By Garrick Rawlings
Long before Americana was recognized as a genre, The Doobie Brothers were already exactly that.
Coming out of the late 1960s Bay Area hippie scene, most bands focused on folk and psychedelic rock. The Doobies blended R&B, gospel, blues, jazz, country rock and biker boogie, incorporating extraordinary three-part vocal harmonies on top of it all.
Over fifty years later, The Doobie Brothers are remarkably intact. Original band founders, singers and guitarists Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston are still at the helm, and touring with the band for the first time in over 25 years is singer and keyboard player Michael McDonald, who joined in 1975. Add multinstrumentalist John McFee, who joined in 1979, and this tour is vintage Doobie Brothers.
The Doobies are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for good reason. Few bands in history played a more joyous brand of rock and roll. The variety of styles the individual musicians bring to the band is what makes them so attractively eclectic. The foundation of their perfect meld of diversities lay within Johnston’s appreciation R&B artists like Little Richard and James Brown coupled with Simmons’ love of straight up 1950’s rock and roll like Bill Haley, the country fingerstyle of Chet Atkins and Doc Watson’s flatpickin’ style. As a fan, Simmons was influenced by watching guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna) performing around the bay area who in turn, turned him on to traditional bluesman like Reverend Gary Davis and Jessie Fuller.
From the beginning, the Doobies were adept in both acoustic and electric music, creating wonderful blends of both.They jammed around the Bay Area without a proper band name for a little while until a friend made the suggestion, “Hey, you guys smoke so many joints, why don’t you just call yourselves the Doobie Brothers?”
“We said, ‘What a dopey name.’ And that was it,” Simmons wrote in the band’s collective memoir, Long Train Runnin’. I mean, we thought it was just a joke, but we were gonna use it for the gig and then change it to something better. But it just kind of stuck. So many bands have mysterious stories behind their names, but with us, what you see is what you get. We were destined to be the Doobie Brothers forever.”
The DB lineup evolved over the years resulting in a constant and successful progression of style; their recording career beginning in 1971 with their eponymously titled debut album. On their second album, 1972’s Toulouse Street, Lawndale’s own Tiran Porter joined, making the Doobies one of the early integrated bands. Like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers before them, they also added a second drummer. Toulouse Street was where the band found their sound, scoring their first big chart hits with the Johnston-penned “Listen to the Music” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.”
Next up was 1973’s The Captain and Me (“Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove”) followed by 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits where Simmons hit paydirt with the funky, southern influenced and first DB #1 hit, “Black Water.”
In 1976, the Doobies fortuitously invited Michael McDonald join the band. He possessed a deep soul voice and his keyboard playing, particularly on the Hammond B-3 organ, gave the band another level altogether. McDonald’s first album with the band was Takin’ It to the Streets and the title track was his first big hit with the band as singer/songwriter, followed by “It Keeps You Runnin’.”
The Doobie Brothers would reconstitute in many forms over the years, but with McDonald back in the band for the first time in 26 years, this is the most fully formed the original lineup has been this century. “To have Mike McDonald with us these days is a bonus,” Simmons said. “It’s been a long time.”
Simmons is a California boy to the core who now splits his time between Maui, Hawaii and Mendocino County. He is looking forward to performing in Redondo, relating to the lifestyle.
“I’m kind of a coast rat,” Simmons said. “I used to surf a lot in Santa Cruz and I surfed in Hawaii….It’s a beautiful country, we’re pretty fortunate, America is a beautiful place.”
Few musicians on earth are in a band they started in their early 20s that is still rocking down the highway in their early 70s.
“Well you know, every day is a gift, that’s all I can say….It’s something I don’t take for granted,” Simmons said. “I love playing. I always wanted to be in a band, I get to travel the world, meet people, see things, I feel like I’m in high school still, I get to play with great, great people and have fun with my friends. A lot of that is serendipity, the chemistry, in so many respects it’s just an accident, to meet up with somebody and hit it off and having the longevity of the band. It’s a happy accident.”
The Doobies Brothers play BeachLife Ranch September 23