The Ups and Downs of the Ever-Evolving Doobie Brothers

Since the 1970s, the Doobie Brothers have helped shape the sound of classic rock and create their genre known as “yacht rock.” The group has triumphed in many ways, from winning Grammys, selling millions of records, and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, it hasn’t always been easygoing.

The Doobie Brothers / Tom Johnston / Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, John McFee / Tom Johnston.
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The Doobie Brothers started as friends who liked to jam out. But the band has dealt with many obstacles and setbacks due to an ever-changing lineup while trying to establish themselves. Still, the Doobie Brothers have made history and cemented themselves as one of the greatest rock bands.

It Started in San Jose

The 1970s were a unique time for music and art. The Beatles were done, and the Vietnam War was coming to a close. To escape the draft, a young Patrick Simmons enrolled in San Jose State University, where he met Tom Johnston and his roommate, John Hartman.

A posed group portrait of the Doobie Brothers.
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Johnston shared a house in San Jose with Hartman, who had moved from the East Coast. The two would jam out, and everyone remembered Johnston’s guitar playing because it was so loud. The cops were called a few times because of the noise, even though they tried to tone it down.

Inspired by Moby Grape

Johnston and Hartman were searching for another band member who could help them sound more like their idols Moby Grape. The two tried to recruit Simmons, but he wasn’t interested because the two looked like hardened bikers and didn’t want to be in a tough-looking band.

A dated photo of John Hartman, Tom Johnston, Dave Shogren, and Pat Simmons.
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However, after playing with Johnston and Hartman at their house, Simmons realized they were more than a hard rock band. The jam session was enough to convince him to join the group. Hartman and Johnston had called their band Pud, but now that Simmons was in tow, they needed a new name.

Smokin’ Some Doobies

The guys tossed around options during a smoke session when one of their housemates walked in and suggested they call themselves the Doobie Brothers because they smoked so much pot. Johnston later shared that they thought it was a stupid name, but they used it because they didn’t have other options.

A picture of the initial band members of The Doobie Brothers.
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Simmons told Rolling Stone that he also thought it was dumb, but in a cool way. He admitted that they did smoke a lot, so it was rather fitting. Initially, they intended only to use it for one gig, but it stuck. The Doobie Brothers started taking any gigs, including pizza parlors.

The Doobie Brothers Meet the Hells Angels

Playing at pizza parlors didn’t exactly match their style like the Chateau Liberté. The former stagecoach store in the Santa Cruz mountains attracted hippies and bikers; the perfect spot for the Doobie Brothers to work on their sound and try new songs. The bar was also a popular hangout for the Hells Angels.

A photo of members from the Hells Angels.
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The band’s rough biker image helped them mingle with the Angels. Johnston remembers when a few of the Angels drove their bikes through the front door of his house, into the living room, asking the guys if they wanted to play baseball. It became a regular occurrence.

They Had a Unique Sound

They might have had a hard image, but their music didn’t match. The group had a unique sound between Johnston’s power chords, Simmons’ lighter bass playing, and their smooth but rough vocals. Luckily, they had some good friends in the industry who helped them get into a studio.

An image of their first album.
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With the help of Skip Spence, a member of Moby Grape, and their convincing demo tape, Warner Brothers agreed to sign the Doobie Brothers. Producer Ted Templeman loved the group’s background vocals and Johnston’s song, “Nobody,” which he kept listening to.

Their Rowdier Side

While working on their first album, Templeman saw a different, wilder side of the band. The guys would show up at the studio with the Angels and drink in the control room. Hartman also pulled out a pistol once, saying it was just a joke.

A photo of Simmons performing on stage.
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Templeman and Lenny Waronker, the other producer, were so scared by the prank. Although Hartman repeatedly apologized, many guns were still brought into the studio. Despite all the distractions, the band finished their first album by 1971.

It’s Not What They Imagined

Their self-titled debut album wasn’t the success they thought it would be. Hartman felt Warner Brothers sabotaged them by using a picture with the drummer front and center as their album cover. He looked like a rough biker, which didn’t match the music.

An image of their second album cover.
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It wasn’t what they expected, but the album became the foundation for their future music. In 1972, the Doobie Brothers released their second album, Toulouse Street. The album featured their hit single, “Listen to the Music,” written by Johnston about the tumultuous time in the world.

Rising to the Top

“Listen to the Music” made it into the Top 20 and helped the Doobie Brothers get their name out there. It was followed by two more hits, “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove.” The songs were radio favorites, and even Pete Townshend of the Who was a fan.

A photo of Tom Johnston during a performance.
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The group also started experimenting with synths and a horn section to keep their sound fresh on tracks like “Natural Thing.” Simmons also returned to his pre-band days of playing James Taylor songs, incorporating Taylor’s sound on the song “I Cheat the Hangman.”

The Rocker Lifestyle

After their single “Black Water” became their first number one, the Doobie Brothers were one of the top rock bands in America. They started touring and kept the momentum of their popularity going by staying on the road, and touring brought out their inner bad boys.

A posed band portrait of the Doobie Brothers.
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They drove go-karts into pools, ripped the stuffing from their hotel mattresses, cut lamps in half, and throwing TVs out of windows. The group also made particular backstage demands (now known as “riders”), like having six kinds of cheese, six nuts, a carved turkey, and German beer.

Johnston Was Out of Control

Johnston’s drug use was out of control between touring, playing for massive crowds, and partying hard. In 1973, Johnston and his friend were arrested for possession of heroin and weed. The heavy amounts of drugs and alcohol took a toll on his system.

An image of Johnston during a show.
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In 1975, after the first five shows of their tour to promote their album Stampede, Johnston went to the hospital. He suffered from an ulcer and almost died when his heart stopped. He had to leave the tour and felt like he had screwed his bandmates over.

They Had to Go on Without Him

The Doobie Brothers had to complete their tour with or without Johnston, but he was in no shape to get back on the road. The group had already signed a contract to finish the tour and didn’t want to face a lawsuit. They felt they had no choice but to revamp the group.

A photo of the Doobie Brothers in concert.
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Kieth Knudsen joined as a drummer, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was added as a guitarist. They also needed someone to sing Johnston’s parts and play the keyboard. Baxter knew the perfect person from his Steely Dan days, who was also out of work.

Michael McDonald Saved the Day

Michael McDonald was in LA at the time trying to make it as a keyboard player and songwriter. He started selling cocaine to make money and connections. He would sell to musicians and anyone who could help pay his rent, but he eventually got busted by the police.

A picture of Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons during an interview.
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McDonald then got a chance to play with Steely Dan until 1975. When Baxter called him to join the Doobie Brothers temporarily, McDonald jumped at the chance. He flew out to Louisianna, adding keyboard parts while singing to help the group finish the tour.

He Became a Permanent Member

Since Johnston couldn’t return to the group, McDonald was offered a permanent position. He helped with songwriting and added songs like “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Inspired by McDonald’s sister’s high school paper on inner-city life, the song became a hit.

A photo of the Doobie Brothers performing at a theater.
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Initially, Templeman was worried about adding a new voice to the group’s established sound. Simmons convinced their producer to listen to a few of McDonald’s songs, and he was impressed. No one knew if the infusion of McDonald’s R&B melodies would work.

A New Beginning

The new sound was a second coming for the Doobie Brothers. Although Johnston wasn’t playing, he still helped as a songwriter. But he started to feel like an outsider as the band changed artistic directions. He felt he didn’t fit in anymore and officially quit the band.

A portrait of Michael McDonald.
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Johnston then laid low and worked on his health before returning with a solo album titled Everything You’ve Heard Is True. Still, the Doobie Brothers needed a new songwriting partner to replace Johnston, so McDonald called upon Kenny Loggins for help.

He Acted Like a Diva

McDonald and Loggins worked on the band’s new song, “What a Fool Believes.” When the Doobie Brothers went to record the song, it was more of a headache than they expected. McDonald started feeling insecure about his new role in the band and felt like he couldn’t deliver.

An image of Michael McDonald performing on stage.
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He drove the band crazy and made them record “What a Fool Believes” over 30 times before the final version was pieced together. The other members were annoyed by McDonald’s diva-like behavior. The song later won Record of the Year at the Grammys.

Everything Fell Apart

Although they had previously worked together, McDonald and Baxter butted heads. The tension came to a head during their tour in Japan, causing both Baxter and Hartman to quit the band. Hartman was fed up with McDonald’s behavior and didn’t enjoy being in the band anymore.

The Doobie Brothers perform on stage at a music festival.
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Tiran Porter, the band’s bassist, was also struggling as he heavily used cocaine to cope with his failing marriage and the band’s increasingly unimaginative music. He and Simmons started arguing because Porter would “overplay” out of boredom. The Doobie Brothers soon changed their lineup again.

A Whole New Lineup

By the early 1980s, the Doobie Brothers’ lineup changed again. People liked their new music, but the ever-changing lineup was noticeable. There were three new members, including John McFee. The unstable but widely popular group gave McFee a chance at fame like he never imagined.

A shot of the Doobie Brothers in a hotel room.
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While onstage, a female fan nearly choked McFee when she grabbed his tie. Drummer Knudsen helped untangle him in the middle of the song. Unfortunately, things weren’t any calmer in the studio. McDonald turned into a mess due to drinking and partying.

The End of the Doobie Brothers

After ten years together, the band broke down even further. As the only original member left, Simmons felt distanced from his bandmates. His heart wasn’t in it anymore, so he called McDonald’s to say he was quitting the band.

The Doobie Brothers perform on stage.
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McDonald had already started to think about his solo career, and plans for the group’s new album were scrapped. In 1982, the Doobie Brothers embarked on their farewell tour. They sensed it was the end of an era as they were no longer the Doobie Brothers but “the guys who were left.”

The End of an Era

The days of wrecking hotel rooms and partying like no tomorrow were gone. They sold the “Doobieliner,” the group’s private jet, for parts. The band members went their separate ways, with some pursuing solo careers and others delving into new ventures.

The Doobie Brothers stand on stage at the end of the show.
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By the end, the Doobie Brothers had come a long way from their Chateau Liberté days. The group underwent many changes during their decade of fame, but all good things must end. However, if you are a fan of the group, you know that’s not where their story ends.

Baxter Fell Into an Unusual Career

After Baxter left the Doobie Brothers, he continued working on his music until the mid-80s. His interest in music-recording technology led him into a second profession accidentally. Baxter was curious about hardware and software developed for the military, specifically data compression algorithms.

An image of Baxter at a recording studio.
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His neighbor happened to be a retired engineer who had worked on the Sidewinder missile program. The two started discussing missile defense systems, encouraging Baxter to learn more and write a five-page proposal about converting the ship-based anti-aircraft Aegis missile into a regular missile defense system.

Far From the Music Industry

Baxter went so far as to give his proposal to a California Congress member, and his career as a defense consultant began. Backed by many Capitol Hill lawmakers, Baxter got security clearance to work with classified information. He was later nominated to chair the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

Baxter talks to the press.
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His work on the panel led to consulting contracts with the Pentagon and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It was very different from his long career as a musician, but Baxter worked his way up to consult for the US Department of Defense and the US intelligence community.

Their Solo Careers Didn’t Pan Out

When Simmons ventured off on his own, his two solo albums weren’t as successful as he thought they would be. While he imagined his career after the Doobie Brothers would be more successful, it petered out by the late ’80s. Meanwhile, Johnston didn’t do too well either.

Patrick Simmons performs on stage.
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Johnston’s solo career produced two albums, Everything You’ve Heard Is True and Still Feels Good. He had one single make the Billboard Hot 100 list, but the albums received mediocre reviews. He also toured with the Tom Johnston Band in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

McDonald Was Mediocre

Unlike his former bandmates, McDonald was quite successful in his solo career. After the farewell tour, he released his first solo album, If That’s What It Takes. It featured the hit singles “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “I Gotta Try.”

Michael McDonald performs on stage.
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He also collaborated with artists like Van Halen. McDonald’s second and third albums didn’t do as well, with only two minor hits. However, his single “On My Own” with Patti LaBelle reached number one on the US Charts in 1986. It turns out he did much better in a group.

The Band Reunited

In the late ’80s, the pre-Mcdonald version of the Doobie Brothers reunited and returned to their loud, amp-cranked roots. The reformation wasn’t intentional, but Knudsen brought 11 Doobie alumni back together for a concert to benefit veterans’ causes. The tickets were in high demand once the Doobie Brothers got on board.

A photo of the Doobie Brothers reunited on stage.
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The benefit concert quickly turned into a 12-city tour beginning in 1987. Their third concert at the Hollywood Bowl was the venue’s fastest sell-out since the Beatles performed there 20 years prior. The tour was a success, sparking discussions about reforming the band.

They Were on a Roll

The reformed Doobie Brothers settled on a lineup featuring Johnston, Simmons, Hartman, and drummer Michael Hossack, who played with the band from 1971 to 1973. In 1989, the group released their album Cycles, featuring hits like “The Doctor.”

Patrick Simmons and Tiran Porter perform on stage.
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Cycles proved to be a successful comeback album and was certified gold. Cornelius Bumpus, who played in the 1979-82 lineup, joined the reformed group in 1989, adding his distinctive voice, flute, saxophone, and keyboards. It bridged the gap between the current Doobies and the McDonald era.

Reviving the Biker Image

With 1991’s release of Brotherhood, the group grew their hair out, started wearing more denim and leather, and tried to revive their biker image from the ’70s. Despite their makeover, the album wasn’t successful, partially because of the lack of support from Capitol Records.

A portrait of Tom Johnston at the time.
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The accompanying tour was also a flop. It ranked among the top ten least profitable tours of 1991, and it was a disappointment after the major success of their previous album. However, they soon had more important things to think about than their album.

Reuniting for a Cause

In 1992, the 1987 Doobie Brothers alumni reunited for two concerts to benefit their former band member, Bobby LaKind. He performed with the band from 1980 to 1982 and returned for the reunion tours. Sadly, he had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.

A dated portrait of LaKind.
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The group joined forces to raise money for LaKind’s children. The concerts were recorded and broadcast on TV so people could donate to the LaKind family fund. LaKind passed away two months later, on December 24, 1992, at 47.

They Returned to Permanent Touring

After a brief hiatus following LaKind’s death, the Doobie Brothers returned to permanent touring in 1993. McDonald returned to the group in 1995 for the Dreams Come True tour. Once again, the band had a rotation of members coming in and out like the good old days.

The Doobie Brothers perform at the Super Bowl XXX.
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Many of the band’s alumni would play at different times and fill in for each other. The group did well and was honored to perform at the 1996 Super Bowl pre-game show. It was a good thing they had so many backup players because they always needed them.

The Lost Doobie Brothers

By 2012, five members of the Doobie Brothers had passed away. After LaKind, original bassist and vocalist Dave Shogren died from pneumonia in 1999. In 2004, Bumpus died of a heart attack, and Knudsen passed away from cancer and chronic pneumonia the following year.

John Cowan, Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee perform on stage.
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The Doobie Brothers family mourned each tragic loss, including Hossack’s death in 2012. The drummer died of cancer and toured with the group until his death. Each one had a special place in the Doobie lineup throughout the years, and they hold their places in the band’s history.

The Doobie Chaos Returned

Since they reunited, the Doobie Brothers have been on several tours and played for thousands of loyal fans worldwide. It wasn’t until 2020 that they got the honor of a residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas. They were expected to make up to $300,000 a night, but it didn’t last long.

A photo from the Doobie Brothers' performance.
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The classic Doobie chaos returned as soon as they kicked off their residency. Johnston was hit with a serious illness during one of their shows. Unlike in the past, when he would throw up mid-show due to drugs and alcohol, it was more severe this time.

The Residency Was Cut Short

Johnston had a dry cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. The illness was so serious that the Doobie Brothers canceled the rest of their Las Vegas shows and returned home. Looking back, Johnston believes he had the coronavirus, but he wasn’t tested then.

Johnston performs on stage.
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The band lost out on one of their best-paying gigs, and thousands of fans were disappointed to miss seeing McDonald and Johnston on stage together for the first time since 1975. Unfortunately, the canceled residency wasn’t the only moment covid destroyed for the band.

Everyone Was Disappointed

Many fans waited years to see the Doobie Brothers’ 50th-anniversary tour, but that was just another thing shut down because of the pandemic. The band’s plans for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction had called for former members to perform an onstage reunion, but it was also called off.

Patrick Simmons performs on stage.
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A virtual event in November 2020 replaced the ceremony, which was quite disappointing compared to what the Doobie Brothers had planned. Additionally, the band’s EP with new songs was delayed because, as we know, the world shut down. Still, the Doobies made the most of it.

Keeping Fans Entertained

Just because the band couldn’t perform in front of a live audience didn’t mean they would let their fans down. During the pandemic, the Doobie Brothers filmed live performances from their homes to share with their fans. It gave people something to smile about.

A photo from the Doobie Brothers' show.
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McDonald played his first song written for the Doobie Brothers, “Takin’ It to the Streets,” and the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway.” Fans were delighted to see the band perform, even if it wasn’t the same as seeing them live. Their tour was also rescheduled for 2021.

Bill Murray Cheated Them Out of Money

Bill Murray isn’t a terrible guy. He might be known for stealing people’s French fries and crashing parties, but those are innocent crimes. However, he recently used the Doobie Brothers’ song “Listen to the Music” without getting their permission or paying the band.

Bill Murray performs on stage.
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Murray used the song in commercials for his golf apparel, and the band’s lawyer sent him a warning letter, stating, “It’s a fine song. I know you agree because you keep using it in ads for your Zero Hucks Given golf shirts.”

They Made Up

The Doobie Brothers’ lawyer didn’t hold back in his letter. He wrote, “This is the part where I’m supposed to cite the United States Copyright Act, excoriate you for not complying with some subparagraph that I’m too lazy to look up, and threaten you with eternal damnation for doing so.”

A dated band portrait of the Doobie Brothers.
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Murray’s lawyers replied with an equally hilarious letter with plenty of puns that said Murray was a big fan of the Doobie Brothers. Luckily, the band and Murray crossed paths at their 50th-anniversary show in 2021 and made amends.

They Don’t Like “Yacht Rock”

The Doobie Brothers have been divided into many topics, including the label “yacht rock.” Porter feels the term is dismissive, and Simmons is annoyed when people label their music this way. He thinks it is a demeaning concept, and he doesn’t know anyone with a yacht.

Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee attend an event.
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Meanwhile, Hartman and McDonald think the term is hilarious and perfect for their music. They laugh because they aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. The term isn’t bad as it generally means soft rock from the 1970s.

They Never Thought They Would Succeed

Looking back on their 50-year career, Johnston said he never knew if the band would succeed or not. He said, “When we started, we didn’t even know what would happen the next day!” He explained that most bands don’t know if they will make it, but they must try.

Tom Johnston performs on stage.
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Now that 50 years have passed, the band released their 15th studio album, Liberté. It was the first time in 11 years that they released original music, and all of the tracks were co-written by John Shanks. He has worked with artists like Bon Jovi and Sheryl Crow.

Incredible Record Sales

The Doobies were a major commercial success in the ’70s. Their records went gold and platinum due to the radio-friendly blend of rock, blues, gospel, and soul, helping them sell over 48 million albums. Their songs became prime cover material for bar bands, including one that featured McDonald.

A photo of the Doobie Brothers receiving a gold record.
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Before McDonald joined the Doobie Brothers, he had been covering their music in nightclubs. The Doobies were a major force in music, and some of the original players are still in the band today. They will probably play until the day they die.

Still Rocking

The Doobies, all in their 70s, are still rocking out on stage. The band is preparing for their long-awaited Las Vegas residency that was cut short in 2020, and they will hit the road for a 42-show anniversary tour. The Doobies have no plans to slow down.

Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee perform on stage.
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Although it is nothing like their earlier touring days, they still have fun on the road in a tamer way. They continue to try new things with their music, even though fans love to hear the hits. The guys might not be huge fans of Vegas, but they are excited to perform again.