Still takin' it to the streets
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., July 15, 2004) – Tom Johnston says there is no way in the world that back in 1970, when he and Pat Simmons teamed up to form a new band, anyone could have foreseen that 35 years later the Doobie Brothers would still be an ongoing concern.

“We were lucky to see the next day, much less the next year or the next thirty-five years,” said Johnston, one of the group’s longtime lead guitarists, singers and songwriters, in a recent phone interview from his California home.

“We weren’t expecting to get famous or make records,” said Johnston, who will be leading his band at the second concert of Berkshire Music Glen at Bousquet’s summer series on Monday at 6. “We were just playing music.”

The way Johnston describes it, the Doobie Brothers simply evolved among a group of California friends who loved playing music 24/7. “There was always a jam session going on,” he said.

Those jam sessions eventually produced some of the most memorable rock music of the 1970s, including radio hits that became the very template of what is now called “classic rock.” Guitar-fueled rockers such as “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin’” were staples of AM and FM radio in the 1970s, as well as standard repertory for thousands of bar bands across the land.

Much of their lingering appeal owes to Johnston’s funky guitar riffs coloring these and tunes like “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus Is Just Alright.” But Johnston finds it hard to explain how he came up with the signature licks that along with the Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards’s became the basic vocabulary of aspiring rock guitarists across the land.

“Most rock is an accident unless you’re consciously trying to rip someone off,” said Johnston. “Most of this stuff came from fooling around, trying this, trying that. In those days I played guitar all day and all night. If I wasn’t in school, I was playing guitar.”

Johnston specifically recalls the context in which he came up with the “China Grove” guitar chords – perhaps the quintessential riff of the quintessential bar-band rock tune. “I was sitting in my bedroom on Twelfth Street at one or two in the morning when I came up with that, the whole chord progression, the actual chords,” he said. “I woke John [Hartman] up and went down to the basement and said we’ve got to work on this right now, and I called our producer at three in the morning and played it for him and he liked it.”

Johnston had met Hartman, the Doobie Brothers original drummer, through Skip Spence, guitarist with the San Francisco-based cult band Moby Grape, a band that Johnston hails as a great influence. “They were original,” he said. “They had a distinctive vocal thing, and also had a combination of blues and country and rock and roll, sometimes all stuck in one song. They were a very energetic driving band on the rock and roll stuff and had these beautiful ballads.”

Out of Hartman’s and Johnston’s jam sessions, which eventually included fellow singer-guitarist Patrick Simmons, grew the Doobie Brothers, so named by a hanger-on after a certain indulgence that went on among some of those attending the band’s open rehearsals. The group’s first album was released just a year after the band got together in 1970, and within two years the band had a million-selling album, “Toulouse Street,” and several hit singles to its credit.

While the group wasn’t exactly unique in its field, it did find just the right combination of crunching guitars, hard-charging rhythms and high vocal harmonies to give it a distinctive sound. That plus catchy melodies and lyrical riffs kept them on the charts through the mid-1970s, with hits including “Black Water” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me).”

By the mid-1970s, however, Johnston retreated from the group, allowing new singer Michael McDonald to exert his influence and move the band’s sound toward a slicker, pop-soul sound as reflected in songs like the Kenny Loggins-penned “What a Fool Believes” and “Minute By Minute.” While Johnston acknowledges that the new sound and singer won the band a whole new following, he clearly has ambivalent feelings about the wholesale change in direction it wrought in the group he founded and eventually reclaimed after a six-year hiatus in 1988.

“There was definitely a different musical side with Michael in the band,” said Johnston. “It went from a more rock and roll band with shades of R and B and country to when Michael came along it went all R and B and blue-eyed soul. I would say as far as continuity, musically there really wasn’t a lot. It changed drastically. Pat was the continuity, because he was in all versions of the band.”

Johnston said the group still occasionally performs with McDonald a few times a year for high-paying, corporate events. But generally, today’s Doobie Brothers – such as the group that will appear at Bousquet, without McDonald -- draw a clear boundary around the McDonald era by only playing songs from before and after, shunning all McDonald’s repertoire other than the song “Takin’ It to the Streets.”

When asked what keeps fans interested in the Doobie Brothers three decades later, Johnston talks about the group’s emphasis on live performance. “We like to play live,” he said. “We’ve always been about playing live. That’s how we got started. We’re not a studio hothouse group. We’re based on live performance.”

That, plus the songs. “I think there’s something in the music, a song in there for everyone. One or two songs that someone really, really likes.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 16, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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