The Doobie Brothers - Biography
By David Downs
The Eagles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Steely Dan, and marijuana are the keys to understanding major label, platinum-selling soft rockers The Doobie Brothers. Their sound, which was blues-based, full of vocal harmony, percussive intricacy, and jamming, had its peers in the Grateful Dead, but with a more commercial appeal. The Doobie Brothers formed in the Credence Clearwater Revival-influenced Northern Californian country-rock scene of the late 1960s when guitarist/vocalist Tom Johnston and drummer John Hartman began jamming with bassist Dave Shogren and guitarist Patrick Simmons. A sign of their times amid a counter-culture explosion in the region, they named themselves The Doobie Brothers after a slang term for marijuana. The Doobies toured constantly, building a strong local following in California – reportedly including the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang – and were signed to Warner Bros. in 1970. The self-titled 1971 debut The Doobie Brothers (1971 – Warner) went nowhere and Shogren was fired and replaced with Tiran Porter. The group also added a second drummer, Michael Hossack, and it proved to be key. Eventually, Hossack would also be replaced and the lineup of The Doobie Brothers shifted many times over the decades as the artists went solo or started rival acts.
The Doobie Brothers’ second album, 1972’s Toulouse Street (1972 – Warner), is folky yet densely produced, as to be expected with a major label release. The album produced the titanic singles “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” and made The Doobie a household name. The following year’s The Captain and Me (1973 – Warner) introduced the world to the top ten hit “Long Train Runnin’” with its twangy, uptempo guitar, smooth, poppy vocals, and funky beat.
Keith Knudsen replaced Hossack and the band cut iconic swamp rock track “Black Water” for What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (1974 – Warner), featuring Steely Dan member Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar. The album hit number four on the Billboard pop album chart and “Black Water” hit number one on the pop singles chart. The first of many serious line-up changes made the next release stagger a bit in commercial sales. With original lead singer Johnston out due to illness, 1976’s Takin’ It to the Streets (1976 – Warner) showcased a change in direction and sales. Their swamp rock became light funk and – thanks to vocalist Michael McDonald – rock and roll became more jazzy and R&B-influenced. The new Doobies dominated radio with their smooth sound. Later in 1976, the hits compilation The Best of the Doobies (1976 – Warner), with classics “China Grove” and “Without You,” began its long march to hitting a ten-times platinum status.
In all, the band has sold more than 22 million records for Warner over their career. The Captain and Me, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, Takin’ It to the Streets, and Minute by Minute (1978 – Warner) all achieved platinum status. The album Minute by Minute and it’s wildly popular single “What a Fool Believes” also nabbed Grammys in 1979. The sprightly and saccharine sound of “What a Fool Believes,” which was written by Kenney Loggins, heralds the sound of 1980's pop radio almost two years early. The song spent five weeks at number one on the Billboard pop singles chart and signaled an important change in the band’s sound.
Further lineup changes didn't dampen the reception to 1980’s One Step Closer (1980 – Warner), which achieved platinum status. By 1981, the band had none of the original members. Johnston, the original lead singer, came back but in a diminished role and then quit, as did other original members. Some members even sued other members to prevent them from performing as The Doobie Brothers.
The band broke up in 1982 after a farewell tour and the obligatory farewell album, Farewell Tour (1983 – Warner). In 1987, The Doobies rolled into the Hollywood Bowl for a reunion show featuring the return of Johnston that turned into a small tour. The reunion album, Cycles (1989 – Capitol), was all gut-busting rock on single “The Doctor,” - which went Top Ten- prompting the band to continue onward, as the semi-original Doobie Brothers line-up still tour, playing their hits and promoting their well-established sound.