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Interview  Doobie Brothers


An interview with Tom Johnston
Emerald Queen Casino
Tacoma, WA

There’s something more to the Doobie Brothers than just 30 years of classic rock ‘n roll. There is a connection they have with almost four generations of fans. Talk to anyone at the Emerald Casino the night the Doobies rolled into town and they will have a personal story about how the band made a significant impression on the soundtrack of their lives. “We look out over the audience every night and see all ages of people,” says Doobie guitarist/vocalist and original member Tom Johnston in our interview after tonight’s show. “I’m amazed at the age difference, you see parents with their kids, teenagers, even Grandparents. I think to myself, ‘they’re too old to be here,’ but then realize I’m probably older than they are – or at least the same age.”

Johnston has been a member of the Doobies since the band’s inception in 1970. He, along with Patrick Simmons (also an original member) have found a perfect vehicle for their bluegrass, folk and R&B rock that has led to a host of chart toppers including “Listen To The Music,” “Black Water” and “Jesus Is Alright With Me.” Says Johnston, “I make more money on the mechanical royalties of three songs than on all the other songs I’ve written with the band.” However, in today’s musical climate it is the Doobies road show that that not only pays the bills but keeps the band vibrant and vital.

“We tour between 70 and 90 dates a years,” says Johnston. “During the mid-seventies we were doing between 150 and 200 shows a years and that was killing me.” It was the overwhelming roadwork that eventually caused Johnston to leave the band at the height of their success. After a succession of hit records including 1972's “Toulouse Street,” 1973’s “The Captain and Me” and 1974's “What Once Were Vices Are Now Habits,”
Johnston became disillusioned with the climate and significant sound change in the band. Much of that had to do with the addition of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and later Michael McDonald, both from Steely Dan

“Yeah, there was a time that I was very unhappy with the band,” says Johnston. “Between the constant touring and the change in the band I had developed such an acute stomach ulcer that I just couldn’t go on – so by ‘Takin’ It To The Streets’ I was out. I literally took myself out of the band. I did have four songs on ‘Livin’ On The Fault Line’ but I took them off.” While the Doobies went on to commercial fame earning a Grammy for “Minute By Minute.” Johnston struggled to reclaim his health and did eventually surface with two critically praised albums, “Everything You’ve Heard Is True” (1979) and “Still Feels Good” (1981). “Both records kind of bookmark where my life was then,” continues Johnston. “The first was a lot of fun but came after two years of not playing. I mean, I hadn’t touched my guitar in two years. They (Warner Brothers) walked in with this huge budget and I got to work with some great players - but I still wasn’t there yet. The second one was a bit better for me artistically.” Both records are available on CD but only in Germany.

After a whirlwind of lineup changes and the loss of founding members Johnston, Simmons and drummer John Hartman the band called it a day in 1983. Simmons and McDonald released solo efforts, Johnston concentrated on his home life, being a father and raising his children. In 1987, the Doobies reunited for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which quickly became a brief reunion tour; McDonald declined to participate in the tour. By 1989, the early '70s lineup of Johnston, Simmons, Hartman, Porter, and Hossack, augmented by percussionist and former Doobies roadie Bobby La Kind, had signed a contract with Capitol Records. Their reunion album, “Cycles,” went gold upon its summer release in 1989, spawning the Top Ten hit "The Doctor."

“Brotherhood” (1991) followed two years later but for the remainder of the '90s, the group simply toured playing the oldies circuit and '70s revival concerts. In 1995, Michael McDonald briefly joined once again, however was gone by yearend. The next Doobie Brothers studio record didn’t surface until five years later. “Sibling Rivalry” released in 2000 on Rhino records sewed together 30 years of experience, and showcased a band ready to do it all over again.

Tonight the Emerald Queen Casino was sold out – a tribute to the Doobies lasting fan base. The audience ranged from 25-65 yrs old and knew the words to every song of 90-minute, high-energy performance. Looking younger than he did at 30, Johnston led the way through a freight train of riff-dominated hits including ”Long Train Runnin’”, “China Grove” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway”. Patrick Simmons, having grown his hair to waist-length again, launched into the instantly recognized “Listen To The Music” while his picking prowess radiated through the occasional solo spot as well as an Hawaiian-tinged instrumental. John McFee (ex-Clover) is the perfect accomplice to both Simmons and Johnston keeping the mood bright with his versatility on the pedal steel, violin and harmonica. “South City Midnight Lady” was his moment in the spotlight.

Classics like “Takin’ It To The Streets”, featuring the soulful voice of bassist Skylark and “Jesus Is Alright With Me” showcasing Marc Russo’s sax prove the bonds of brotherhood reach out to every member of the band. “This is a tight group,” says Johnston. “We celebrate the music and the time we have together.” The guitarist reflects back to when the group was built around their love of bluegrass, Motown, Stax and the blues. “To this day, I love the blues more than just about any kind of music,” comments Johnston. “This band has allowed me to realize my dreams, but I’ll always go back to the greats - Albert King, Freddie King, BB and Robert Johnson – it’s in my blood.”

Visit online: Doobie Brothers, Carl Dunn Photography

Interview by Todd Smith