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The Doobie Brothers

Comforting and slick as an FM/soft-rock ALLMANs or as cool as a sunny day CHICAGO; all crystal clear harmonies and laid-back strumming, The DOOBIE BROTHERS were quintessential Californian yacht-rock. Taking their “doobie” moniker from the slang term for a marijuana joint, all they asked was for fans to `Listen To The Music’, while hopping on board for that `Long Train Runnin’ trip to music heaven. Led by Tom Johnston, until he jumped ship in 1975 to pursue a brief solo career, the joyous DOOBIE BROTHERS were more than “just alright”. When the silky smooth Michael McDonald took over main vocal/songwriting chores until the early 80s, another aspect of the band had come to the fore.
Founded in San Jose, California, in March 1970, the roots of Messrs Tom Johnston (guitar/vocals) and John Hartman (drums) could be traced back a few years when they led out post-psych/country-rock outfit, Pud (along with Gregg Murphy). When the pair teamed up for jam sessions with guitarist Patrick Simmons and bassist Dave Shogren, playing barroom boogie that was popular with local Hell’s Angels, The DOOBIE BROTHERS were born.
Almost immediately picked up by Warner Brothers, there was certainly a West Coast country-rock motif (a la MOBY GRAPE or CSN) in their eponymous debut album. Although garnering little in sales, THE DOOBIE BROTHERS (1971) {*6} set was indeed an initiation test and eye-opener for the tight quartet, who’d saw best pieces `Nobody’, `Feelin’ Down Farther’ and `Beehive State’, fall by the wayside under extreme competition from similar acts; while `Nobody’ bubbled under the Hot 100, three years on it reached #58.
Swapping Shogren for Tiran Porter, and adding second drummer/percussionist Michael Hossack, the turn-around of fortunes on sophomore set TOULOUSE STREET (1972) {*8} was greatly received. Helped in no short measure by near-Top 10 classic `Listen To The Music’ (akin to an aural massage) and follow-up hit, `Jesus Is Just Alright’ (a cover track once used by The BYRDS), the Doobs won their first gold disc which set the musical blueprint for the first half of their career. Producer Ted Templeman now fully allowed to experiment with the group’s impeccable harmonies and musicianship (Ted had helped out on their debut), it was one step ahead of the EAGLES and comparable to a cleaner CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL, encompassing a smorgasbord of genres – it went from the blues (filtered through a rendition of SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Don’t Start Me To Talkin’), soft-rock (by way of SEALS & CROFT’s `Cotton Mouth’) and boogie-fied ALLMAN-styled southern rock (in the 7-minute `Disciple’).
A Top 10 act when both THE CAPTAIN AND ME (1973) {*8} and attendant 45, `Long Train Runnin’, raced up the charts (the fast-paced `China Grove’ also reached the Top 20), the Doobies presented a harder-edged alternative to the EAGLES, AMERICA and even the likes of good friends STEELY DAN. The fact that `Long Train…’ was initially pencilled in as an instrumental; until Templeman pushed Johnston to lay down some lyrics, was testament to their interlocking partnership. On one side of the musical spectrum, showing they could heads-down no-nonsense boogie with the best of them (a la `Without You’ and `Evil Woman’), on the other, reflecting a lighter counterbalance (by way of Simmons’ `Clear As The Driven Snow’, `South City Midnight Lady’ and the closing title track), the group could do no wrong.
As Britain woke up to `Listen To The Music’ (which finally breeched the UK Top 30), The DOOBIE BROTHERS attempted a curve into the country-rock market for fourth set, WHAT WERE ONCE VICES ARE NOW HABITS (1974) {*7}. Gone was Hossack, his berth taken by Keith Knudsen (ex-Joe Mendlebaum Blues Band), while the 12-track set itself gave further opportunities (bar Johnston’s modest hits `Another Park, Another Sunday’ and `Eyes Of Silver’, etc.) to Porter (for instrumental finale `Flying Cloud’) and, more importantly, Simmons (on surprise No.1 smash `Black Water’).
Promoting session man Jeff “Skunk” Baxter to more than just an auxiliary member, and peppered with a bank of guest stars (RY COODER’s bottleneck guitar on `Rainy Day Crossroad Blues’, MARIA MULDAUR’s vocals on minor hit `I Cheat The Hangman’ and LITTLE FEAT’s Bill Payne spread evenly among other tracks), STAMPEDE (1975) {*7} strolled into the Top 5. Proving they’d more than one feather to their boa, the soulful Doobies soared to one spot off the Top 10 with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown classic, `Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)’. Not bad for a hard-edged, harmony-fuelled country-rock combo. But for a bit of luck, `Sweet Maxine’ would’ve repeated the formula, its insidious chorus and foot-shuffling groove taking it into the Top 40 by a hair’s breath. By now the Doobies were selling millions, however, their sound was becoming somewhat tired and derivative – and there was a plethora of competition.
The band underwent a timely, if subtle transformation from country boogie to polished, AOR soft-funk, mainly down to the soothing Michael McDonald (like Baxter, from STEELY DAN) arriving in late ‘75, initially to fill Johnston’s place on tour; their former frontman gave up live commitments due to medical problems (stomach ulcers).
The young-ish singer/keyboardist duly re-worked the Doobies back catalogue on stage, while writing 50% of the band’s fresh material. Although many stalwart fans were probably none too happy with the change, it certainly breathed new life into the Doobies, while the Michael-scribed Top 20 title track from TAKIN’ IT TO THE STREETS (1976) {*7} waved away any misapprehension; ditto `It Keeps You Runnin’, which won the day over Baxter/Hartman/Simmons’ relative failure `Wheels Of Fortune’.
Similarly streamlined and formulaic, though with a slight jazz tint (Johnston tried to return but dropped out after sessions proved futile), the sextet clocked up another Top 10 album, LIVIN’ ON THE FAULT LINE (1977) {*6}. Allocated equal shares of songwriting duties, McDonald would work with CARLY SIMON on `You Belong To Me’, while Simmons (alongside Willie Mitchell and Earl Randle) produced the set’s second biggest hit, the #66 `Echoes Of Love’, a dozen places or so behind another HDH nugget, `Little Darling ( I Need You)’ – reviving the MARVIN GAYE version.
Closer to the blue-eyed soul of the AVERAGE WHITE BAND or HALL & OATES, emphasis on a back-up horn section and attention to detail was given to The DOOBIE BROTHERS’ inaugural No.1 album, MINUTE BY MINUTE (1978) {*7}. Making its mark the following year by way of the equally fruitful spawn, `What A Fool Believes’ (one of two co-penned by McDonald and KENNY LOGGINS), fans of the FM/funk could rest easy in their armchairs while the new wave/punk movement was squeezed out of the airwaves. Appealing to just about every clean-living American (McDonald’s rich baritone now the essential ingredient in their sound), the Doobies won four Grammys, more or less on the strength of other major hits, `Minute By Minute’ and `Dependin’ On You’.
With only Simmons, McDonald, Porter and Knudsen surviving a cull of sorts, which saw Baxter and Hartman moving over for John McFee (guitar, vocals), Chet McCracken (drums, vibes) and Cornelius Bumpus (sax, keyboards, vocals – ex-MOBY GRAPE), sophistication and sentimentality smouldered on the slick and strutting ONE STEP CLOSER (1980) {*4}. Contemporary and jazzy, the Top 3 album – highlighting hits `Real Love’ and the title track – matched little but a repeat prescription of its predecessor, and fooled no one while it duly filled the bargain bins.
By this point Michael was basically The DOOBIE BROTHERS, and it was indeed inevitable he’d pack his bags for a solo career. The group officially split in March ‘82 after the recording of an inconsequential final FAREWELL TOUR {*6} concert album, released the following year. While MICHAEL McDONALD struck gold a number of times (from `I Keep Forgettin’ to the chart-topping `On My Own’ alongside PATTI LaBELLE), The DOOBIE BROTHERS would be contemplating their return.
Re-formed in ‘88 with a near-original line-up (Johnston back in his role as frontman next to Simmons, Porter, Hartman, Hossack and former session percussionist Bobby LaKind), the Doobies’ cured all ailments with a retro-styled Top 20 album, CYCLES (1989) {*3}, a record that injected a return to the higher echelons of the charts with `The Doctor’. Templeman too busy on paths elsewhere (VAN HALEN et al), the group’s sound was rather derivative of their early 70s heyday; Top 50 entry, `Need A Little Taste Of Love’, as close as one’ll ever hear in mirroring `Listen To The Music’.
Capitol Records were also behind the Rodney Mills-produced BROTHERHOOD (1991) {*4}, which was virtually ignored after the failure-to-launch of singles, `Dangerous’ and `Rollin’ On’; LaKind would drop out due to ill health and sadly died of cancer on December 24, 1992. Further personnel upheavals would see Porter and Hartman leave the music business completely (the latter to become a fireman), while Knudsen and McFee, plus guest McDONALD would join the band for the benefit New York to Nashville gigs which made up the double-disc ROCKIN’ DOWN THE HIGHWAY – THE WILDLIFE CONCERT (1996) {*4}.
Resilient and tenacious in their resolve to succeed in a fickle music biz, and almost a decade on from that false re-start, the ‘Brothers were back with the cheesily-titled SIBLING RIVALRY (2000) {*5}. Once again, the re-activated band attempted to relive that loose-hipped, harmony roots-rock of old. Although they were never quite going to recapture the heady atmosphere of those bearded, early 70s classics, they at least managed an enjoyably updated interpretation of it; check out `People Gotta Love Again’, `Leave My Heartache Behind’ and `Jericho’.
2004’s LIVE AT WOLF TRAP {*5}, was another testament to their staying power, but basically it was a freewheeling cash-in to capture their self-indulgent soundtrack to the 70s. Dropping off Knudsen prior to their 13th studio album, WORLD GONE CRAZY (2010) {*6}, Templeman was back at the helm. Country and blue-eyed soul music now at the core of their sound, their producer would rope in legend WILLIE NELSON to boost Simmons on `I Know We Won’, while the irresistible tour de force came in the shape of guest star McDONALD, who added to `Don’t Say Goodbye’. Sadly, Hossack subsequently died of cancer on March 12, 2012.
While the Doobies’ previous set sneaked into the back door of the Top 40, 2014’s star-studded country-rock collaborative, SOUTHBOUND {*7}, secured a Top 20 place, their first in 25 years. Reaching out to the backwoods for Nashville artists such as ZAC BROWN BAND, TOBY KEITH, BLAKE SHELTON, BRAD PAISLEY, SARA EVANS, newbie “brothers” LOVE AND THEFT, et al, a fresh respective slant was afforded classic Doobie ditties, `Black Water’, `Long Train Runnin’, `Listen To The Music’, `Rockin’ Down The Highway’, `What A Fool Believes’ and `Takin’ It To The Streets’. And was just the half of it.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016

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