When drummer John Hartmann and guitarist Tom Johnston originally convened in Northern California as the final embers of the '60s were slowly fading away, they formed a band whose modest intents would eventually make it one of the most popular bands ever.
Joined by guitarist Patrick Simmons, multi-instrumentalist John McFee, second drummer Michael Hossack, and bassist Tiran Porter, they established themselves as a go-to party band, taking the name the Doobie Brothers as an unabashed acknowledgment of their celebratory tool. Despite the reputation -- and the fact that their early patrons included various local chapters of the Hell's Angels -- the band's deal with Warner Bros. Records quickly yielded an arsenal of radio-ready hits. There are the ever-ready anthems like "Listen to the Music," "China Grove," and Black Water," among them and best-selling albums that propelled them to the forefront of '70s music.
Theirs was an unlikely dichotomy, a group that could be counted on to scale the Top 40 while also maintaining the interest of the highbrow FM crowd. And once they recruited two ex-Steely Dan compatriots, singer/pianist Michael McDonald and guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, that crossover was complete.
Despite the jazzier and more sophisticated inflections initiated by the soft-rock sound of "Takin' It to the Streets," "It Keeps You Runnin'," "Minute by Minute," and "What a Fool Believes," the Doobies' grip on the charts clenched even further. Still, the ensuing decades brought break-ups, shifts in personnel, and, sadly, the passing of some band members who helped shape their sound. Yet, even though a series of personnel changes temporarily dimmed the spark ignited in the Doobies' early run, they still remain a reliable concert draw, enjoyed by multiple generations of fans.
McDonald, whose solo career prospered even further after leaving the fold, occasionally reconvenes with the group, joining a current roster that includes Simmons, Johnston, and McFee, as well as newer recruits John Cowan (a storied bluegrass player in his own right), Guy Allison, Marc Russo, Tony Pia, and Ed Toth.
So what does a current Doobie Brothers blowout consist of nowadays? We asked Patrick Simmons, still the band's ever-enthusiastic, long-haired cheerleader, to share some of secrets to their success.
New Times: What do you think is the essential appeal of the Doobie Brothers' music?
Patrick Simmons: We have always had a great bunch of songwriters in the band. The songs, I think, bring people to the band. Once they're engaged, they realize we have a depth of talent both vocally and instrumentally as well.
Why do you think the band's music has resonated so strongly for the past 40 or so years, generation to generation? What accounts for your longevity?
We've been lucky enough to have had quite a lot of albums released through the years, which, for one thing, has kept us on the radio. Perhaps the variety of songs and singers has helped. We've continued to tour as well, and I like to think our music has matured, and our playing improved, which enables us to deliver a great show every night.
How would you sum up the Doobies legacy?
Hmm... I think -- this is my view, you understand -- we all love music and playing. We bring an honest approach to what we do. We play songs that grew from our own experiences and our influences from other writers and players. We care about what we do and about those around us. We use our position and influence to help others as much as we can. We're proud to be a large extended family, with wives and children that we love. And we enjoy the gift of life, every day, and give thanks for the gift of music that we've been given.
How frequently do you tour? It seems like you're always out on the road.
We do from 75 to 100 shows a year. Mostly spring, summer, fall, with a few shows sprinkled through the winter months.
Do you see any difference in the audiences of today versus those of 40 years ago?
Probably, as you would expect, a much greater variation in the ages of people attending our shows. From 8 to 80. At least three generations any given night.
Do you have a favorite Doobie Brothers song or album?
I like them all, but of course there are certain songs that resonate more for me on any particular album.
With your wealth of material, how do you narrow down the selections for your set lists?
Well, we always try to include many of the songs that we know people will want to hear. Then we just experiment with stuff we'd like to try or that someone might request. We occasionally even throw in covers of other artist's songs, just for the fun of it.
Your upcoming album finds Michael McDonald back in the fold. Is he going to tour again with the band? Will the reunion continue? What was it like having him back with the band?
Mike comes and sits in with us on occasion. He's always a good friend to all of us. Hard to say what the future will bring. I'm sure we'll do some playing together in the future at an appropriate time. Michael is an incredible talent and a wonderful person. It's always a huge pleasure to work with him. He has a wonderful career of his own. We pay tribute to his time in the band at our shows, and he keeps alive that part of our career together in his performances. So we complement each other in that regard.
The band has such varied influences, and each of the charter members come from such different backgrounds. How were you able to reconcile these different styles and fuse them together so cohesively? Was there ever a clash of styles?
I don't think there was ever a clash in our minds. We always made the effort to facilitate each others' styles and create the best songs we could out of the ideas that were presented.
With all the awards, accolades, and honors you've received, do you ever feel like you're competing with your past? Or are you content to rest on your laurels? Are there future goals and achievements you're still looking to attain? Or do you feel like you can never top your earlier selves so why try?
We're always trying to be creative and come up with new ideas. We don't feel the pressure to constantly be in the studio that we once had, but we continue to write and record, and I'm sure we'll continue to make records. There's great enjoyment in the process, and it's still fun.
Aside from the new album, which retraces your hits with a bunch of superstar special guests, can we expect any new Doobies material in the near future?
I'm sure that will happen.
Do you find audiences only want to hear the hits? And if so, does that make it difficult to introduce new material into your shows?
Not at all. We play new material and deep cuts from various albums all the time. The audiences love that we still have new stuff and that we take some chances.
Considering the origins of your name -- and the Doobie (i.e., marijuana) reference, did you ever regret that you had chosen that handle or that it would kind of align you with a certain element? Or conversely, because of pot's growing acceptance, do you find that the name is more relevant and culture-friendly than ever before?
I always thought it was a nutty name, but since we were actually authentic hippies at the time, we thought it was funny and clever. Too late to change it now...
Speaking of which, did you ever play any pro-pot rallies?
Yes, every night! [laughs]
Tell us about the causes that you support. You've done concerts to raise money for military families, no?
That has probably been our most visible support mission. We started back when the Vietnam veterans were returning, and it's continued to be an ongoing part of our concern. We try to raise money every year for various veterans groups. VFW posts, outreach programs, Wounded Warriors. There will never be enough we can do to help our returning brothers and sisters. We also have tried to do things for musicians' aid programs, education programs, food banks, hospitals, pediatric care, cancer research, and many others.
The Doobie Brothers perform at SunFest on Friday, May 2, at 9 p.m.
SunFest. Also performing are Kid Rock, Robin Thicke, J. Cole, Ellie Goulding, and others. 5 to 10 p.m. on April 30 to May 2, noon to 11 p.m. on May 3, noon to 9:20 p.m. on May 4, at 525 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $30 to $71 plus fees. Call 561-659-5980, or visit sunfest.com.
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