Despite lineup changes and a breakup, the Doobie Brothers have had a long, successful existence and have racked up a lot of hits.
They’re currently touring behind their latest album, 2010’s World Gone Crazy, and are making a stop at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino on Saturday, June 15.
The band came together in San Jose, Calif., in 1970. Tom Johnston (guitar, keyboard, vocals) was friends with Moby Grape guitarist Skip Spence, and Spence introduced him to John Hartman (drums), who had moved to San Jose from Washington, D.C., in hopes of collaborating with Spence. Johnston and Hartman eventually decided to form a group and recruited Dave Shogren (bass), starting out as a trio. They soon encountered Patrick Simmons (guitar) while sharing the bill with him at one of their early shows.
“We were playing a show one night in Campbell, Calif., and it was the first time we met Pat,” said Johnston. “We really liked his playing and his singing. He was a finger-picker, and none of us were doing that sort of thing. We thought it would be a neat combination to have, along with the power-rock and bluesy stuff we were doing. We asked him to come over and jam, and about a week later, he joined the group.”
Skip Spence eventually helped the band get a deal at Pacific Recording Studios in San Mateo to make their demo. The owner of the studio sent their demo to Warner Bros., who eventually signed the Doobie Brothers thanks to that demo.
The band went through a successful, but turbulent, early career. Johnston left the group in 1975 after being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, which led to Michael McDonald joining and taking over as the front man. During the later years of McDonald’s tenure, some of the Doobie Brothers felt they had strayed too far from their original sound, and decided to break up in 1982.
In 1987, Keith Knudsen, who had been the band’s co-drummer, convinced almost every former Doobie Brother to get together to play a concert for Vietnam veterans. The band then decided to reunite full-time with Johnston back as the front man, and they signed with Capitol Records.
“We recorded the album Cycles (released in 1989), which got everything up and running again. We recorded Brotherhood, which wasn’t as good as Cycles. Within one year, all the people we knew at Capitol that we had signed with were gone, so we left,” said Johnston.
Considering all of the lineup changes through the years, Johnston did admit that keeping the group’s sound consistent has been a bit difficult.
“I’d say that things really changed when Michael McDonald came in. And when that broke up, and when we went back to the original format when I came back, it was like playing another style of music.”
One former member has been in the news recently: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, a guitarist who was in the band in the 1970s. Baxter is now a military defense consultant with expertise on missile-defense systems.
“I haven’t spoken to Jeff in years, but Jeff used to talk about that stuff back in the ’70s when it came to missile defense and things to do with the Defense Department,” Johnston said. “But Jeff is a very intelligent guy, and I got a kick out of seeing him on a TV news report, hanging out in the Pentagon.”
Despite all the changes, Johnston said he’s happy with where the band is at these days and says that they rehearse a lot more now than they used to. The band is also celebrating the success of World Gone Crazy, which took five years to make. Before the group began writing the album, co-drummer Keith Knudsen passed away in 2005 due to cancer-related pneumonia.
“It had a profound effect on me. For whatever reason, it just unlocked this big vault of ideas. I ended up in the studio writing songs for two or three months. I wrote about 10 songs.”
While Johnston said the band views their show at Fantasy Springs as just a normal gig, that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy to be out on the road. They do promise an entertaining show that fans will love.
“We’ve all been through a lot together, and we’ve all been doing this for a lengthy amount of time. Everybody is playing better now than they ever have. The band sounds better than it ever has; it’s much tighter and much more professional-sounding. The crowds really enjoy the shows.”
The Doobie Brothers perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 15, at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, in Indio. Tickets are $39 to $69. For tickets or more information, call 760-342-5000, or visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.