Doobie Brothers Interview: Rockin’ Down the Highway

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The Doobie Brothers’ John McFee, Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons (Photo: Andrew Macpherson; used with permission)

This interview first appeared on Best Classic Bands in 2016.

Some classic bands just keep rocking along, buoyed by a blue-ribbon list of hits and a deep bench of talent. Like, say, The Doobie Brothers, whose run from the dawn of the 1970s to now – aside from a band “retirement” for a good part of the ’80s – has consistently found them out on the tour circuit, wooing fans to, as the song goes, “Oh oh listen to the music.”

Did they expect at all, back when the band started, that this is what they’d still be doing all these years later? “I can’t think of a single soul in this business that could look me in straight in the eye, and say yes,” singer, guitarist and songwriter Tom Johnston challenges. “I’d be shocked.”

Yet here they are, the three current band principals Johnston (who turned 72 on August 15, 2020) and Patrick Simmons (who reached that number on October 19) – the group’s founding creative core – plus plays-anything-with-strings wiz John McFee, who joined the group in 1979, sitting in a comfy quiet hotel lounge room, talking to the press.

[The Doobie Brothers have been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for decades. They were finally nominated – for just the first time – and were inducted into the Class of 2020.

Their reunion tour with Michael McDonald was planned for 2020. It’s since been delayed to 2021. Tickets are available here and here. Just check the fan-compiled online record of their gigs since the dawn of this decade to see how this classic rock band is still very much in action.]

The Doobies certainly have a considerable musical legacy that continues to draw in the fans. They’ve sold more than 40 million records over the years; Best of the Doobies (1976) alone moved more than 12 million copies, as one might expect of an album packed with such hits and rock radio recurrents as “China Grove,” “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “Black Water,” “Take Me in Your Arms” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway” from out of their five Top 10s and 16 Top 40 hits.

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Johnston admits that after all these years that he loves playing as much as ever. But Simmons cautions against reading any romantic notions into their devotion to touring.

“A lot of it is just PR – how much we [musicians] love the road,” he points out. “No one loves the road. It isn’t that kind of a gig. For bands that are working bands like we are, we play and we try to keep our chops together. Some nights it’s hard. You’re tired. You didn’t sleep enough the night before. It’s hot. It’s not always fun.

“Why do we do it? I dunno. It’s kind of crazy,” he ponders.

Simmmons & Johnston-Doobies

Simmons and Johnston rocking out

“I try to keep it in context,” McFee says. “At least I don’t have to get a real job.”

Before the band started, both Johnston and Simmons worked their share of day jobs. The former’s included time on the line in canneries, construction and a crop dusting shop. The latter toiled in a gas station, vending machine company… “and McDonald’s,” he emphasizes. “Not very long. It’s a hard job, and it’s very rare that a manager isn’t watching you. It was one of the first jobs I had.”

McFee confesses that he’s “never really had a day job. I’m not really qualified for a day job.”

Such matters became a moot point when Simmons and Johnston joined forces in 1969 and the Doobie Brothers quickly became a popular party band along the Northern California coast. With complimentary guitar styles – Johnston’s responsible for the chugging soul chords that are all but a Doobies trademark, while Simmons brought his blues and folk chops to the table – “we just started working and just from the get go, it was organic, as they say,” Johnston recalls.

The different and varying styles are the group’s strength, Johnston believes. “I think one of the things about this band that’s cool is that one side of it’s rock, another side is R&B and another is almost bluegrass/folk-blues stuff. And John here brings a country thing.”

By 1971 they’d signed with Warner Bros. Records. When health issues exacerbated by touring forced Johnston onto hiatus in 1975, singer and keyboard player Michael McDonald joined, bringing to the mix further hits like “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “It Keeps You Runnin’.”

By 1983 the band finally splintered, not long after McFee – who’d been in the group Clover and played guitar on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True – first joined. In ’87 late drummer Keith Knudsen persuaded his bandmates to reunite for a benefit concert, and it prompted the classic Johnston/Simmons-led configuration to carry on.

Ask one of the Doobies if there’s one or more of their songs that has special meaning for them after all this time, and they aren’t quick to offer an answer. “I’m sure all three of us have songs that have special meaning to each guy personally that we’ve recorded over the years for whatever reason,” Johnston tells Best Classic Bands. “And I’m just speaking for myself here, when it’s live, the song that means a lot is the one that’s really working… people are really getting off and responding to it.”

“Fortunately that doesn’t narrow it down a lot,” McFee notes. “People want to hear all those songs these guys wrote.” And the band is in prime form. Rounding out the line-up with talent to spare behind the lead triumvirate of Simmons, Johnston and McFee on bass, is John Cowan, who made quite the name for himself as a singer and player in the bluegrass world fronting his band New Grass Revival (and played with Simmons in the brief-lived Four Wheel Drive). On keyboards for their tours is Bill Payne, the former member of Little Feat who has recorded and appeared with the Doobie Brothers since the early 1970s. Marc Russo joins on saxophone and Ed Toth is the drummer. It’s a unit that can deliver all the goods and then some.

Simmons does cite one of the group’s biggest numbers as an enduring favorite. “Probably ‘Listen to the Music.’ I’ve always liked the song, it’s always been a part of our repertoire. For a song that was our very first single 45 years ago…. When we play it I see young people digging it, I see old people, it’s just become timeless.”

In a similar vein, inquire about past shows that may stand out in their memory, and it’s a challenge for them to cite one or a few.

“You know what the hardest thing to answer about that question after doing it this long?” Johnston asks.

“Things start to run together…” Simmons interjects.

Johnston offers: “I remember all the really cool things that happened.”

“And so many cool things, they don’t seem like they’re any big deal….” Simmons adds. “Playing… meeting people… it’s hard to say that this gig is better than that gig.”

Finally, Johnston recalls, “There is one gig that was very special.” A 1974 festival show in the U.K. called the Bucolic Frolic with The Allman Brothers Band, Van Morrison. Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Tim Buckley on the grounds of the Gothic-design Knebworth House. (It was the first of many historic concerts held on the Knebworth grounds.)

But not for the music. “The reason it was special was because of what we were looking at while we were playing. I’ll never forget it – a 15th Century castle. Distracting to the point where we were forgetting what we were playing.”

“It made you feel like you were in Medieval times,” Simmons remembers.

“That was something else,” Johnston adds.

Fortunately, memories aren’t just what the Doobie Brothers currently enjoy. For one, they’ve been getting props from Music City including appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and on the CMA Awards show. And their Southbound album where the band reprised its hits with country guests like Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith and others. Many of them were major fans of the band, “and they were pretty vocal about it,” Johnston recalls. “It was a humbling event.”

And even if the group snugly fits the profile for a “boomer band,” the Doobies also continue to win new listeners, and to their delight, ever-younger fans. “It’s gotten more so that way in the last five years. Probably because of streaming, stuff like that. Because they’re discovering it that way… which is the upside of streaming,” Simmons says. “We’re getting to the age now where it could be not just their parents but grandparents who play our music for them.

“Not only do you see them but talk to them after the show and they just love your music,” he adds. “And sometimes they are right down in front. How the hell do you even know this song? They love it. And that’s cool.”

Listen to Simmons take lead vocals on a favorite

Although days of selling millions of albums are over for most everyone including the Doobies, repeating one achievement from the past still lingers as a goal. “If we could pull off another hit song, that would be an upsetter, I guarantee it,” Johnston says. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but if we do….”

Otherwise, “We’re just out here doing what we always do. We’re damn lucky to still be doing this, that’s how I view it.” insists Johnston. “People still want to hear us. We still have a gig. We love doing what we’re doing. Getting up onstage is still a special thing, It can’t get much better than that.”

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Rob Patterson
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  1. mike
    #1 mike 8 December, 2016, 01:35

    I love the Doobies! Since ’71. But with all due respect, the song, “Nobody,” from their first album was their first single. It was and still is a killer track!

    Reply this comment
  2. Ted
    #2 Ted 7 June, 2017, 23:19

    STILL the best. No covers. No bullshit. Simply and purely … The Doobies!

    Reply this comment
    • Bob Sled
      Bob Sled 19 August, 2019, 14:58

      No covers? I submit “Jesus Is Just Alright, Take Me In Your Arms and Little Darlin’”…

      Reply this comment
  3. Ratbone
    #3 Ratbone 16 August, 2019, 00:21

    When Michael McDonald joined The Doobie Bros, he destroyed that band. On that day they turned to crap until they reformed without him. Their new CD/DVD Live at The Beacon Theatre is fantastic!

    Reply this comment
    • Bob Sled
      Bob Sled 19 August, 2019, 15:13

      Certainly a matter of opinion & preference; McDonald’s influences no doubt extended the life & successful commercial run the Doobies had been on. They could have faded away if that experiment had not been done.

      Reply this comment

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