The Doobie Brothers - Biography

The Doobie Brothers

The Doobie Brothers are an American rock band, best known for hit singles like "Black Water", "China Grove", "Listen to the Music" and "What a Fool Believes". They sold millions of records throughout the 1970s.

Original incarnation

The Doobie Brothers began by playing free concerts in the park under the name POD. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Tom Johnston and drummer John Hartman formed the nucleus of what would become The Doobie Brothers. Skip Spence of Moby Grape (and formerly of Jefferson Airplane) introduced them to one another in 1969, after Hartman arrived in California determined to meet Spence and join his band. Johnston and Hartman called their fledgling group Pud and experimented with different lineups and styles as they performed in and around San Jose, California. They were briefly a power trio, and briefly worked with a horn section. In 1970, they teamed up with bass player Dave Shogren and singer, guitarist and songwriter Pat Simmons. Simmons, who had belonged to several area bands and also performed as a solo artist, was already an accomplished fingerstyle player whose approach to the instrument complemented Johnston's rhythmic R&B strumming.

In a recent interview, Tom Johnston attributed the band's eventual name to friend and housemate Keith "Dyno" Rosen, who considered it an improvement over Pud.

The Doobie Brothers honed their chops by performing live all over northern California in 1970. They attracted a particularly strong following among local chapters of the Hells Angels, and scored a recurring gig at one of the bikers' favorite venues, the rustic Chateau Liberte in the Santa Cruz mountains. An energetic set of demos (some of which were briefly released on Pickwick Records in 1980 under the title Introducing the Doobie Brothers) showcased fuzz-toned, dual lead electric guitars, three-part harmonies and Hartman's frenetic drumming and earned the band a contract at Warner Brothers Records.

At this point in their history, the band's image reflected that of their biggest fans - leather jackets and motorcycles. However, the group's 1971 self-titled debut album departed significantly from that image and their live sound of the period. The underrated album, which failed to chart, emphasized acoustic guitars and frequently reflected country influences. The bouncy lead-off song "Nobody," the band's first single, has surfaced in their live set several times over the ensuing decades and even appears on the 2004 DVD Live at Wolf Trap.

The following year's sophomore album, Toulouse Street (which spawned the hit singles "Listen To The Music," "Rockin' Down the Highway" and "Jesus Is Just Alright"), brought the band their breakthrough success. The album reflected a quantum improvement in the band's material as well as the quality and polish of their studio sound. In collaboration with manager Bruce Cohn, producer Ted Templeman, and engineer Don Landee, the Doobies made their first truly professional recordings. They also made necessary improvements to the line-up. First, they replaced Shogren with the more versatile singer, songwriter and bass guitarist Tiran Porter. Second, they supplemented Hartman's manic and somewhat undisciplined drumming with that of technically proficient Navy veteran Michael Hossack. Porter and Hossack were both well acquainted with the members of the Doobies and stalwarts of the northern California music scene. Pianist Bill Payne of Little Feat contributed his distinctive keyboard stylings for the first time, as well. (He added keys to their studio recordings for many years to come, and occasionally joined their touring band.) With a tight new rhythm section and the dual songwriting talents of Johnston and Simmons, the Doobies' trademark sound - an amalgam of R&B, country, bluegrass, heavy metal and rock and roll - emerged fully formed.

A string of hits followed, including Johnston's "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove," from the 1973 album The Captain and Me. Other noteworthy songs on the album were Simmons' country-ish ode "South City Midnight Lady" and the explosive, heavy-metal raveup "Without You," for which the entire band received songwriting credit. (Onstage, the song would stretch into a 15-minute jam with additional lyrics ad-libbed by Johnston. A 1974 appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert featured one such epic performance of the tune.)

Simmons' signature tune "Black Water" (from 1974's What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits) became the band's first #1 single. "Black Water," which featured the instantly unforgettable refrain, "I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand," eventually propelled the album to multi-platinum status. This was in spite of the fact that none of the remaining songs made a dent in the singles charts. Among the strong tunes that could not break through on radio were Johnston's lyrical "Another Park, Another Sunday" and one of the funkiest tunes the Doobies ever attempted: "Eyes of Silver."

During the recording of Vices, Hossack departed the band. Drummer, songwriter and vocalist Keith Knudsen was recruited quickly and left with the Doobies on a major tour within days of joining the band. Both Hossack's drums and Knudsen's voice are heard on Vices.

Also in 1974, Steely Dan co-lead guitarist Jeff Baxter (nicknamed "Skunk") learned that his band was abruptly retiring from the road. In need of a gig, he segued into the Doobie Brothers as third lead guitarist in the midst of their current tour. He had previously worked with the band in the studio, having added pedal steel guitar to both Captain ("South City Midnight Lady") and Vices ("Black Water"). During this period and for several subsequent tours, the Doobies were often supported onstage by Stax Records legends The Memphis Horns. Live recordings of the era, including performances aired on the King Biscuit Flower Hour, reflect a high energy, eminently danceable funk sound that was only occasionally heard in their studio output.

Michael McDonald years

By the end of 1974, Johnston's health was suffering from the rigors of the road. He was absent when the band gamely performed in formal wear on Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve that December. By then, Stampede had been completed for release in 1975. It featured yet another hit single, Johnston's rollicking cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland-written Motown hit "Take Me in Your Arms" (also covered by Blood, Sweat, and Tears). The song included a blazing, idiosyncratic Baxter guitar solo. Simmons contributed the haunting "I Cheat the Hangman" as well as "Neal's Fandango," a rousing ode to Santa Cruz, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Ry Cooder added his slinky slide guitar to Johnston's bluesy cowboy song, "Rainy Day Crossroad Blues."

By the start of the 1975 promotional tour for Stampede, Johnston's condition was so precarious that he required emergency hospitalization. With Johnston convalescing and the tour already booked, Baxter proposed recruiting a fellow Steely Dan alum to fill the hole: singer, songwriter and keyboardist Michael McDonald. Simmons, Knudsen, Porter and McDonald divvied up and sang Johnston's parts on tour, while Simmons and Baxter shared lead guitar chores.

Under contract for another album, the Doobies were at a crossroads. Their primary songwriter and singer remained unavailable, so they turned to McDonald and Porter for material to supplement that of Simmons. The resulting album, Takin' It to the Streets, announced a radical change in their sound. Hard-charging, guitar-based rock and roll gave way to blue-eyed soul/soft rock highlighted with keyboards and horns. Baxter contributed jazzy guitar stylings reminiscent of Steely Dan. Above all, McDonald's distinctive voice became the band's new signature sound. Takin' It featured McDonald's title track and "It Keeps You Runnin'," both hits ("It Keeps You Runnin'" was later covered by Carly Simon on her album Another Passenger). Bassist Porter wrote and sang a heartfelt tribute to the absent Johnston, entitled "For Someone Special."

Their new sound was further refined with their next album, Livin' on the Fault Line, which featured "Little Darlin' (I Need You)," "Echoes Of Love" (written by Simmons with Al Green in mind), and "You Belong To Me" (later a hit for McDonald's collaborator Carly Simon). To help promote Fault Line, the band performed live on the PBS show Soundstage and even appeared (as themselves) in a classic, two-part episode of the series What's Happening!! The episode decried the evils of bootlegging live concerts, depicting the bootleggers as figures of organized crime who pressure Rerun to surreptitiously record a Doobies show under threat of violence. The band performed several tunes, mixing live vocals and instrumentation with prerecorded backing tracks. The Season 2 DVD presents the episode at its original length, restoring a performance of "Take Me in Your Arms" that is often omitted when the show airs in syndication.

Returned to fitness and briefly back in the fold, Johnston contributed one song to Streets. He also made limited live appearances with the band in 1975 and 1976, documented in a concert filmed at the Winterland in San Francisco (excerpts from which appear occasionally on VH1 Classic). None of Johnston's songs appeared on Fault Line, although he received credit for guitars and vocals and was pictured on the album sleeve. Before the Fault Line tour began, Johnston departed the band that he co-founded for a solo career that eventually yielded two modestly successful Warner Brothers albums: Everything You've Heard is True and Still Feels Good. (Johnston's underrated albums were recently reissued on compact disc by Wounded Bird Records.)

After almost a decade on the road, and with seven albums under their belts, the Doobies' career unexpectedly soared with the success of their next album, 1978's Minute by Minute. It spent five weeks at the top of the music charts and dominated several radio formats for the better part of two years. McDonald's song "What a Fool Believes," written with Kenny Loggins, was the band's second #1 single and earned the songwriting duo a Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The breezy, McDonald-penned title song received the Grammy for Pop Vocal Performance by a Group and the album was honored with an Album of the Year nod. Among the other memorable songs on the album were "Here to Love You," "Dependin' On You" (co-written by McDonald and Simmons), "Steamer Lane Breakdown" (a Simmons bluegrass instrumental workout) and McDonald's "How Will the Fools Survive" (featuring an epic, career-defining guitar lead by Jeff Baxter). Nicolette Larson (whose best-known hit was "Lotta Love") and departed former bandleader Johnston contributed guest vocals on the album.

The triumph of Minute by Minute was bittersweet, however, because it coincided with the near dissolution of the band. The pressure of touring while recording and releasing an album each year had worn the members down. Before Minute by Minute's monumental success had become apparent, founding drummer Hartman and longtime guitarist Baxter exited through the revolving door. A two-song set on the January 27, 1979 broadcast of Saturday Night Live with guest host Michael Palin marked the final television appearance, and possibly last live performance, of the band in its middle-period configuration.

Once again, the band was at a crossroads. As the album began to climb the charts and more touring was demanded, the remaining Doobies (Simmons, Knudsen, McDonald and Porter) decided to forge ahead. In 1979, Hartman was replaced by session drummer and vibraphonist Chet McCracken, and Baxter by guitarist John McFee (late of Huey Lewis' early band Clover); Cornelius Bumpus was also recruited to add vocals, keyboards and saxophone to the line-up. They also elevated their former roadie turned vocalist, songwriter and percussionist Bobby LaKind from sideman to full member of the band. This line-up toured throughout 1979 and released the album One Step Closer in 1980. The LP featured the Top Ten hit "Real Love" (not to be confused with the John Lennon composition), but did not dominate the charts and the radio as Minute by Minute had two years earlier. Long frustrated with the realities of relentless touring and yearning for a stable home life, Porter left the band during the recording of Closer. Renowned session bassist Willie Weeks stepped in and the Doobies continued touring throughout 1980 and 1981. (Post-Doobies, Weeks has performed with the Gregg Allman Band.)

By 1982, even Simmons had run out of steam and resigned from the band. Fewer of his tunes had graced the recent albums and he did not appear to relish the role of session musician for the Michael McDonald Band. Now faced with the prospect of calling themselves "The Doobie Brothers" with no remaining original members, the group elected instead to disband. The reluctant Simmons, already hard at work on his first solo album, was drafted for a farewell tour on the promise that this truly would be the end. At their final concert in San Francisco, they were joined onstage by founder Tom Johnston for a raunchy and triumphant rendition of his staple, "China Grove." Porter, Hossack and Hartman subsequently found their way to the stage for an extended version of "Listen to the Music." Knudsen sang while Simmons, Johnston and McFee traded licks in a free-form guitar jam. Of all the members through the years, only Baxter and Shogren were absent when the group took its "final" bow. A live album, Farewell Tour, followed in 1983.

Reunion years and beyond

The Doobies hibernated for the next five years, reuniting in different configurations only for annual Christmas season performances for the patients and staff at the Stanford Children's Hospital. Simmons released a fine but commercially disappointing solo album, Arcade, in 1983. Knudsen and McFee formed Southern Pacific with bassist Stu Cook of Creedence Clearwater Revival and recorded four albums that found success in the country charts. McDonald became established as a solo artist. His voice dominated adult contemporary radio throughout the eighties, though his star faded in the nineties. (He has experienced a renaissance of popularity over the last several years as an interpreter of Motown classics.)

The reformation of the Doobies was scarcely premeditated. On a personal quest for a worthy cause, Knudsen had become active in Vietnam veterans' affairs. Early in 1987, he persuaded eleven of the thirteen other Doobie alumni to join him for a concert to benefit veterans' causes. Answering the call were Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons, Jeff Baxter and John McFee (vocals, guitars and strings), John Hartman, Michael Hossack and Chet McCracken (joining organizer Knudsen on drums), Michael McDonald (keyboards and vocals), Cornelius Bumpus (keyboards, vocals, saxophone and flute), Bobby LaKind (vocals and percussion), and Tiran Porter (bass and vocals). There were no surplus bass players, as Weeks had other commitments and long-absent Shogren reportedly was not invited. They soon discovered that tickets were in great demand, so the "one concert" quickly evolved into a brief tour. This uber-Doobie lineup was able to perform selections from every album using a smorgasbord of instrumentation that they could not have previously duplicated onstage. Baxter and McFee played pedal steel and fiddle, respectively, during "Black Water" and "Steamer Lane Breakdown." Porter got to play selections from One Step Closer, his favorite Doobies album, before a live audience for the first time. During "Without You," no fewer than four drummers and four lead guitarists created a magnificent noise. Producer Templeman, a musician in his own right, banged percussion and LaKind sometimes played Knudsen's trap set while the latter came to the front of the stage to join the chorus. The tour culminated, sans McDonald, McFee and Knudsen (who had to fulfill previous commitments), with a performance in Moscow on July 4 before a huge and enthusiastic crowd of music-starved Soviet subjects.

The triumphant reunion sparked discussions about reconstituting the band. They eventually decided to replicate the early 1970s incarnation, settling on a line-up featuring Johnston, Simmons, Hartman, Porter and Hossack plus more recent addition LaKind and released Cycles on Capitol Records in 1989. It featured a Top Ten single, "The Doctor," which showcased Johnston's distinctive voice and soaring lead guitar, and appeared calculated to remind listeners of the band's pre-McDonald triumphs. Musically, the song is essentially the "China Grove" chord progression played in reverse. (Just to ensure that nobody missed the aural connection, Bill Payne added tinkling piano, as well.) Cycles was certified gold. Bumpus participated as a sideman in the 1989 tour, adding his distinctive voice, keyboards, saxophone and flute to the proceedings. His presence bridged the gap between the current band and the McDonald era; he sang lead vocals on the song "One Step Closer" in performance while Simmons took McDonald's part.

The success of Cycles led to the release of 1991's Brotherhood, also on Capitol. By this time, LaKind had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had retired from the band. The remaining members grew their hair back out, donned denim and leather, revved up their ponytycles and rocked out like it was 1970 all over again. In spite of the image makeover and strong material led by Simmons' now trademark "Dangerous" (featured in the otherwise execrable Brian Bosworth blood, babes and bikes vehicle, Stone Cold), Brotherhood was unsuccessful. The accompanying tour was ranked among the ten least profitable tours of the disastrous 1991 summer season by the North American Concert Promoters Association, according to an article published in Billboard Magazine on December 14 of that year. Diva Whitney Houston had the dubious distinction of losing the most money, as the recession-plagued economy kept audiences at bay. The 1987 uber-Doobie lineup reunited one last time in 1992 to perform a benefit for LaKind's children shortly before his passing that year. Noticeably frail, LaKind nevertheless joined the group on percussion for a few numbers.

A brief period of hiatus followed, during which Simmons collaborated with bassist and songwriter John Cowan on a project that remains unreleased. When the band emerged yet again for a 1993 tour, Porter and Hartman had exited for good but veteran drummer Knudsen and guitarist McFee had rejoined as permanent members. As a sideman, Cowan played bass in 1993 and 1994. (Porter still performs in and around northern California, occasionally with Moby Grape and regularly with Stormin' Norman and the Cyclones. His only solo album, the self-produced Playing to an Empty House, is a rarity worth seeking out. His expressive voice was rarely exploited in the Doobies, and his talents as a songwriter and lead guitarist were previously unheralded.) With a shot of renewed energy, the band's set list started to change more often and they experimented with different arrangements of several tunes. They even sampled McDonald's songbook from time to time, eventually restoring "Takin' it to the Streets" to the set on a semi-permanent basis with Simmons and bassist Skylark subbing for McDonald. Bumpus and McCracken stepped in as sidemen on occasion, depending on the band members' schedules and their onstage needs.

Incessant touring has kept the band's music before its fans consistently since 1993. In 1995, they even persuaded McDonald to hit the road with them for a co-headlining tour with the Steve Miller Band. The "Dreams Come True" tour featured all three primary songwriters and singers and reflected all phases of the band's storied career. McDonald continues to "stumble onto the stage" with them on occasion, including lucrative corporate gigs and private parties such as the wedding reception of Liza Minnelli and David Gest. A 1996 double live album, Rockin' Down the Highway: The Wildlife Concert, featured guest star McDonald on three of his signature tunes. Baxter has also sat in with the band during concerts, and the band have stated that they have an "open door" policy for guest appearances by former members.

In the late 1990s, the current band was forced to obtain an injunction preventing confusing or misleading uses of its name in advertisements promoting a tribute band featuring McCracken, Bumpus and Shogren. At the time, the Doobies stated that they did not object to musicians trying to earn a living (or even playing Doobie Brothers music), but only wanted to ensure that fans truly understood who they were paying to see. The likelihood for confusion was undeniable, as ticket sellers such as Ticketmaster were advertising tickets to see "The Doobie Brothers" on opposite coasts on the same night. Unfortunately, this unpleasant episode appeared to have burned bridges between the band and the aformentioned former members (of whom only McCracken survives today).

Rhino Records' 2000 release, Sibling Rivalry, offered the band's first new studio recordings in nine years. The material, which reflected significant contributions from both Knudsen and McFee, ranged from hard rock and hip-hop to jazz and adult contemporary. Of the reunion albums, Rivalry sounds best by far. The album sold poorly, victimized by programmed radio formats and declining sales throughout the AOR musical scene. The band and its supporters felt it did not find the large audience it deserved.

To date, four members of the Doobies family are deceased: percussionist LaKind of cancer in 1992; original bassist Shogren of unreported causes in 1999; and Bumpus of a heart attack in 2004 while in the air on route to California for a solo tour with his trusty saxophone. Drummer, activist and unofficial spiritual leader Keith Knudsen passed away in 2005 following a lengthy struggle with chronic pneumonia. His lungs had been weakened by an early childhood illness, and a rock and roll lifestyle during the '70s and '80s no doubt exacerbated his condition. Even when he was well enough to play during his final years, he sometimes took the stage in a heavy coat and scarf. Former Vertical Horizon drummer Ed Toth was selected to fill Knudsen's drum seat as the band soldiered on.

Given the history of turnover, the current version of the band has proven to be remarkably stable in its core membership since 1993. It features one-half of the four original members - Johnston (1970-1977, 1987-present) and ever-present Simmons (1970-present, with only a brief hiatus in 1982) - plus veteran drummer Hossack (1972-1974, 1987-present) and longtime guitarist McFee (1979-1982, 1987, 1993-present). They are ably supported by Skylark on bass and vocals (joined 1995, replacing Cowan), versatile keyboardist Guy Allison (joined 1996, replacing Dale Ockerman), and Marc Russo on saxophone (joined 1997, replacing Danny Hull). With Hossack, newest member Toth (joined 2005) keeps the trademark double-drummers driven sound going. The group continues to tour heavily and remains a popular concert draw across the country and occasionally overseas at venues of all descriptions, including music sheds, festivals, livestock shows, amphitheaters, casinos, and everything in between. In addition to their undiminished performance skills, which rely on carefully constructed vocal harmonies and instrumental prowess rather than prerecorded backing tapes, they are well known for their philanthropy and willingness to mingle with young and old fans. They have maintained a continuous and active presence on the Internet through their official website since 1996.

The Doobie Brothers Official Website

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