The Doobie Brothers: Listen to the Music

Jeff Tamarkin on January 3, 2022
The Doobie Brothers: Listen to the Music

It’s early September and the two co-founders of the Doobie Brothers still with the band, singer-songwriter-guitarists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, are discussing their hopes for the future. And, when asked the same question about their immediate goals for their famed band, they both give an identical answer: “Finish this tour!”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Doobies’ 15th studio album, Liberté— their first collection of new, original compositions since 2010’s World Gone Crazy—was finally set to be released on October 1, 2021. It had been a long slog getting it out there: Johnston, Simmons and the band’s third official member, veteran multi-instrumentalist/vocalist John McFee, actually started the sessions for the album back in 2019. Then, well, you know.

Their tour plans had also flown out the window. In November 2019, the Doobies announced that they would spend much of 2020 on the road in celebration of their 50th anniversary. Keyboardist/vocalist Michael McDonald—whose addition to the lineup in the mid-‘70s jump-started the band commercially and allowed them to reinvent their sound—planned to rejoin the Doobies for his first full tour with them in more than two decades. To make the reunion even more meaningful, the Doobie Brothers had also recently been chosen for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. By all accounts, it was going to be a banner year.

Instead, there wasn’t a tour in 2020, and their still-in-progress album had to be pushed back indefinitely. The band members didn’t even see each other for more than a year.

Then, in the spring of 2021, finally, the light turned green again. The band managed to complete the album—with the assistance of John Shanks, the triple-threat producer-songwriter-musician whose credits include projects by Bon Jovi, Stevie Nicks, Miley Cyrus and Sheryl Crow. On Aug. 22, they returned to the stage, turning out a stunning two-and-a-half-hour, 29-song set at the Iowa State Fair. Johnston, Simmons, McFee and McDonald—accompanied by a collective of ace players that includes Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne, New Grass Revival bassist John Cowan and veteran Allman Brothers percussionist Marc Quiñones— had never sounded better, according to many who’d attended.

They made it to the end of the month and then, on Aug. 31, McDonald was forced to bow out of the band’s gig in Minnesota: He’d contracted COVID-19. “Out of an abundance of caution,” the band announced the next day that they would postpone the next four shows. Then, three more concerts were erased from the itinerary.

Fortunately, McDonald’s case was mild and, after two weeks of quarantining, on Sept. 14, he and the band were able to resume the tour in Kansas City. The tour was slated to carry on through October, then pick up again in the summer of 2022, with the postponed shows added to that leg. As of this writing, all they can do is keep their fingers crossed.

“It’s really random,” Simmons says about the life of the touring musician at this iffy juncture. “You just take it a day at a time and whatever calendar dates you set, it’s always fluid.”


Wherever they go from here, the Doobie Brothers have certainly left their mark. There have been ups and downs, to be sure, including temporary breakups, numerous lineup shifts, various triumphs and misfires, and all of the other tribulations any long-lived band can be expected to endure. But right now, they’re focused and fired up. Liberté features a dozen songs that both bear the classic Doobie Brothers stamp and a contemporary production vibe. Johnston and Simmons are responsible for the material, with Shanks co-writing every song with one or the other. (McDonald does not appear on the album.) Four of the best new offerings—“Oh Mexico,” “Cannonball,” “Don’t Ya Mess With Me” and “Better Days”—were initially issued on an EP and, at first, that was all they’d planned to record. Once the musicians were all vaccinated though, they found themselves with enough time on their hands to reconvene safely at Shanks’ studio and knock out enough material for a full album.

Johnston says that the album was recorded differently than any other previous Doobie Brothers release. “I walked into John Shanks’ studio with some ideas, or he’d have some ideas, and we took off from there,” he says. “We would flesh out a track after we had the lead vocal done—even the harmonies. Then, he would call a drummer who lived very close. He’d come in and put down the drums and everything would really come alive. Then, John and I would lay down some guitar overdubs and solos. Keyboards would get added almost last. It was the opposite of how I’m used to doing it.”

Shanks not only produced and co-wrote the entire album, but also played many of the instruments as well. “He’s a fabulous musician, a great writer, a really good guy, a really inspiring person,” Simmons says. “He gets you going. We had a lot of fun making this record, and it’s all about enjoyment.”

The title, Liberté, is the French word for freedom. Its usage represents both a nod to the way the band members felt once they were able to work together again and serves as an homage to their roots. It was at a tiny, former stagecoach stop-turned-rock club, the Chateau Liberté, that the Doobie Brothers honed their chops during their earliest days. Nestled in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, the long-defunct establishment hosted bands like Hot Tuna, Kingfish, and the Jerry Garcia-Merl Saunders outfit in the early 1970s. The Doobie Brothers’ first hardcore fanbase knew that the Chateau was the place to see them, even before they’d logged a single hit. The band even shot the cover photo for their debut album inside the club.

“Pat came up with the idea of using Liberté as the album title,” Johnston says. “The Chateau Liberté was a combination of what they called mountain people in that period, students from San Jose State and Santa Cruz University, Hells Angels and other bikers, and hippies, all slammed together.”


The Doobie Brothers coalesced the way most bands did back in the day—a bunch of guys with similar musical taste and a shared vision hammering out ideas to see where it led. Johnston and Simmons, both born in 1948, were students at San Jose State University when they teamed up with bassist Dave Shogren and drummer John Hartman to form the group in 1970. All of them shared an obsession with the San Francisco rock band Moby Grape, and had in fact befriended that band’s infamous co-founder, guitarist Skip Spence, who saw potential in the new group and helped connect them with Warner Bros. Records.

Like any real rock fan living within proximity to San Francisco during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the musicians who would become the Doobie Brothers had spent many a night and many a last dollar making their way into venues like the Fillmore Auditorium, where they would see local bands of escalating renown—Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and, of course, the Grape—lesser known outfits like the Loading Zone and visiting royalty, including Cream, B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix.

But the music they were developing on their own didn’t have much in common with those acts. Perhaps because they were based far enough away from San Francisco, they were able to successfully maintain a musical distance. Theirs was a tighter, tougher, more song-oriented blend that eschewed the trademark psychedelic jams of the day; the ‘60s were behind them, and this was a new kind of rock.

At first, they were almost too eclectic for their own good. The Doobie Brothers’ self-titled debut album, recorded toward the end of 1970 and released in April of the following year, tanked. In fact, it failed even to enter the national top 200 album charts. Their first single, which also fizzled, was appropriately titled “Nobody.”

That would change quickly though. For the Doobies’ sophomore set, Warner Bros. assigned producer Ted Templeman to the band and the group replaced their original bassist with Tiran Porter. They also added a second drummer, Michael Hossack, to the mix. The tune-up proved fateful: The new album, 1972’s Toulouse Street, hit No. 21 and yielded the catchy, rocking, No. 11 single “Listen to the Music,” which to this day remains a rock radio staple. A second single, the gospel-informed cover “Jesus Is Just Alright”—which The Byrds also recorded—fared well, too.

By their third album, 1973’s The Captain and Me, there was no stopping them. With the same team—the quintet lineup and Templeman at the boards—the Doobies reached the Top 10 for the first time, a feat they would repeat with their next seven albums. “Long Train Runnin’,” a song written and sung mostly by Johnston, became their first of five Top 10 singles, while “China Grove” grew into a rock radio staple. The Doobies were suddenly ubiquitous, massively successful and still loved by a wide spectrum of rock fans—one of a dwindling handful of bands embraced both by the singles buyer who favored AM radio and the FM radio/ classic-rock fan who purchased LPs.

The same configuration created the fourth studio album, 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, which included the dazzling earworm ballad “Black Water,” written and sung by Simmons. It went to No. 1, the first of only two times they reached that pinnacle. The next release, 1975’s Stampede, saw a new member enter the fold: Guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who had spent time with Steely Dan before those guys decided to stop touring. A new drummer, Keith Knudsen, also came aboard, replacing the exiting Hossack. Things were still going well for the band, but a huge blow was about to hit them.


By 1975, the rigors of the rock life had taken a toll on Tom Johnston. Diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, he left the band, which, at the same time, added a new keyboardist, Michael McDonald, who had also done work with Steely Dan. The latter’s composition, “Takin’ It to the Streets,” which he also sang, became the title track of their next album—the single reached the Top 10 and the album came close. Livin’ on the Fault Line, in 1977, also did nicely, but there weren’t any hit singles. It became apparent to the band that they needed to make some adjustments if they wanted to survive. They soon realized that the solution was right there in front of them: McDonald became their new lead vocalist.

“I was in hog heaven, from the get-go,” McDonald says about being asked to assume the role. “It turned out to be one of the best opportunities I will have ever been given.”

Minute by Minute, released in 1978, became the first Doobie Brothers album to make it to the top of that chart. But it was the soulful single “What a Fool Believes,” co-written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins, that truly revived the group’s fortunes: It also peaked at No. 1, winning Grammys for both Record and Song of the Year.

“That was a tough album to record,” Simmons says. “We thought Tommy was going to be more involved in it and then he said, ‘I think I need a break from the band. You guys have enough material to finish this up.’ We said, ‘Well, it would be better with your material, but if you’re sure that this is what you want to do, then we’ll try to take up the slack.’ We all agreed we weren’t going to be mad at each other. It was an evolution, and there were no hard feelings.”

Now, bigger than ever, the Doobie Brothers carried on, releasing the No. 3 One Step Closer in 1980, which featured McDonald’s Top 5 single “Real Love.” Singer/guitarist John McFee and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus also both joined the band. But, by 1982, McDonald had set his eyes on a solo career and Simmons wanted out, and the Doobie Brothers decided to call it quits.

“We got together for one rehearsal somewhere in LA after Pat left. We started to play and, right in the middle of the song, we just kind of stopped,” McDonald says. “We looked around and I said, ‘Guys, I think the elephant in the room here is that we’re no longer the Doobie Brothers.’ The last original guy was gone, and it was not fair for us to go out and expect audiences to show up to see the Doobie Brothers as we were. We just decided to throw in the towel at that point.”


The story does not end there, of course. McDonald did become a massively successful solo artist, launching his post-Doobies career with the 1982 album If That’s What It Takes, which made the Top 10. The record’s single “I Keep Forgettin’” also reached the Top 10 and, in 1986, he scored a No. 1 hit with the Patti LaBelle duet “On My Own.”

But then, in 1987, a whopping 11 former members of the Doobie Brothers— including Johnston, Simmons and McDonald—reunited for the first time, at the behest of drummer Knudsen, for a benefit concert for the Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation. When ticket demand proved high, the musicians decided to expand the reunion into a 12-city tour.

By 1989, the Doobie Brothers were in business again, with Johnston and Simmons back up front, while McDonald continued to pursue his solo gig. A new Doobies studio album, Cycles, was released that year on Capitol Records—Warner had since dropped them—and sold respectably. They released a final Top 10 single, “The Doctor,” from the album and issued Brotherhood in 1991, which did not fare quite as well. A brief hiatus followed but, in 1993, they were back again. This time it would stick: Various members have subsequently come and gone, and it’s been years since they’ve graced the charts with one of their new album releases, but a version of the Doobie Brothers—always led by Simmons, Johnston and McFee—has remained together for nearly three decades now, touring perennially.

Every so often, as he’s agreed to do now for the 50th anniversary, McDonald accepts the invitation to rejoin them. “I’ve always enjoyed playing with the guys, and I always enjoyed those moments to catch up with everybody and do what we had done for so many years as a band,” he says.

As for that golden anniversary, despite its being at the mercy of a pandemic, Simmons is philosophical. He can’t imagine having done anything else with his life. “If there is such a thing as luck, I’m a lucky guy,” he says. “I like being in a band. It was a dream of mine. When I was in junior high school, I was in bands. When I was in high school, I was in bands. When I was in college, I was in bands. I enjoy that interaction with people. I’ve always felt a real brotherhood with these people. That’s kind of what a band is in a certain sense, especially ones that last a long time to become a brotherhood. And that’s what the Doobie Brothers are.”