of Randy Newman’s “Beehive State.” None of that album’s three singles charted, but the record itself reached the Top 100.
Johnston, who wrote “Greenwood Creek,” also plays the harmonica solo halfway through. Despite the song’s laid-back California saunter, the instruments have a tight rhythmic energy, and occasional unexpected pitches defy predictability, making the sound distinctive.
At the end of 1971, Shogren left, and bass guitarist and singer Tiran Porter took his place. Porter’s voice was lower than Shogren’s, enriching their harmonies even more. The band also added a second drummer, Michael Hossack, who had already toured with them to provide a double-drum sound for live shows. This new lineup recorded Toulouse Street in 1972, and their updated sound profile hit the jackpot. They had Top 40 hits with “Jesus Is Just Alright” and “Listen to the Music.”
The album’s title song, “Toulouse Street,” refers to a historic street in New Orleans. The minor key and multiple tracks of fingerpicked acoustic guitar gives the song a mysterious, melancholic mood.
The success of Toulouse Street was surpassed by that of The Captain and Me in 1973, with the album reaching the No. 7 spot, and the singles “China Grove” and “Long Train Running” performing well. The following year came What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, whose third single, “Black Water,” provided the band’s first No. 1 hit. If you’re an Arlo Guthrie fan like me, it’s amusing to know that he sat in on autoharp for that track.
In general, that album is bathed in rich orchestrations, with session guests ranging from the Memphis Horns to percussionist Milt Holland, who came armed with instruments from all over the world. Besides playing marimba, pandeiro, and vibraphone on various tracks, Holland takes on the Indian tabla for “Tell Me What You Want (And I’ll Give You What You Need).”
Stampede was next, in 1975; its biggest single was “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me).” Michael Hossack did not participate in this album, so the second drummer was Keith Knudsen, who also sang. There are some fun guest artists on these sessions, from English jazz marimba player Victor Feldman to Little Feat’s pianist Bill Payne, who specialized in barrelhouse blues. Payne would eventually join up as a touring band member.
Ry Cooder contributes some classy slide guitar work on “Rainy Day Crossroad Blues” while Porter’s crisp, light-footed bass rhythm keeps things moving.
Little did the band members know they were on the cusp of major change when they recorded Stampede. Johnston, who had been acting as their main singer and songwriter since the early days, was having health problems. By the time they were touring in support of Stampede, he developed a bleeding ulcer and had to drop out. They replaced him on the road with Michael McDonald, who had been singing with Steely Dan. McDonald’s soaring, expressive voice was such a magical match with the Doobies’ sound that he stuck around for the next seven years. The title single off their first album with McDonald, Takin’ It to the Streets (1976), confirmed the commercial wisdom of this decision.
They followed that success with Livin’ on the Fault Line (1977), which sold well as an album but did not produce any hit singles. Apparently its smooth jazz sounds and David Paich’s lush string arrangements worked better on home stereos than on rock radio. Even the rhythmically complex “Chinatown” seems to be slathered in a thick sonic gloss.
Minute by Minute (1978) and One Step Closer (1980) were the last two albums before the band called it quits. But the breakup didn’t last. In 1987 Tom Johnston showed up along with Hossack and Hartman for the group’s revival, and Cycles (1989) became their first new record in nine years. Although McDonald did not sing on the album, he did contribute one song, “Tonight I’m Coming Through,” co-written with percussionist Bobby LaKind.
The session musicians included, count ’em, five keyboard players, along with the Memphis Horns. The resulting background depth can be heard on tracks like this lively cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Need a Little Taste of Love.”
Since then, the band has continued to put out albums at irregular intervals. The most recent collection of new material was World Gone Crazy (2010), which did surprisingly well on the charts. McDonald even appeared as a featured guest on one track. They brought back their old producer from the 1970s, Ted Templeman. But sadly, this was the band’s last opportunity to play with Hossack, who died in 2012.
The album’s highlight is the Johnston-penned “Old Juarez,” which captures a Santana-like Latin spirit with able support from percussionist Karl Perazzo plus Guy Allison on Hammond organ.
The Doobie Brothers are still a going concern, planning to resume in-person concert touring in July of 2021. Johnston, Simmons, and Payne remain in the lineup, bolstered by four other seasoned musicians. Seems like a joint that will never go out.
Header image: the Doobie Brothers in 1974.