The current Doobie Brothers touring lineup includes, from left, Marc Russo, John Cowan, Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons, John McFee, Ed Toth, Guy Allison and Tony Pia. (Special photo)
Doobie Brothers - "Nobody"
The Doobie Brothers release a music video for their song, "Nobody."
The Doobie Brothers are like offensive linemen in the NFL. They’re vital — some would argue more so than the so-called superstars who hog the spotlight — but when the accolades are passed out, somehow they slip people’s minds.
So, the question becomes, how can a band that has released a diamond album (“Best of the Doobies,” which has racked up 11 million in sales), seven multiplatinum albums, six platinum albums and 11 gold albums (48 million units sold, and counting), won four Grammy awards, had two No. 1 singles (“Black Water” and “What a Fool Believes”) and recorded such seminal rock songs as “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Another Park Another Sunday,” “Jesus Is Just All Right,” “Minute By Minute,” “Take Me in Your Arms,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and others not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
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“You need to ask them that,” group co-founder and lead vocalist Tom Johnston said in a recent interview with The Albany Herald. “That’s not something we sit around and think about, but it’s a question we do get asked a lot.”
Johnston and the Doobies, who will bring their co-headlining summer tour with Peter Frampton to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta July 17, are putting the finishing touches on what may very well be the most anticipated music project of the year. The band, including both Johnston and super substitute vocalist Michael McDonald (more on that later), is teaming with some of country music’s biggest stars for an album of the Doobie Brothers’ greatest hits.
Announcement of the album came at the recent Country Radio Seminar and included a surprise performance by the Doobies and country stars Brad Paisley, Sara Evans and Chris Young. All three will perform on the album — which is due later this year — that also includes performances by such artists as Toby Keith, Zac Brown, Jerrod Niemann and Love and Theft.
Johnston admits he had no idea the Doobie Brothers had had such an influence on today’s country stars.
“When you’re doing your tour or spending time in the studio, you don’t really run into other artists,” the singer said. “It’s such an insular world, you basically spend your time working on what you’re doing. But it’s very gratifying to know these young country artists were influenced by our music. I think the lines that separate different genres of music have been blurred so much that there’s more acceptance by audiences today.”
Johnston and the Doobies are no strangers to Nashville and today’s country music. In 2011, they filmed a memorable segment for the CMT series “Crossroads,” which features joint performances by country and rock performers. The Doobie Brothers teamed with Leesburg native and current country superstar Luke Bryan for the well-reviewed segment, which saw the band perform for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry.
“That was a gas,” Johnston said. “We loved the concept of bringing together people who do what we do with country music artists.”
Scheduled for a 15-minute interview to promote the July 17 Doobies/Frampton performance, the engaging Johnston spoke with The Herald for almost an hour about his and the band’s past — including the genesis of that unforgettable name — the pending release of the new album and the long musical train that’s been running through the Doobie Brothers for the better part of five decades.
ALBANY HERALD: The concept for the new album with the country stars is such a great idea. Where did that come from?
TOM JOHNSTON: We were on the road when it was brought to us by (producer) David Huff. We’d talked about doing something like this before, but it didn’t pan out. But David thought it was a great idea, and all the (country) artists jumped on board.
AH: Now you’ll have other artists whose names will be associated with music you and the Doobie Brothers made famous. Does that bother you?
TJ: Actually, it’s a compliment. I think it’s awesome that they wanted to do it. You’ve got these red-hot studio guys playing the music, and they put in mandolin, fiddle and other more “country” instruments. Things went better than I ever could have hoped for.
AH: You guys have now worked on this album and the “Crossroads” show with Luke Bryan — who’s from here, by the way. That is an indication of how much the Doobie Brothers influenced the younger generation of country artists. Does that surprise you?
TJ: I had no idea, but it’s very gratifying. Country right now is the biggest platform in music; there are no true “pure” forms of music out there now. I think a lot of these awards shows that brought artists together that you typically wouldn’t see together had a lot to do with blurring the lines in music. The way things have changed, there’s room for the “classic rock” music that we made on country playlists.
AH: Were there any of the country artists that particularly impressed you during the recording of the new album?
TJ: I met pretty much everybody, and all of them were great. They were a lot of fun to work with. Brad Paisley, Sara Evans and Chris Young played with us (at the Country Radio Seminar), and they were amazing. But all of these folks (on the album) were just down to earth, fun to work with. I give them a tip of the hat because they came to work. There was not a lot of goofing around.
AH: So, the Doobie Brothers with a No. 1 country album?
TJ (laughing): I don’t think about things like that because I don’t want to jinx it. But if that happened, it would blow my mind. There’s going to be a lot of good stuff out this fall, so I’m not sure about that No. 1 album thing. But I do think the album will do well.
AH: Having been a Doobies fan from the early days — and I’m not sucking up here — I’m partial to the stuff y’all did where you did most of the lead vocals. When Michael McDonald came on board, I thought it brought a different sound and a different feel that changed the band. How did that come about?
TJ: Well, that’s kinda on me. A lot of people don’t know this, but I had to leave our tour in ‘75 with a stomach ulcer. In fact, I pretty much died — did die, but they brought me back. I was out for a year with that. We had the tour booked, so we had to move forward. Michael was doing stuff with Steely Dan, and someone suggested we get him to fill in. By the next album, he had a treasure trove of songs that he brought to the table. Some were reticent about the change, but some were digging it. When (the Doobie Brothers) got into his stuff, they liked it. It went in a totally different direction, but it speaks volumes about Michael, the band and our fans that it worked. I came back for the “Taking It to the Streets” tour, but in ‘77 I decided to drop out. I did nothing … lifted weights, rode my motorcycle, played baseball. I did my first solo album in ‘79 and a second in ‘80 and toured with them. The band kind of broke up in ‘82, so I came on board to do the farewell tour in ‘83. It was the culmination of that whole era. In ‘87, (drummer) Keith Knudsen wanted to do a benefit for Vietnam vets, and everybody agreed. So we went out with four drummers, four guitarists, Michael and me. It started out as one show, but then we agreed to do benefit shows at the Hollywood Bowl for Children’s Hospital and Little Sisters of the Poor. It was a huge success, but then we figured we needed to do about 10 more shows to pay for it. After that, we just kind of put the original band back together. Nobody was really doing anything else.
AH: A lot of bands tend to develop a signature sound with their music, but you never got that with the Doobie Brothers. You guys were all over the place, in a good way. Was that by design?
TJ: When we first started the Doobie Brothers, we all came from so many different directions. I was into Blues, R&B and rock and roll, while (co-founder/guitarist) Pat (Simmons) was into country, bluegrass … stuff like Doc Watson and Chet Atkins. And all the other guys were into their own things. So we just put out American-made music. We combined all those different forms of music into a rock and roll amalgamation.
AH: Did you and Patrick, when you formed the band in the late ’60s, see yourself planning a new album in 2014?
TJ: No idea, man. We generally never thought beyond what we were doing today. Nobody in their wildest dreams saw this coming.
AH: For songs to endure, they have to reach beyond the generation that they’re released in. What’s the crowd like today at a Doobie Brothers show?
TJ: It’s always growing, and that’s gratifying to see. You look and see, naturally, people in their 40s and 50s and 60s, but there are people in their 30s and 20s and teenagers, too. A lot of that started with them listening to mom and dad’s music, but the advent of the Internet had a lot to do with it, too. And with streaming — and I won’t go into that now — a lot of people discover our music through sites that “suggest” music based on listener preferences. A lot of people now are hearing songs that they typically would have never heard.
AH: With all the band’s succes, why aren’t the Doobie Brothers in the Rock Hall of Fame?
TJ: You’ll have to ask them. We get asked that a lot, but we don’t sit around and think about it. I understand there’s a big move on Facebook to get us in. It is what it is. If it happens, great.
AH: Do you have a favorite Doobie Brothers song?
TJ: I’m really reticent when it comes to a question like that. If you pick a certain song, there’s always a reaction from the fans. I will say it’s a thrill to do a song like “Dark-Eyed Cajun Woman,” which I wrote with a tip of the hat to B.B. King.
AH: OK, this has been great, but I know your time is limited. I have to ask before we go, though, where the band name came from.
TJ (laughing): Believe it or not, we didn’t come up with it. There was a guy living with us on a house on 12th street who wasn’t even into music. We were calling ourselves “Pud,” because we didn’t have a name, but we didn’t like that. This guy said, “Why don’t you call yourselves the Doobie Brothers?” There was, of course, a lot of that stuff going on then, but we all said it was a dumb name. Since we didn’t have anything else, we decided we’d go with it for then and get rid of it in a week or so when we came up with a better one. And, of course, it’s still there.