Co-founder of Doobie Brothers talks about longevity, success

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Tom Johnston, center, of the Doobie Brothers performs at a concert in Joe Louis Arena after the North American International Auto Show Charity Preview in Detroit, Michigan, on January 16, 2009. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

The Doobie Brothers are an American band.

Like the country they call home and from whose rich history of music they draw, the Doobie Brothers have gone through some pretty jarring yet successful stylistic changes across 4½ decades.

The group, which will be performing at the Akron Civic Theatre on Saturday, began as a bunch of California longhairs playing catchy rock ’n’ roll with elements of Americana and a dash of R&B. A few years, albums and personnel changes later, they became a slick R&B-laced pop band with a signature vocalist, Michael McDonald, a handful of gold and platinum albums and a string of radio hits including Black Water, Jesus Is Just Alright, Listen to the Music and others that are still in rotation on radio stations around the country.

If you play the Doobies’ classic-rock track China Grove, followed by the slick R&B and jazz of Minute By Minute, you may have a hard time believing it’s (mostly) the same band. The genre shift came in part because in 1975, founding member, co-lead singer and songwriter Tom Johnston was forced to leave the band because of health issues, ushering in the McDonald era. During the late 1970s through mid-’80s, McDonald and the Doobies had crossover pop and R&B success with hits such as What a Fool Believes and Takin’ It to the Streets.

Johnston returned to the band in 1987, initially to help out at a member’s benefit concert, but soon came back for good and the band returned to its pre-McDonald sound. The current version of the Doobie Brothers consists of primary songwriters and founding members Johnston and Pat Simmons, along with guitarist John McFee who joined in 1978. The band’s most recent album was the well-received World Gone Crazy in 2010.

Here are a few questions Johnston answered from his home in the California North Bay.

Q: Your last album, “World Gone Crazy,” debuted in the Billboard Top 40, your best chart debut since 1989. Do those kinds of stats still mean anything to you?

A: Yeah, it does inasmuch as it keeps you visible, number one. Number two, we were extremely happy with that particular album. We spent a lot of time on that and we paid for it ourselves before we went around and tried to find a label or distributor. We spent a couple of years on that album and really spent time on the songs, and a lot of them went in directions we hadn’t tried before, which is always fun for me, and I think for everybody in the band. I think everybody enjoys that, so it’s not just a rubber stamp of everything you’ve ever done.

Q: As a veteran act with a storied catalog, is it ever frustrating to work hard on a new album and be excited about the new songs, knowing that there is likely little space in your already must-play hit-filled set list?

A: Well, we did play about four or five [new songs] on that tour. Now it’s down to two. Basically, when you’re going out in front of a crowd, you want to make them happy. And if you have the good fortune to have that many songs in the old catalog that people love and enjoy, and it’s really become a wide demographic in terms of the ages; we have kids in their 20s and a little bit younger to people our age and everything in between.

So, I consider us lucky to have that, via [radio] airplay, via touring and just keeping alive in people’s eyes, and we’ve been fortunate that there’s a demand to hear the music. And so that’s why the band is still around, and the fact that the band still wants to be around. We have a really good time playing and that’s pretty much what this band has always been about, playing live in front of people. So having a lot of songs to choose from is good to keep your set fresh for the band and gives people a different sound, so every time it’s new.

Q: The Doobie Brothers have been eligible for the rock hall since 1996. Are you bothered at all that you guys haven’t even been nominated?

A: The hall of fame is something that I don’t entirely understand how it gets voted on or why they pick the people they do sometimes.

At the same time, we don’t dwell on it a lot, because it would drive you crazy if you did, and at the same time, it’s not why we became musicians. We became musicians to entertain people and express ourselves in a musical fashion, which is what we do best. If they decide to bring us into the fold, we’ll be happy to do so; in the meantime, we got plenty to keep us busy, so it’s not like we don’t have anything to keep us busy.

Q: Speaking of keeping busy, the Doobies have a country album coming out this year. Excited about that?

A: We’ve got some names like Brad Paisley and quite a few people [Sara Evans, Toby Keith, Zac Brown, Chris Young and more]. It’s just people who are doing really well in country right now, and they added a really nice — with the way the tracks are [arranged] — a flavor to all these Doobie songs, and it just takes them to a new place and it’s like hearing for the first time …

The studio guys are just incredible. I really enjoyed watching them [record] and hearing [the guest artists] take on singing those songs. One of the biggest things that is different in country is the style of singing. They have a very defined style and it’s cool and it works great.

One thing about the band that makes this possible and what makes the whole thing work is that the Doobies have always been like the quintessential American band. We play everything. We play rock ’n’ roll, we play blues, we play R&B, but we also play, not all-out country, but something like South City Midnight Lady or Black Water, you got that Americana music. You mix that all together with the harmonies and that kind of stuff and it makes the Doobie Brothers what it is, so it really fits really well with country.

Q: As a quintessential American band, are you one of the cadre of industry folks/artists who worry that rock ’n’ roll is in danger of being marginalized in the mainstream pop world?

A: I don’t worry about it because it’s completely out of my control. What’s going on with rock has already happened and has been happening for a while. Frankly, I think it has been marginalized because radio doesn’t play it anymore really. And the rock purists, or whatever you want to call them, are really in the minority. There is the indie rock scene and the pop rock scene but it’s not really in-your-face rock ’n’ roll.

And if you want to be a purist, you can really say the same thing about R&B, there really isn’t that scene going on anymore, either. It’s all changed and it is what it is. People are liking what they like. Just as the whole record company scene has changed, and the whole way of marketing has changed and the whole way of distribution has changed. It’s all changed, and it doesn’t matter if I’m all right with it or not, because it’s happening.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.


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