When someone finally updates The Great American Songbook to include music from the rock era, Tom Johnston’s name will turn up as composer on a bunch of entries. His is the voice heard on most of The Doobie Brothers’ classic hits, and he wrote a large portion of their catalog. From the beginning, his guitar style provided the band with its signature sound.
“That style of guitar playing had a lot to do with those tunes,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation. “That style—on ‘Long Train Runnin’, ‘Listen to the Music’, ‘Eyes of Silver’—what I call that chunka-chunka rhythm, was something that got developed because I didn’t have a drummer handy. That way you can play drums and guitar at the same time. I developed it on acoustic rather than electric and then I just transferred it over.”
The Doobie Brothers, who come to the Sandler Center on October 11th, first lit up the airwaves with “Listen to the Music,” a song that was ubiquitous during the summer and fall of 1972 and has been a mainstay of every bar band’s repertoire since.
“At that point in time,” Johnston remembered, “I didn’t owe anybody money, I didn’t have anything, I didn’t have a house. I had a Volkswagen. Life was real simple. I think that has something to do with how you write songs. Everything you’re going through in life has everything to do with how you write. Now that I’ve got a house, I’ve got two grown kids…there are all these other places that you’re pulling from when you write songs.
“With ‘Listen to the Music,’ it was like this Utopian idea that if we get the world’s leaders together and they go up and sit on this grassy hill somewhere and they listen to music, and probably in those days smoke dope or whatever, then they won’t have to worry about being all pissed off at each other. That’s kind of what it was about. Basically, that music is a language that everybody speaks and it doesn’t matter what country you’re in. If it feels happy then conversely you’ll feel better when you hear the songs.
“I suppose everybody writes differently. Some people—take Nashville right now for example—they are used to knocking out three or four songs a day. I’ve never done that; I don’t even know how you do that! In those days, I would sit around playing guitar all day long. Songs like that write themselves—from ‘Listen to the Music’ to ‘Another Park Another Sunday’ or most recently ‘World Gone Crazy’—those kind of songs, when they happen it’s like somebody else comes in and sits down with you that you can’t see. It’s your stuff, it’s coming out through you, but you’re acting as a transfer mechanism. It’s crazy.”
The Doobie Brothers’ music was one of the defining sounds of the 1970s. And though they disbanded for a while in the ‘80s, the group has consistently been a top-tier touring act for the last twenty years, led by Johnston and co-founder Patrick Simmons. They first met in northern California in1970:
“I was playing a pickup gig with Skip Spence, John Hartman and Greg Murphy at a place in Campbell called the Gaslight Theatre. Pat was playing the same night on the same bill with a guy named Peter Grant. Pat was playing acoustic. He did a lot of fingerpicking stuff. We’re all big fans of Moby Grape, a short-lived band that had a big effect on a lot of us guys out here on the west coast. And Skip was one of those guys.
“We thought it would be cool to have someone doing fingerpicking while I’m doing the chunka-chunka thing, and we’d have another vocalist as well. It happened organically. He came over and jammed with us, and the next thing you know we were playing shows together. A guy who lived in the house said, ‘You’ve got to call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.’ We thought that was the dumbest name but we’ll use it because we don’t have a name, and we’ll get a new one next week.”
Though Johnston and Simmons are both west coasters, a New Orleans theme runs through much of their music. The band’s breakthrough album, Toulouse Street, is named for a street in the French Quarter, and Simmons’ best known song is “Black Water,” filled with images from the Crescent City.
“We’d never even been to New Orleans until 1971,” Johnston said. “We were supposed to do a date with Jackson Browne, Chuck Berry and The Eagles. And it got rained out. That was the first time I’d ever been to that town and I just fell in love with it. Then we started going down there fairly frequently and we were just mesmerized by everything. There is so much culture there—from the graveyard to the French Quarter to the old Confederate places. The food is unbelievable. And the music—I was way off into New Orleans music before we went down there and I didn’t even know it. Like ‘Workin’ in a Coal Mine’—everybody did that in high school. They were a big influence on a lot of people without them even knowing it.
“If you’re gonna reference a place, that’s a good one to reference.”
The Doobie Brothers
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts
Friday, October 11 – 8:00 pm