Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Best of The Doobies
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
After ten years – from the forming of the Doobie Brothers to the splitting up of that group – its members changed and changed, but its sound grew and grew.
But of the six Doobie Brothers’ members on year of birth (1972), ten years later, not a one remained in the group. It was all different guys.
Tracking all those changes has been done by others, and is not what this post is about. This one’s about tracking how the Doobies’ sound remained steady, passionate, attracting the masses, and not about some soloist’s voice.
For Warner Bros. Records, the Doobie Brothers made hit after hit, no matter who was at the mike. It started with these four.
1971 – The Doobie Brothers album is the group’s debut on WBR. It’s only promising single was the bouncy “Nobody,” but even that had to be re-released in 1974 before any chart prominence came about (#58 on Billboard’s Hot 100).
Produced up in San Mateo by WBR’s Lenny Waronker and Ted Templeman, though after this album, Templeman becomes “the man.” Like the Doobies, he’d come from Santa Cruz, played in the same bars with his first group, The Tikis.
The album’s cover reflects the Doobie’s clan at this point: motorcycle jackets, as the group found their audience like to fun ‘em up. They made their livelihood with Hells Angels crowded into bars like the Chateau Liberte up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But WBR’s producers leaned toward music that roared less: acoustic guitars and a country tinge.
1972 – Toulous Street brought the four Doobies down to be recorded in Los Angeles (and some in San Francisco), with producer Ted Templeman starting a major role for this and albums to come. He handled personnel flux (along with the group’s manager, Bruce Cohn.) Pianist Bill Payne came in, along with a pepped up rhythm section (two drummers in one quintet!).
The sound? Not easy to describe, but words used included bluegrass, hard rock, roadhouse boogie, R&B, funk, country, and rock-and-roll. They put all that together, and came up with two hot songs in this album “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Both those songs were written by the band’s current co-guitarist (along with Pat Simmons), Tom Johnston.
Check out an early version of “Listen to the Music”:
“Listen to the Music” was the Doobie’s first Top 40 hit, coming oh so close (#11) to Top Ten. The Doobies now sounded like friends, not gang guys. Their soft shuffle feels California all through.
Warners Goes Doobies
For no good reason, they picked one of the album’s songs, naming album two for a New Orleans street in its French Quarter.
The album’s innerspread photo caught attention as well. It’s the Doobies and local girls at play:
Their album (but not innerspread) producer now was singly Ted Templeman, who kept that role for years to come. He teamed with engineer Don Landee at Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood for Toulous. Templeman’s production skills would grow to help every Doobie album for the rest of this post.
But Ted’s background remained Santa Cruz, at least for this while, where he had grown up, his grandfather owning a music store. Both his parents were teachers. Ted played R&B drums through his school years. A deep fan of music.
After school, he started that group called The Tikis, and played drums therein. They became part of a label sale to WBR, and Templeman was zeroed in on by Lenny Waronker.
Templeman fit well within WBR, having come from a first group, Harpers Bizarre, and was hired to staff by Lenny Warnoker as a producer for Captain Beefheart, Little Feat, and Van Morrison. And soon enough (1972), as executive producer, one who got appreciated as a producer who’d listen to the acts he was producing and make their wishes sound fine.
Back to Doobies, with Ted in the booth:
1973 – The Captain and Me. Hits started to flow, with “China Grove” (#15 of U.S. Pop Singles) and “Long Train Runnin’” (#8). The core quintet remains: two guitars (Johnston and Simmons), two drummers (John Hartman and Michael Hossack), and one on bass (Tiran Porter). But into the recording sessions, you can add Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on steel guitar and Bill Payne on keyboards.
“Long Train Runnin’” sounds like the start of one of those casual jam sessions of the group, but then gets into Top 10 shape.
“China Grove” is all air-guitar, and a classic of that: a tough-sounding song with crunchy guitars building on their “Bow, bow, bomp de bomp de bomp, chica bow bow.” A rolling piano, and a chorus for all to sing along. A classic.
Watch a 1974 version of “China Grove” here:
Tom Johnston gets credit for seven of this LP’s 13 songs. Group manager Bruce Cohn got to handle the horse gang on the cover (all props from Warner Pictures), staged under a regularly –collapsing freeway section near Sylmar, California. Cohn is not “The Captain” in the song; no one is, it was just quick lyrics there.
The pace of recording albums had picked up, since hits attracted a fever within the group and its label.
1974 – What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits proved that the public has ears better than the labels do. After two so-so singles from the album (“Another Park, Another Sunday” and “Eyes of Silver”) were released by Warners, radio stations and the public went right over to another cut, “Black Water.” That sold over a million, and became the Doobie Brothers’ first #1 pop hit. It has sold multi-platinum.
I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland
Pretty mama come and take me by the hand
By the hand, take me by the hand pretty mama
Come and dance with your daddy all night long
I want to honky tonk, honky tonk, honky tonk
With you all night long
Check out a recent rendition of "Black Water" with this version performed at the Grand Ole Opry:
“Black Water” was a new Doobies sound. A viola has witty interplay with guitar and violin, and other acoustic instruments and a killer bass line. Then the a capella break down. And Simmons singing as if he’s having the chilliest day of his life. Personnel changes, the most vital of which was “Skunk” Baxter joining the band after his previous group, Steely Dan, was retiring. He became the group’s third guitarist.
These guitars, all-well strummed, get to the public, and become “the Doobies’ sound.” Other sound attractions for this album include Arlo Guthrie on autoharp and harmonica, and The Memphis Horns.
The Doobies set off on their first Britain/Europe tour, accompanied by a run-away smoke machine that could wrap the audience up to its necks in billowing dry-ice smoke. They traveled in a flashy tour bus with fake little Victorian lamps on the tables between their seats but no bathroom on board (oops), and were regarded in towns they played as “late-60s freaks.”
But they brought audiences to their feet, gasping and cheering.
1975 – Stampede, a Western-themed LP, it stars the Doobies’ adaptation of a Motown hit, “Take Me in Your Arms.” It’s a Motown-style track, with a smash guitar solo at 2:22, played by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. He recalls, “Every musician I’ve ever known has at some point wanted to achieve Motown’s technically slick soul sound. We sat down to try to duplicate it, and to see if our version could emerge as a successful single.”
Hear the original LP version of “Take Me,” here:
The West has other co-stars in Stampede, including Ry Cooder’s slinky side guitar in “Rainy Day Crossover Blues,” a cowboy song by Johnston. Simmons came up with “Neal’s Fandango,” which recalled their early play dates in Santa Cruz, along with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
In the Spring of 1975, the Doobies were set for a promotion tour when Johnston’s body needed hospital repair for a bleeding stomach ulcers. To replace him on the promotion, they recruited another Steely Dan alum, Michael McDonald. The Doobies, six of them, headed out on tour.
Along Comes McDonald
Michael McDonald was hardly primed for helping out the Doobie Brothers. The group had to cancel shows, and some of the group thought about calling it quits when Jeff Baxter thought about Michael McDonald.
At the time, McDonald was doing nothing, living in a garage apartment. When he got the call, he didn’t feel he was what they should want. He recalled, “They were looking for someone who could play Hammond B-3 organ and a lot of keyboards, and I was just a songwriter/piano hacker. But more than anything, they were looking for a singer to fill Tommy’s shoes.”
He met with the group in New Orleans and rehearsed in some warehouse for two days. Bass-player Tiran Porter recalled, “Mike came in, sat down at the piano, opened his mouth and everybody said, “You’re in.” Within three days, he’d gone from his garage to on stage with them, touring.
Meanwhile, Warner Records was skittish about replacing the ill Johnston with... Anybody. McDonald recalled that, too: “I knew the record company was panicked about any change in the band. They were leery about getting a new guy. I was thrilled to have had the gig, but I wasn’t expecting all that much.”
Producer Ted Templeman went through demos by McDonald, then told the group, “You’ve got a real diamond in the rough here.” The group gave in, recording McDonald’s material. Johnston agreed about McDonald. He (Johnston) wasn’t physically ready for more road.
The recording sessions for Album 6 began.
1976 – Takin’ It to the Streets was due by contract this year, but the Doobies’ main song writer, Tom Johnston, was still out of it. The Brothers re-assembled and that brought a major change to their sound. Now their records featured soft rock and blue-eyed soul, keyboards, and more finger-snapping rhythms. Their arrangements grew more complex, with guitars changing keys a lot, with melody lines prevailing.
But what happened most of all was their newest Doobie, Michael McDonald, became the signature voice of the group with his soulful rasp.
McDonald at the piano, on stage, doing “Takin’ It”:
Both the title track “Takin’ It to the Streets” and the California-funky “It Keeps You Runnin’” scored on the charts. For the absent Johnston, they sang “For Someone Special.”
1977 – Livin’ on the Fault Line put McDonald’s voice up front, even though that did not create a hit album. Two hits emerged, but they made more money for other singers than the Doobies. In the album are “Echoes of Love,” covered by the Pointer Sisters; and “You Belong to Me,” taken later by Carly Simon.
But what had changed more was the overall sound of the Doobies. McDonald was deep into harmonies, and blended those with funkier beats and his R&B-sounding voice. No longer were The Doobie Brothers anywhere near their birth sound of biker-bong-and-boogie singing. On this album, they played at times with a 25-piece orchestra, 25 more Brothers. Integrated.
Producer Ted Templeman acted the father role for the band now. McDonald recognized that and appreciated it: “A lot of Teddy’s job is keeping us from going too crazy. He knows what’s good and what’s bad. Even if I think a track is bad, if he tells me it’s all right, I know it’s all right.”
Before the album was released, Johnson had his songs in it withdrawn. He left the band he’d co-founded. He was side-lined once again from exhaustion.
Now they were complex, musically, and close even to what we in the business were calling “cool jazz.”
1978 – Minute by Minute reversed the malaise of Fault Line. Big time. This new album spent five weeks up top of the music charts. Radio formats found themselves dominated by the LP’s audience demands. It got Grammys (Song of the Year; Record of the Year). And most significant, the album produced the Doobie Brothers’ second #1 single ever:
Somewhere back in her long ago
Where he can still believe there's a place in her life
Someday, somewhere, she will return
She had a place in his life
He never made her think twice
As he rises to her apology
Anybody else would surely know
He's watching her go
But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be is always better than nothing
There's nothing at all but what a fool believes he sees
“What a Fool Believes,” written by McDonald with Kenny Loggins, appealed through McDonald’s soulful vocals, his warm keyboard riffs, and all this became a style imitated by other vocalists and even TV commercials. McDonald was now the key to the Doobies Locks (a pun, but look at the six of them, all with facial hair).
A second hit followed: “Dependin’ on You.” The song was co-written by McDonald, but features founding Doobie Patrick Simmons on vocal.
And a third: the album title’s song, “Minute by Minute,” with blue-eyed soul from McDonald, plus his bouncing organ driving the song.
Hear an early version of “Minute” here:
Breaking Up, For Now
But by now, the band was feeling utter fatigue. They talked about breaking up. An album per year had extracted its toll. Three Doobies exited the group (Hartman, Baxter, and LaKind).
It was over after a brief, final tour of Japan.
Then, the remaining Doobies (Simmons, Knudsen, McDonald, and Porter) decided they liked the money. They added new members and toured through the rest of 1979, even to Madison Square Garden.
One more album? Well, yes, one called One Step Closer in 1980, with a Top Ten single, “Real Love.” But the charts didn’t feel Doobie-ism any longer. If anything, it was McDonald-style.
Simmons left the band, and that meant that the Doobie Brothers now had no founding members left in it.
They would, however, return, as the decades evolved.
-- Stay Tuned