The Doobie Brothers will be takin’ it to West Virginia at The Event Center at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town 9 p.m. Friday, May 22.
Though many of the names have changed over the years, the Doobies have been a band for 45 years (including a short respite from 1982-87). In a phone interview from Northern California, I spoke with one of the founding members recently, Tom Johnston.
“The band’s been through a lot of changes personnel wise,” he said. “I left in ’75 for about eight months due to an ulcer, and when I came back they had recorded an album,” called “Takin’ It To The Street.”
“I had one song on it,” Tom said. It’s also when vocalist Michael McDonald joined the band.
Johnston left the band again in ’77 recording two solo albums and returned to the Doobies again in 1987. Band members changed a lot in those years, he said, and it’s also when John McFee, who had played with the country band Southern Pacific, joined the Doobies. McFee and Patrick Simpson, another founding member, are still Doobies.
In ’87, the band was asked to get together to play a show to benefit Vietnam veterans. Johnston said they had four guitarists, four drummers, bass players, percussionists, keyboardists, etc. … “a massive band. We ended up playing four more shows to pay for all that,” he said with a laugh.
Johnston, 66, said he still loves playing shows, though the travel can get old. “When you get on stage, that all goes away,” he said.
In November 2014, the Doobie Brothers collaborated with some top country artists for “Southbound,” with the Doobies singing their hits with a country artist.
When the idea was pitched to them, Johnston said he didn’t think anyone would want to do it, but the producer, David Huff, said he already had a list of artists who wanted to do it.
Johnston said it was a fun project and that they tried to join the artists in the studio when they could. “We sort of got to watch three of them. Chris Young at vocal for ‘China Grove.’ I knew that was going to work. Casey James playing his guitar, but not the vocals, for ‘Jesus Is Just Alright,’ and in California for Blake (Shelton)” for ‘Listen to the Music’.
“He’s a down-home guy and easy to get along with,” Johnston said.
Since it featured “best of” Doobie songs, the track list was almost pre-determined “but we put in a couple of songs that weren’t singles,” he said. Jerrod Nieman sang on “South City Midnight Lady” and “Nobody,” with Charlie Worsham.
“I liked them all the way they turned out,” Johnston said. “The best (one), not necessarily the one that’s the best but the farthest away from the what the (original) song was and what it is is ‘Nobody.'” For their 2010 album “World Gone Crazy,” “we tore it down to the nuts and bolts and rebuilt it,” Johnston said. “Dave took it even further. The rhythm was gone. I think it was cool! Charlie Worsham sang the second verse and played banjo.”
When I asked him if 40 years ago if he ever thought he would still be on stage playing “Black Water,” “Long Train Runnin'” and their other hit songs, Johnston said, “I don’t think I even thought past this week!”
Johnston said the Doobies are thinking about cutting a new album … but not country.
“Country these days, in a way, is rock with a twang,” Johnston said. “Classic rock fans have moved to country.”
How long will you continue to play? I asked.
“Until we drop!” he said, then laughed. “I won’t predict how long we’ll go on. People still want to hear us, the gigs are there. In the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a grand flow of interest in the band, all demographics. It’s really, really fun for the band to see it.” The band plays 85 to 95 shows a year, he said.
The Doobie Brothers have sold more than 48 million albums, won four Grammy Awards, had seven multi-Platinum and 11 Gold albums, and their “Best of the Doobies” album has sold more than 12 million copies — a rare Diamond record. Their two Gold singles were “Black Water” and “What A Fool Believes.”
In April, the Doobies received the ASCAP Voice of Music Award and on May 14 will receive the Music Business Association Chairman’s Award for Sustained Creative Achievement.
“It recognizes us as being musically valid,” Johnston said. “I keep using the word valid, that people consider us musically stable. People come up to us and say (a) song got them through the Vietnam War, a rough first marriage … to know that you affected peoples’ lives in a positive way, not that you knew it, but as part of their personal soundtrack for life.”
Johnston said he can’t pinpoint career highlights because “to me it’s still a highlight … you can point to various shows like in 1974 the first time in Europe” at a 15th century castle — there are all kinds of moments that are woven in the tapestry, like going to the studio and you’re stoked with how a song sounds … there are any number of things that could be a highlight.”
Johnston says the band covers a lot of areas — blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll. “It’s based on rhythms, rhythm structures, picking and harmonies. That’s been the signature of the band.”
In the band’s bio, Patrick Simmons says the band’s fundamental hope has drawn listeners to their music: “In a certain sense, what this band has always had in common with everyone else is the word ‘hope.’ We hoped we would make some good music, and we hoped there would be some acceptance, and we hoped that things would get better in the world. In that respect, we’re just the same — we’re still hopeful about the future. In my lifetime, there has always been struggle and challenge and some darkness, but with the sun shining through, and that’s what we all live for. You have to look towards the future and recognize that as long as there are thoughtful, intelligent people on the planet, there’s hope for the rest of us.”
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Yep. I’m a Doobie Brothers fan. I saw them in 1970something at the Capital Centre. The ticket may have cost a whopping $30 or $40 — a pretty big chunk of money when you consider I was probably making around $2.50 an hour back then. Was it worth it? Yes!! Still ranked as the best concert I’ve been to, hands down. So I’m a little bummed I can’t make the show in Charles Town May 22 because I’ll be at the other end of the state in Charleston (go Carmine!).
Back to “Southbound.” Even if you don’t know the Doobie Brothers, you know these songs: “Black Water,” “Listen to the Music,” “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway” … and if you don’t know the titles you’ll know the songs when you hear them on this album, so the next time you hear “the Doobie Brothers” you will know.
These songs still sound fresh, so do the Doobies’ vocals, along with country artists. Blake Shelton sings on “Listen to the Music,” and, honestly, he and the other country artists sound like they’re really working to keep up with the Doobies. These songs were rock ‘n’ roll then, would be country today. Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott and Hunter Hayes performed “Listen to the Music” live at the CMAs in November.
My favorites: “Black Water,” with Zac Brown Band; “Listen to the Music,” with Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes on guitar; “Long Train Runnin'” with Toby Keith and Huey Lewis on harmonica; “China Grove,” with Chris Young; “Jesus is Just Alright,” with Casey James; “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” with Brad Paisley; “Take Me In Your Arms,” with Tyler Farr, “South City Midnight Lady,” with Jerrod Nieman, and “Nobody,” with Charlie Worsham.
Hmmm. That’s just about all the tracks.
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You can read more of the Tom Johnston interview in today’s edition of 72 Hours.