By: Stephen Wilt
It has now been nearly half a century since Tom Johnston, a founding member of The Doobie Brothers, sat down in his San Jose home with new founded friend Pat Simmons and wrote the leading riff to Listen to the Music. Now with over 48 million albums sold, four Grammy awards and over 10,000 shows under their belt, founding members Pat Simmons, Tom Johnston, and John McFee continues to tour extensively year after year.
Saturday, April 13, 2019, The Doobie Brothers played to a sold-out Salamanca crowd at the newly renovated Seneca Allegany Casino. The touring band although containing many lineup changes throughout the years, currently includes original members Pat Simmons on guitar, John McFee on guitar, Tom Johnston on guitar, longtime bass player, John Cowan, Ed Toth on drums, and Marc Quinones on percussion, Billy Payne on keyboards and Mark Russo on sax. Although having 29 members throughout their career, The Doobie Brothers remain humble to their routes and authenticity now nearing five decades later.
I sat down with Tom Johnston in preparation for his upcoming spring tour. Sitting in his California home, Johnston spoke very candidly on how the band came about.
“I asked Pat to come to Jam with us, and long story short, we ended up getting together and being a band,” Johnston said as he recalls his college days.
285 S. 12th St., San Jose, one of the world’s most historic rock ‘n’ roll sites, was home to what would become The Doobie Brothers throughout the early ’70s. What became home to Jam sessions between the band, it’s when Johnston met Simmons after a Campbell gig that the band became more serious.
“How we met was, a guy named Skip Spence, who was a great influence on us, and the Moby Grape band who was widely influential on all of us,” Johnston said as he recalled the band’s origins. “I was playing with him along with John Hartman who was the original drummer for The Doobies, and a guy named Murphy who had come out with John Hartman from Washington.
Skip started hanging out with anyone from the Moby Grapes, I was already starting to hand out with Skip at that time, that included my sister of all people, so we were just a throw together band, and we played at a place called the Gaslight theater, in Campbell California. Pat was on that show, and I didn’t know him at that time. I was really knocked out by his fingerpicking.”
The bands heavy San Jose routes played heavy into the bands earlier sound. Johnston recalled The Doobies, falling into place almost magically as the band began to form.
“It fell perfectly into place,” Johnston said as the Doobies were forming. “We are working around and playing music all the time and hanging out with Skip Spence and they included those kinds of musical difference in their band. They had a rhythm and blues singer, and at the same time they had a kind of Americana mixed with rock and roll with a little blues thrown in, and that’s kind of what the Doobies really are.”
Johnston recalls the creation as a partnership between him and Simmons. Now nearly half a century later, their relationship still remains strong. “We asked Pat to come over and jam with us, and he did,” Johnston recalls, “Long story short, we ended up getting together and being a band. It was just four people to start. Then Dave became the bass player, we started playing, ended up being called The Doobie Brothers for a night and it stuck. That was the genesis of The Doobie Brothers band.”
Salamanca, holding 2,200 fans, was the smallest audience the band was scheduled to play this year. The small yet intimate venue allowed fans to see firsthand how the band’s musical relationship has evolved throughout time, hearing their distinct sound in classics scattered throughout their setlist.
When asked how the band relates to its early days, “A lot better,” Johnston said jokingly regarding the strong relationship they have been able to build throughout time. “Way better musically, when I say that,” Johnston elaborated, “I mean everybody’s playing better, much more cohesive, much tighter, and much more professional sounding.”
The Doobies, having many heart-shed moments throughout the years still manage to go on, and perform hundreds of shows annually. Recently, The Doobies performed two historic landmark shows at the Beacon Theater earlier this year. The idea behind these shows stemmed from the lack of a small intimate crowd the Doobies once lived for. Performing two albums in their entirety, the band recorded a DVD that is set to be released later this year. Johnston saw it as a perfect opportunity to showcase their musicality and the vast catalog of The Doobie Brothers.
“A good example of that is to watch and hear the DVD coming out from the shows we did at the Beacon Theater in New York,” said Johnston. “We did two album shows, something we’ve never done before, and had not planned on doing then.
It was a suggestion by Mitch Rose, so we did, Toulouse Street, and the Captain and me. We performed very song and a lot of the songs we have never played before live, ever, so all of a sudden we had to really go into rehearsal mode, to get all of the stuff together to do two albums per night.
That will be coming out in the not too distant future. To give everybody an idea of the musicality of the band.”
Playing the Beacon, a historic landmark is just one example of the band’s venues throughout the country. Playing both stadiums and clubs, Johnston has mixed feelings on what exactly he feels is the best venue to call home.
“It is a thrill to play in those places, I won’t say it’s not,” Johnston said in regard to playing sold out arenas throughout his career. “We did some shows called the Classics, there were two of them, one was in Dodgers stadium one was in the Mets stadium, and that’s a huge rush, it really is.”
“Now, of course, this involves a lot of other bands,” Johnston adds. “This was with the Eagles, Earth Wind and Fire, Steely Dan, Journey, and Fleetwood Mac, there were 45,000 people there and it was a really big rush. But at the same time, you can play at a theater with a crowd that is up and screaming the songs back at you and that is a huge rush all of its own.”
About to embark on a North American tour with longtime friend, Carlos Santana, the band is scheduled to play Bethel Woods in celebration of Woodstock late this summer. Although excited, this isn’t the first time the Doobies and Santana have shared the stage.
“We’ve known Carlos for a very long time, but we hardly ever see him,” Johnston states about longtime friend Carlos Santana. “We did a show with him in Australia and a tour with him in Australia, I want to say it was in 2017.”
No stranger to sharing the stage with legends, The Doobie brothers have performed with countless acts throughout their five decades of touring. Among favorites, Johnston was hesitant to pick just one.
“Hm, Jesus, that’s tough,” Johnston stated after being asked who his favorite artist to collaborate with was. “We played with a lot of people. I’ll tell you what, for today, that’s about as accurate as I’m going to get right now. Sharing the stage with Albert King, who was one of my guitar heroes. That would have been 1972, a short little tour, but it was really fun. Really interesting. I just really loved his guitar playing. Just to tour with him, even though it wasn’t that long was just really something to do. It was kind of like a dream come true.”
Although they shared the bill alone in Salamanca, The Doobie Brothers failed to disappoint the 2,200 in attendance spanning their setlist from classics to fan favorites. Starting precisely at 7 p.m., The Doobies immediately shot hits from their early albums over the fans roaring excitement.
Fame is not something The Doobie Brothers ever longed to achieve. When asked if this was something, they ever set out to achieve, a simple “nope” was all Johnston had to say.
“If anybody ever tells you they planned on this, they’re lying,” Johnston stated on being called a legend. “There’s no way you could know that, there’s no possible way. Just simply from world events if nothing else, you could be walking around the street corner and get hit by a bus, you don’t know. You don’t know whom you’re going to be playing with, how long the bands going to last, you don’t know this album or that album or this song or that song is going to be successful. There are so many things at play.”
Although Johnston doesn’t consider the band to be “legendary,” he does acknowledge that his music has changed the lives of fans.
“I do know that we have an impact on people over the years because they come up and tell you,” Johnston stated. “They come up and tell you we’ve been following you for x amount of years, and this album or that song had a huge effect on my life, which is very gratifying, and it’s one of the reasons we kept doing it all these years, but the crowd response and interaction on stage, that’s hard to match. It’s really a thrill, it’s a big deal.”
In preparation after the Beacon DVD release, The Doobies are working on a new album to be released later this year.
“We’re also working on new music, and we have that pretty far along,” Johnston stated on if they had any new music in the works for their long awaiting fans. “I’m going to sit down and do some more writing this week, and that will be coming out in not too long, I don’t have dates on anything, but after the beacon shows, so probably a couple of months, so maybe three months after the beacon shows come out the new stuff will come out.”
Throughout five decades, their writing and recording style remains much the same. Almost always staring from some lyric scratched on a napkin or a guitar riff destine to be legendary, the band takes to the studio much as they have for the last 28 albums.
“I’m going down to write this week with the guy who’s overseeing this whole project,” Johnston stated about working on the new album. “I already have four songs written; Pat has some written. Then John McFee is going to go down and do guitar stuff on it. Then Pat Simmons is going to come in and add some more guitar stuff, and there you have it.”
What might surprise you most about living legend Tom Johnston, is life isn’t always lived on the wild side despite wild movies and actor portrayals. Having been there and lived that, Johnston lives life peacefully on his California ranch taking time to step away and enjoy family.
“I don’t think anyone would find it all that exciting,” Johnston laughed on life outside touring. “I like to write songs, I like to exercise, I live kind of out in the country I like to go out and go hiking. I gave up riding motorcycles in 2003 so that’s not part of the scene anymore. I have a family, it’s not the crazy rock and roll style of days of old, that’s what I do.”
Salamanca, a rare stop for the Doobie’s, made it clear how appreciative they were to all who came out. Throwing picks, and shaking hands, The Doobie Brothers kept their humble beginnings from San Jose to Salamanca. Leaving the fans with their number one hit, Listen to the Music, after a standing ovation demanding them back to the stage.
Asked to sum up life as a Doobie Brother, Johnston left me with, “It just keeps on going.”
The Doobie Brothers DVD release, Live at the Beacon Theater, will be available on their site, http://www.thedoobiebrohters.com. As well as Amazon, or your local music shop. The Doobie Brothers continue to tour extensively throughout the summer, joining Santana later this summer. If given the chance, this is a classic show by a legendary band you don’t want to miss!
Salamanca N.Y. 2019