Doobie Brothers are still smokin' after all these years

After starting out as the bar band at a Hell’s Angels hangout in Santa Cruz, the Doobie Brothers made it big in the mid-1970s — today, they’re still rocking

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comApril 26, 2012 

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In the liner notes for his new song “Chateau,” Patrick Simmons writes that the Chateau Liberte — the old saloon where the Doobie Brothers got their start — was a “really neat bar” that featured “no trouble” and “no fights.”

Yet, in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Simmons said the Chateau was a raucous place, where “it was a general rule that a fight would break out.”

So was the Santa Cruz bar the happy, mellow hangout Simmons described, or the rowdy former bordello known for public sex and fisticuffs — which Simmons also described?

“Kind of like that,” said Doobie Brother Tom Johnston, referring to the latter. “It was kind of like the Wild West. It was a combination of mountain folks, hippies, bikers, college students — everybody kind of gravitated up there to party and have a good time.”

Given that it’s been more than 40 years, you can forgive Sim mons for having a little memory lapse. And let’s be honest — there’s a reason they’re called the Doobie Brothers; these guys smoked a lot of doobies back in the day.

Fortunately for the band, success allowed them to leave the Chateau, which was a popular Hell’s Angels hangout.

“They showed up at the Chateau all the time,” said Johnston, who performs with the Doobies at this year’s Avila Blues Festival. The festival also features past headliner Taj Mahal with the Taj Mahal Trio and Tower of Power.

Johnston, who grew up in Visalia — and frequently visited Morro Bay and Pismo Beach as a kid — was living in the Bay Area when Skip Spence of Moby Grape introduced him to future Doobie Brothers band mates. While the Doobies would become staples of classic rock radio, in the beginning members had to rely on food stamps to eat, even after the band’s debut album.

“The first album was getting warmed up, if you will,” Johnston said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing in the studio.”

After that first album, Johnston wrote “Listen to the Music,” and in 1972 the soulful rocker would become the first Doobie Brothers song to get radio airplay.

“I was in my beat-up Volkswagen — I was driving down the road — when ‘Listen to the Music’ came on,” he remembered. “I’d never heard anything we did on the radio ... I pulled over to the side of the road, turned the engine off and said, ‘Wow — that’s really cool.’ ”

A string of hits would follow, including “Black Water,” “China Grove,” “Rocking Down the Highway” and one of the band’s best-known hits, “Long T Train Runnin’.”

“That was a jam,” he said of “Long Train.” “We started playing that in 1970 or 1971, and it didn’t have any words. I didn’t write any words until Ted (Templeman, their producer) said, ‘You’ve got to cut that.’ And I said, ‘It’s just a jam, man.’ And he says, ‘I think this could really be something.’ He always had really good ears for tunes, so I said, ‘OK,’ and we cut it.”

With boisterous harmonies, two drummers and multiple lead guitars, the Doobies had a big sound that combined elements of soul, blues, folk and rock. Meanwhile, as the band became more prolific, the publicity team sought to romanticize their biker connection.

While it’s true the Hell’s Angels did hang out with the band in the early days — and it’s true that members of the band did ride motorcycles — Johnston said the label wasn’t totally accurate.

“We’re not a biker band,” he said. “After awhile, I started to chafe at that a little bit. Because it wasn’t really what the band was all about. We were about the music we were making.”

By the mid-1970s, the Doobies had finally made it big. But Johnston, their lead singer, suddenly came down with a bleeding ulcer that was so bad his heart once stopped in the surgery room. Needing a break to recover, he left the band in 1977. But the Doobies would go on, recruiting Steely Dan sideman Michael McDonald to replace him.

McDonald, known for his classier yacht rock vocals, would take the Doobies in a new — and even more successful — direction with songs like “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “What a Fool Believes” and “Takin’ it to the Streets.”

“I was kind of happy for them,” Johnston said. “I thought it was pretty cool.”

The band split in the 1980s but regrouped for a Vietnam veterans benefit in 1987. Johnston, healthy again, rejoined the band — and has been with them ever since.

While Johnston and Simmons have been with the band through much of its existence, others have come and gone, including Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who is now a defense consultant specializing in missile defense systems, and Mc-Donald, who went on to become a successful solo act.

The Doobie Brothers’ career since the ’70s has mostly entailed live performances, but the band occasionally puts out a new album — the most recent, 2010’s “World Gone Crazy,” was its first in a decade.

“In the old days, you were touring to support the album you had out,” Johnston said. “Now you put an album out to support the touring. It’s kind of reversed.”

The Simmons-penned single “Far From Home” rose to No. 19 on the adult contemporary list, and Johnston’s “A Brighter Day” is currently in the top 20.

“We’re sitting in a pocket with Adele on top of us, Taylor Swift coming up behind and Katy Perry, which is interesting company for this band,” Johnston said.

Much of the new album — which includes a cover of the band’s first recording, “Nobody” — includes drummer Michael Hossack, who died of cancer last month at age 65.

“Michael played on every single that I ever had,” Johnston said, “and for that I’ll be forever grateful. He really was a good drummer.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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