Creativity, ego and incessant touring: Doobie Brothers frontman on 50 years of music

·5 min read

Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Doobie Brothers return to Cincinnati on July 7 celebrating their 50th anniversary and a new album, “Liberté.”

The band’s classic guitar and four-part harmony-driven sound produced several hits throughout the '70s and '80s and has sparked successful reunions since. The new book “Long Train Runnin’” tells the story of the group through the perspectives of lead singer and guitarist Tom Johnston and guitarist and harmonizer Patrick Simmons.

The Doobie Brothers will return to Cincinnati on July 7 celebrating their 50th anniversary and a new album, “Liberté."
The Doobie Brothers will return to Cincinnati on July 7 celebrating their 50th anniversary and a new album, “Liberté."

I recently spoke to Johnston about the group’s early years of incessant touring, the new album and his friendship with fellow vocalist Michael McDonald.

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Q: You came up with the greatest guitar rockers ever in the '70s. A lot’s been said about your playing technique. What moved people about your harder, Southern rock style?

A: Well, essentially a lot of the rhythm stuff at the front end, even to this day, was based around playing guitar without a drummer. You provided the drums with how you played rhythm. As far as things like "Listen to the Music," "Long Train," it's more R&B-ish, and then when you came to things like "China Grove," that was all-out rock 'n' roll.

Q: Your very first album, and your very first tour – It seems like you weren't very impressed by the response you got.

A: It wasn't so much that we weren't impressed. The first album was a feeling-out thing. The guy that produced us, Lenny Waronker, that was his first album, as far as I know. He had an idea that we were more of an acoustic band, which nobody understood because when we played live, we were not. We were also kids, so we went along with anything that sounded like it was going to be successful. The first tour was with Mother Earth, which was a real eye-opener. They showed us the rules of the road on our first tour. It was a lot of fun.

Q: When you first started out, you were touring hard, and it took a toll on your body. What made you decide to go so hard?

A: I wouldn't say it was a conscious decision. That's what you did. It wasn't just us. It was pretty much any band. The record company wanted you out there, and management, of course, wanted you out there. So we toured extensively. We were very rarely home. We would come off the road to go work in LA on an album, and then go back out again. We'd be home for a couple of days, but that'd be about it. That went on from '72 to '75 and kept on going all the way until the band hung it up.

The Doobie Brothers return to Cincinnati on July 7 celebrating their 50th anniversary and a new album, “Liberté”.
The Doobie Brothers return to Cincinnati on July 7 celebrating their 50th anniversary and a new album, “Liberté”.

Q: Your first reunion was a fundraiser for National Veterans Foundation. What's been keeping the band together for this tour?

A: Initially, the band wasn't together in ‘87. We got a call from Keith Knudsen, one of our drummers – an old friend of mine who unfortunately passed away. He called everybody that had ever been in the band, and almost everybody accepted, to do a benefit for National Veterans Foundation. We did that together at the Hollywood Bowl and continued doing a few other shows, and that was the genesis for reforming the band. From that, essentially we started back up again with "Cycles" and then "Brotherhood" and then we kept on going. Most recently, we released "Liberté," which we put out last October.

Q: Tell me about that album. How has the writing process changed?

A: With most albums, you're in the studio with everybody and the producer, and you're working out the tunes. This one was completely co-written. Whoever was doing the tune, whoever had the start, would go in, sit down with John Shanks, and we would map out the whole song. Then we'd take that downstairs to his studio and we'd lay down a rudimentary track and we’d just start the vocals, bang, right now. And then we’d fill in the instrumentation. Usually, the song was done in about two days. I’ve never worked that fast.

Q: Do you have any wisdom to share when it comes to navigating band drama?

A: The thing about the creative process is you have to have an ego to do it. You can't just go out there and be agreeable to everybody on the planet. It doesn't work. I'm not saying that we're an ego-driven band. We're not. But you can't be a shrinking violet. At the same time, we enjoy riffing off each other. We feed off of that. As far as drama, when you're with people on the road for years and in rehearsals, it's kind of like a family. It just happens.

Q: Tell me about your relationship with Michael McDonald. What was the interaction when you decided to rejoin the band?

A: I left the band for almost a year due to an ulcer – a pretty bad one. When I came back, Michael had come in and written the songs for "Taking to the Streets" and the band had gone in that direction. We toured on that album in ‘76. I got along great with Mike. The different styles – we’re doing all of them every night and the crowd loves it. Back then, it was a change, to be sure, because I was used to rock 'n' roll. But there's nothing wrong with change. I was just happy to be playing again.

The Doobie Brothers 50th Anniversary Tour

When: Friday, July 7, 8 p.m.

Where: Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave., Anderson Township.

Tickets: $29.50-$124.50.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Doobie Brothers frontman Tom Johnston on 50 years of music