Doobie Brothers – L.A. Times

Listenability Is a Doobies’ Distinction

The Doobie Brothers have come a long way since their five-sets-a-night, six-nights-a-week grind around San Jose’s toughest Hell Angels bars. Once, the least of their struggles was just getting paid. Five years and seven hit singles later, the band’s only battle is against the superficial AM stigma that often comes with too much commercial success – an image now much less threatening after the addition of ex-Steely Dan guitarist Jeff (Skunk) Baxter and their most sophisticated album yet, “Stampede.”

From the very beginning, the Doobie Brothers have always been more than just another hit machine. Their infectious blend of crisp guitars and strong harmonies resulted in an immediately recognizable sound. Lately even such artists Bachman-Turner Overdrive (“Let It Ride”) and Elton John (“Philadelphia Freedom”) have unabashedly borrowed from it. “It’s very hard these days for a band to come up with a halfway unique approach,” explains Doobies’ producer Ted Templeman, who discovered the band and signed it to Warner Bros. in 1970. “These guys had ‘that sound’ the very first time I saw them live. Tommy’s (lead guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston) style of singing and guitar playing was really special. Then the other voices came in and blew me away completely. The Doobie Brothers were the first band since Buffalo Springfield to really get me off. I couldn’t wait to get them into the studio. My whole philosophy had always been that if artists could establish a musical identity that is all their own they’d make it. No problem . . . “

At Templeman’s insistence, the band (now minus Shogren and supplemented by bassist Tiran Porter and another drummer, Michael Hossack) was allowed another chance on Warner Bros. with its second album, “Toulouse Street.” Marc Bolan heard the record and signed the Doobies as the opening act for a T. Rex tour. “Listen to the Music,” at first a slow-moving single, hit the Top Ten in midtour. And so began the band’s tradition of constant touring.

“Touring, more than records or anything else is what broke this band,” says Simmons. “The radio play helped us a whole bunch, but being on the road is what really did it. It’s tough to do it any other way. These days it seems to be the era of the touring bands. If you look at the charts, most everybody who’s happening are the ones who get out there to the people. People came to see the Doobies live, then bought the albums (all but the first of which are gold and platinum) and singles basically so they could relive the experience. I really believe that’s what put us over the top.”

The groups consistent singles success is also due to the sheer listenability of its records. “I’ll tell you who gets a good sound in the studio,” Pete Townshend of the Who once told a reporter, “The Doobie Brothers. Their songs seem to just pop out of the radio speakers and grab at you.” Asked how he attains such a palatable and well-crafted product with the Doobies, Templeman first credits the musicians themselves. “I’ve had other producers call me up and say ‘Who do you use on the Doobie Brothers records?’ Swear to God. They’re excellent musicians in the studio. They can play as well as any studio musicians. That’s important. We also take a lot of time with the sound. It took a while to perfect the distortion in recording Tommy’s guitar. The bass and drums are crucial too. Once you’ve got that down, there’s no need to be overtly commercial. The rhythm section will draw you in.”

Another hit, “Jesus is Just Alright With Me,” preceded the group’s third and biggest album. “The Captain and Me.” “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove,” two more hit singles, followed in succession. “That album was probably our biggest commercial breakthrough,” theorizes Tom Johnston, “because at the time we were really getting into our own style and playing off what we knew to be our strong suits.”

By the next album, “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits,” the Doobie Brothers had undergone yet another personnel change. Drummer Michael Hossack, weary of the frenetic touring pace, switched places with Bonarroo drummer Keith Knudsen. Says Simmons, “This band has always had the good fortune to have gone through changes when they were needed. ‘The Captain and Me’ was a great album, but it was the end of the line as far as the classic Doobies style went. Keith’s addition jostled us just enough to stretch out a bit more. ‘Vices’ was a mature step for us. I certainly don’t think we lost anybody in the transition.” Apparently not. The album provided two more additions to the group’s hit list, “Eyes of Silver” and “Black Water.”

Meanwhile, Steely Dan’s guitarist Jeff Baxter had developed a habit of spending his off-weekends gigging with the Doobies. “I like to work all the time,” explains Baxter. “the Doobie Brothers were fun to play with. I liked them and they liked me. So I’d hop a plane and have a good time playing guitar with them for a few days, then go back home and work with Steely Dan. It worked out great. For me, this band had the magic that the Dan didn’t. It was able to relate to an audience, something I think I’m pretty good at. With the Doobies, I got to be a part of the energy. Steely Dan, on the other hand, rarely toured.”

One Doobie Brothers weekend, Baxter called home and found he’d been relieved of his position with Steely Dan. “I put down the phone and told the guys what happened. Immediately, they told me I was welcome in their band. I had a lot of shoulders to cry on. Did we pull a drunk that first night. Whoa. It was great. Tears and everything. It was like being at the Palomino on talent night.”

Baxter, in turn, recently returned the favor by refusing an offer to join Elton John’s new band. “Sure,” he says, “I thought about it . . . I got a little starstruck. You know, here I am – some guy who repaired guitars at Valley Sound for two years – all of a sudden wanted in all these big-name bands . . .  But I quickly came back down and realized where it was at. I told Elton I’d play for him in his Wembley Festival show if he wanted – and that went great – but beyond that, there was no way. I already made a commitment. Even if we were making no money and playing in a bar in San Jose, I’d stay with the Doobie Brothers.

“You see, I’m on the right road in this band. I feel like I can finally play the music and hit the peaks I’ve always wanted to. I couldn’t do that in Steely Dan. I wasn’t allowed. But I can’t blame Walter (Becker) and Donald (Fagen). If I wrote songs like they did, I would demand they be played a certain way too. The other reason I joined the Doobies is because we’re friends. In Steely Dan, our only common ground was the music. Walter and I would scream at each other, call each other jerks, walk on stage and get off. After a while that started to deteriorate. I’m glad we parted company when we did.”

The new guitarist’s influence on the Doobies can be most strongly felt on their fifth and latest album, “Stampede.” While still branded with standards like “Sweet Maxine” and their most recent hit “Take Me in Your arms,” the approach is self-assuredly jazzier than previous efforts. Baxter, who’s guested on the last three Doobie Brother albums, sees the evolution as an “educational process.”

“You owe it to your audience to not only keep your music accessible, but also to take them somewhere and teach them something along the way.”

Adds Simmons, “This album is a good indication we don’t feel chained to a single. We’ve concentrated more than ever on making a fluid album. And we’re lucky ‘cause we’ve got fans who dig what we do regardless of whether it sounds like ‘Long Train Runnin’ or not. I’m starting to think most of our audience is into the band as a whole.”

The ultimate test of that theory came on the band’s recent West Coast tour when fan favorite Tom Johnston became ill. Temporarily hiring another Steely Dan member, pianist Mike McDonald, the Doobies shared Johnston’s vocal and guitar duties. Their sets without Johnston were very successful.

“When we had to play without Tommy,” Baxter remarks, “we had no choice but to get even tighter. Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns (the Doobies hired the prestigious horn section to back them in their Southern California concerts) told me that playing with us was one of their best gigs since they backed Otis Redding.” A broad grin is barely visible underneath Jeff Baxter’s walrus-droop mustache. “Not bad for a Top Ten commercial AM singles band.”

Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – August 17, 1975