Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tom Johnston Interview: Doobie Brothers timelessly rockin’ down the highway

By Ray Shasho

The Doobie Brothers are one of those bands that we’ve depended on, year after year, and expect to see performing invariably at outdoor music festivals, pavilions, arenas, casinos and bike week events across the nation. The group has been exhilarating audiences for decades yet appear timeless onstage. One of the principal reasons for the longevity and success of the Doobie Brothers has a lot to do with an unmitigated affection shared between the band and its audience. It’s been an amazing love affair that has persevered for over forty-two years. When the Doobie Brothers finally call it quits … rock ‘n’ roll will probably call it quits too.

 Tom Johnston is the voice, lyricists and guitarist on numerous classic hit recordings by the Doobie Brothers. Inspired by listening to R&B music on the radio, California native Johnston started his first band at 14, eventually broadening his musical horizons by singing with soul and blues groups.

After moving to San Jose to finish college, Tom met Skip Spence, original drummer for the Jefferson Airplane. Spence introduced Johnston to drummer John Hartman. Spence was also a founding member of Moby Grape which had a major influence on the Doobie Brothers. Tom Johnston, John Hartman and bassist Greg Murphy formed the power trio “Pud.”
When “Pud” unraveled, the evolution of the Doobie Brothers began to take shape. While living in a home dubbed as their “musical headquarters,” guitarist Patrick Simmons and bassist Dave Shogren joined the group. The band quickly generated a huge following in California.

In 1971, the Doobie Brothers launched their self- titled debut album, The Doobie Brothers on the Warner Brothers label with legendary producers Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker. The first track on the album, “Nobody” penned by Tom Johnston, would later resurface in 2010 on their latest release, World Gone Crazy.
Their second studio album Toulouse Street (named for a street in the French Quarter of New Orleans) introduced new bassist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack (Navy Veteran). The album spawned the Tom Johnston penned classic hits, “Listen to the Music” (#11 Top 100 Billboard Hit -1972), “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and “Jesus Is Just Alright,” (#35 Billboard Top 100 Hit -1973) written by Arthur Reynolds (1965) and performed by The Byrds (1969).

In 1973, the Doobie Brothers released, The Captain and Me spotlighting some of the bands most memorable classic rock tunes penned by Tom Johnston … “Long Train Runnin’”(#8 Billboard Hot 100 Hit) and perhaps the bands anthem song, “China Grove” (#15 Billboard Hot 100 Hit). The Captain and Me also featured a guest performance by future Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

The Doobie Brothers fourth studio album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in 1974 spawned the Tom Johnston penned songs, “Another Park, Another Sunday”(#32 Billboard Hot 100 Hit) and “Eyes of Silver”(#52 Billboard Hot 100 Hit). The album also featured Pat Simmons penned tribute to “The Big Easy,” “Black Water” (#1 Billboard Hot 100 Hit -1975).

Stampede released in 1975 was the final album before Michael McDonald took over lead vocalist duties from an ailing Tom Johnston. The album featured the cover version, “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” (#11 Billboard Hot 100 Hit -1975) written by the Motown team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Subsequent albumsTakin’ It to the Streets (1976), Livin’ on the Fault Line (1977), Minute by Minute (1978) and One Step Closer (1980) featured a successful second incarnation of the band, which primarily consisted of Michael McDonald(vocals, keyboards) Patrick Simmons (guitars/vocals) Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitars, steel guitars), Tiran Porter(bass, vocals), John Hartman (drums) and Keith Knudsen (drums).
*Tom Johnston played and sang on, “Turn It Loose” and “Wheels of Fortune” on the album Takin’ It to the Streets.
John McFee was added to the Doobie Brothers lineup in 1979 replacing Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and was featured on One Step Closer.

After a successful run, the bands signature sound and direction became disillusioned. While working on his solo project, Tom Johnston rejoined the band for a Farewell Tour, and then the Doobie Brothers would call it quits as a band for the next five years.

The reformation of the Doobie Brothers was contrived when the bands alumni were asked by drummer Keith Knudsen to perform at a concert to benefit veterans’ causes. The band discovered that tickets were in great demand and soon embarked on a twelve city tour.

In 1989, Cycles the tenth studio recording by the Doobie Brothers, now on Capitol Records, witnessed the return of Tom Johnston and drummer Michael Hossack to the studio as a band. Tom Johnston’s distinctive vocals returned and the band reestablish their musical roots.

Subsequent releases … Brotherhood (1991), Sibling Rivalry (2000) and World Gone Crazy (2010).
World Gone Crazy was the Doobie Brothers highest charting album since 1989 receiving rave reviews and featuring the longtime core lineup of Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons. The Doobie Brothers band functions like a well-oiled machine, touring consistently year after year and enchanting music enthusiasts worldwide.

The current lineup of Tom Johnston (vocals/guitar), Pat Simmons (vocals/guitars), John McFee (guitar/strings/vocals), John Cowan (bass), Guy Allison (keyboards/vocals), Marc Russo (saxophones), Ed Toth (drums) and Tony Pia (drums)… represent a musical legacy that defines the quintessence of rock ‘n’ roll and a band that we’ve always depended on throughout the years.

The Doobie Brothers have sold more than 40-million albums worldwide.

…So why aren’t they in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Tom Johnston and the Doobie Brothers will be performing live as part of the Bands, Brew & BBQ concert series at Busch Gardens in Tampa on Sunday, February 24th. For tickets visit … or call 1-888-800-5447 for further information.
Eagle Rock Entertainment recently released ‘Let The Music Play’ –The Story of The Doobie Brothers on DVD, Blue-ray and Digital Video. -Available to purchase at

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Tom Johnston recently about the bands current and future projects, family, and the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Here’s my interview with singer/songwriter/guitarist/and founding member of classic rock legends the Doobie BrothersTOM JOHNSTON.
Ray Shasho: Good morning Tom.
Tom Johnston: “Good morning Ray, how are you?”
Ray Shasho: You guys just performed at the Lucky Star Casino in Concho last night, are you still in Oklahoma?
Tom Johnston: “No, we’re in Dallas right now. We drove here over night, it took about six hours … but I’m happy to be moving on down the road.”
Ray Shasho: Well, the band will be playing in Tampa on Sunday as part of the Bands, Brew & BBQ concert series at Busch Gardens. We’ve had a bit of a cold spell here lately Tom; you might need to bring your jacket when you play on Sunday.
Tom Johnston: “Is that right, it’s like that every place we’ve been so far …it’s freezing.”
Ray Shasho: You’ll be playing solo at ‘Petty Fest’ at The Fillmore in San Francisco also this month.
Tom Johnston: “Oddly enough, I’ll be playing a show in Hollywood, then getting up the next day, flying alone and playing that same night in San Francisco. It was ‘Dylan Fest’ and now it’s ‘Petty Fest.’ It’s a benefit for the ‘Sweet Relief Music Fund & The Musicians Cancer Fund.’ A musician based charity that takes care of players that have had any number of things going on like stroke or cancer. It’s been very helpful, we’ve used it for this band and I know other bands that have used it. There a great organization, I’ve met with them a couple of times and they’ve really helped a lot of people.”
Ray Shasho: Unfortunately there are a lot of musicians who can’t get health care either. I know plenty of guys without it.
Tom Johnston: “Isn’t that a drag? Hopefully that’s all going to change.
Ray Shasho: Tom did your parents encourage your music career?
Tom Johnston: “No way. (Laughing)
Ray Shasho: What did your parents do for a living?
Tom Johnston: “My dad had an automotive shop that my brother has now. Mom was a school teacher. She also helped my dad in his shop later on. My mom played piano a little bit but only once in a blue moon. My dad played saxophone but I hardly ever saw him play it, he was usually on mine when I brought it home from school. But they didn’t encourage me to get into the music business what-so-ever.”
Ray Shasho: I guess your dad wanted you to follow in his footsteps and work in his shop?
Tom Johnston: “Yea, I think so. I’m not mechanically sound; it’s just not my thing. But I did work over there for years … like working in the parts room or I’d work on engines but under the direction of somebody else.”
Ray Shasho: What would you be doing if you weren’t in the music business?
Tom Johnston: “I was studying to become a graphic designer, as a matter of fact was one semester short of my degree, although nowadays I’d probably have to start all over again. Yea, so if that didn’t happen would have gone straight into graphic design.”
Ray Shasho: I‘ve seen the Doobie Brothers perform at least 6 or 7 times since the early 70s. The band is timeless and always performs at the same energy level every concert. How do maintain that tremendous work ethic in the band?
Tom Johnston: “I don’t know it just happens. I can’t really point to one thing that really causes it… just the way it is. Everybody has a good time onstage and we try to let the crowd share in that as much as possible, because the crowd is what drives it. We have fun playing, but when the crowd is out there rockin …everything works better.”
Ray Shasho: The Doobie Brothers tour consistently every year and your schedule is still rather lengthy.
Tom Johnston: “Actually this year we wanted to pull back. We usually do around ninety shows a year and this year pulled it back to around seventy. When we put out the new album we did over a hundred shows that year in a very short period of time, we did that in about six months and included Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and all the United States.”
Ray Shasho: Tom, I’m worried about rock ‘n’ roll …is it in jeopardy of disappearing?
Tom Johnston: “I don’t think it’s in jeopardy … I think what’s in jeopardy is just getting it available for people to hear. My son keeps me informed with what’s going on these days in rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a Metal-head, but he tells me about bands that I’ve never even heard of. I give him credit; he’ll listen to all types of music but he’s still a Metal-head. He went to see Dr. John the other night. But I think it’s just a matter of exposure and finding more independent labels that will facilitate that type of music. The advantage of using the internet is to push your product, play whatever you want, and get it out to a fair amount of people.”
Ray Shasho: Do you take advantage of all the modern technological conveniences?
Tom Johnston: “I have been for awhile. I use all kinds of software for writing and as far as recording everybody uses Pro Tools, that’s the state-of-the-art thing these days. The thing about that is it’s the demise of a lot of great studios. The strongest ones are still hanging in there, but a lot of the huge studios that were around for years are now gone. You can literally record in your bedroom with Pro Tools just as good as if you were recording in a fantastic studio, if you had the right gear.”
Ray Shasho: You recorded your most recent release World Gone Crazy in a studio.
Tom Johnston: “We did it in several studios actually. A little bit at John’s studio which is pretty much a full home studio and Pat did some work over in Hawaii and most of the basics were done at Sunset Sound. We also used various studios around LA to do overdub stuff and up in the Bay Area we used Studio D.”
Ray Shasho: World Gone Crazy was a terrific album and a breath of fresh air for today’s music scene.
Tom Johnston: “We enjoyed making it. We took our time making it and paid for it ourselves. I had fun doing all those songs on the album and tried things that I haven’t tried before.”
Ray Shasho: Like “Law Dogs?”
Tom Johnston: “Yea, that’s one of them. I’m not usually a slide guy but it worked pretty well. I had some help from John.”
Ray Shasho: Talk about your tune “Young Man’s Game” on the World Gone Crazy album.
Tom Johnston: “Just kind of poking fun more or less about being out here and doing this for so long. Seeing the kids coming up and semi-reminding them where it all came from. It’s really sort of tongue and check.”
Ray Shasho: I liked the Robert Johnson album art cover also.
Tom Johnston: “That’s off a painting in New Orleans somewhere and John must have taken a picture of that at some point in time, remembered it, and they tracked down the guy that painted it and asked him if he would allow us to use it for an album cover and he said sure go ahead. So we did.”
Ray Shasho: I’m sure it was fantastic working with Ted Templeman again. Are there future plans to work with Ted again on another album?
Tom Johnston: “As far as a brand new album with all new tunes … we haven’t really talked about it since we’ve been on the road a lot and just been working. There’s an album we’re talking about doing with a bunch of other artists …but it’s all Doobies tunes. I can’t really talk about it too much because the inks not on the paper yet and it’s still not a definite. So we’ll see what happens.”
Ray Shasho: My favorite Tom Johnston composition has always been, “Another Park, Another Sunday” and I told Pat my favorite tune of his was, “Clear As the Driven Snow.”
Tom Johnston: “We’ve been playing that live. We’re going to be doing a rehearsal here this week and working in some music that we haven’t played in forever and a day and see how it flies with the crowd. When we see you we’ll probably be playing some of that stuff …something new.”
Ray Shasho: Tom, do you have an amusing road story from back in the day?
Tom Johnston: “(Laughing) They’re all funny, either that or a mess. There’s always the one where the plane was going down in Detroit during a huge storm and we lost an engine. We thought that was going to be it. It was sometime in 1974. We did lose an engine, Jeff was up flying at the time and luckily Sam took over and got us landed …pretty exciting.”
Ray Shasho: I understand your daughter Lara is in the music business.
Tom Johnston: “She’s in the business and has recorded a lot of tunes. It’s a lot harder nowadays than it used to be, I can tell you that. She has an incredible voice and works at it tirelessly, always-always practicing. she’ll be finishing up school this year and I guess going to take it out in earnest, and have been so far, she’s probably recorded a whole album worth of tunes. But there are a lot of people doing that these days and I hope for her sake she does. I told her you’ve got to realize it’s not an easy business, but would back her up all the way if she wants to do it. There’s a lot more people trying to do it now than there used to be. I mean, everybody’s banging on the door.”
Ray Shasho: What type of music does Lara like to sing?
Tom Johnston: “She’s singing what she calls ‘Pop-Soul.’ She grew up singing R&B and that was her choice, I didn’t make her do that (All laughing). But she has a very distinctive sounding voice and has really worked herself hard to get where she is now. She practices hours a day singing and gigging as much as she can and has won various awards. We’ve had a gazillion people that have showed up banging on the door wanting to do something but it’s been the kind of folks that you really don’t want to do something with. I’ve actually had some of her songs given some airtime on the radio and the audience has always responded very-very positively. So it’s just a matter of getting the backers into this whole thing. That’s really what it’s all about. Check her out online at
Ray Shasho: How’s your bassist Skylark been doing after his stroke?
Tom Johnston: “He’s doing pretty good, living out in Las Vegas. He keeps his spirits up and is always determined; I really admire him for that. As to whether he’ll ever play again … I don’t know. ”
Ray Shasho: Tom one final question and I ask everyone that I’ve interviewed this same question …If you had a “Field of Dreams” wish like the movie, to play or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Tom Johnston: “Wow, that’s a hard question to answer because for me, that’s a lot of people. I think for the day … I would get a kick out of working with Otis Redding. I absolutely loved Otis Redding.”
Ray Shasho: Tom, thank you so much for being on the call today, but more importantly for all the great music you’ve given to us throughout the years and hopefully a lot more music to come from the Doobie Brothers …we’ll see you in Tampa on Sunday!
Tom Johnston: “You’ve got a deal; we’ll be there …take care Ray!

The Doobie Brothers official website at
Tom Johnston and the Doobie Brothers will be performing live as part of the Bands, Brew & BBQ concert series at Busch Gardens in Tampa on Sunday, February 24th. For tickets visit … or call 1-888-800-5447 for further information.
Eagle Rock Entertainment recently released ‘Let The Music Play’ –The Story of The Doobie Brothers on DVD, Blue-ray and Digital Video. -Available to purchase at
World Gone Crazy is the Doobie Brothers latest release and available to purchase at
Visit Lara Johnston’s (Tom’s daughter) official website at

Very special thanks to Caroline Stegner of d. baron media relations

Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at
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