The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Doobie Brothers

When it comes to classic rock bands, the Doobie Brothers have reached the mountain top and have been through every type of rock 'n' roll fiasco one can imagine. They've won Grammy Awards, sold nearly 50 million records worldwide, gotten numerous songs in the Top 10 singles and Top 40 hits, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even received keys to the city, as per TheDoobieBrothers.com and Rolling Stone. Since the 1970s, the band has helped define the sound of classic rock, veered off into other genres, and became known for creating a new one, dubbed, "yacht rock." Whether or not they've been aware of the fancy-sounding genre, or even appreciate the term, is another story.

When the "yacht rock" term was brought up in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the band members reactions ranged from slightly annoyed to finding it humorous. "I don't know anyone who has yachts ..." said co-founder Patrick Simmons. "It's kind of embarrassing even to be included in that. It's a demeaning concept." Co-founder John Hartman's response was the complete opposite, saying, "Oh my God, that's perfect! I'll be laughing for the next three weeks!" According to TheDoobieBrothers.com, co-founder Tom Johnston summed up the band's sound, saying, "We're basically an American band — we cover a lot of areas. We cover blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, and rock 'n' roll. It's based on rhythms, rhythm structures, picking, and harmonies. That's been the signature of the band."

It took a long time for the band to achieve its sound and make the iconic name it has today. The band has had to overcome many painful setbacks and a constantly changing lineup of members while making its reputation. It all started in California in 1970 with a few guys who loved jamming.

The beginning of the Doobie Brothers

In 1970, the counterculture movement had mostly reached its peak, the Beatles had broken up, and the Vietnam War was on its way to winding down over the next few years, as per the Wilson Center Digital Humanities Lab. According to Rolling Stone, the Doobie Brothers were just getting started, finding one another as they found their sound. When singer, guitarist, and co-founder Patrick Simmons enrolled at San Jose State to escape the draft, he met co-founder and guitarist Tom Johnston, who'd been roommates with founding drummer, John Hartman.

The three had hopes of becoming like their heroes, Moby Grape, but they'd soon be on their way to developing an image and sound of their own. After some jamming sessions, they realized they had something. Then, after indulging in some smoking sessions, one of their roommates recommended they call themselves the Doobie Brothers. "We said, 'That's a stupid name, but we'll use it because we don't have one,'" said Johnston during an interview with Rolling Stone. "It was probably the only time we were gonna use it." Simmons popped in, saying, "It was dumb, but it was cool in a way. We did smoke a lot of pot."

The Doobie Brothers befriend the Hells Angels

During their early days, the Doobie Brothers played shows at a former stagecoach stop in the Santa Cruz mountains called Chateau Liberté, which was also a hangout for hippies and the Hells Angels, an international motorcycle club with a reputation for hard living out on the open roads. The band members looked rough and had a biker image of their own, which helped them mingle in with Hells Angels and wild crowds of people who attended their gigs. And of course, the Hells Angels had their own special way of making an entrance. "They used to ride their bikes up the steps and in through the front door, bombed outta their minds and swinging whips," said Tom Johnston. "They'd park in the living room; it was standard procedure."

The biker club would spend a lot of time with the band, at shows, and at the recording studio, drinking Jack Daniels in the control room while the band recorded, as per Rolling Stone. One night, while at Chateau Liberté, Johnston accidentally bumped into an Angel pledge's bike with his guitar case. "The fella pulled out his knife," Johnston told Rolling Stone. "Gypsy Jack saw it, came over with his whip and put the guy up against the wall, saying, 'Don't do that. He's a friend of mine.' So I just walked on in and that was it. A year and a half later, Gypsy Jack was dead after riding into the back of a semi going about ninety miles an hour." 

The Doobie Brothers' Tom Johnston struggled with drug addictions

While the band was touring, playing shows to larger crowds, and partying in between venues, Tom Johnston's drug use was getting out of control. In 1973, Johnston and a friend were busted for heroin and weed in Visalia, Calif. "A lot of drugs were a problem," Johnston told Rolling Stone. "Booze too. All of it ... Everybody partied to an extent. So whatever your weapon of choice was, it almost didn't matter." In Shreveport, La., in 1975, Johnston was rushed to the hospital after only five shows in to their tour promoting their album, Stampede. An ulcer was the "main excuse," according to bandmate Tiran Porter.

Johnston ended up at a Los Angeles hospital when his heart stopped and he nearly died. "It was getting bad out there, but I didn't know how bad," Johnston told Rolling Stone. "I didn't have any control over it. I was major-league bummed that I had to come off the tour. I felt like I was screwing the band over." 

Johnston's bandmates were soon put in a bad spot as a band. They still had to complete the tour or else they'd face a lawsuit. So, the Doobie Brothers revamped the band, adding drummer Keith Knudsen and guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. They also wanted to add someone else who could play keyboards and sing Johnston's parts. As it just so happened, Baxter knew the perfect guy.

Michael McDonald realized he had to sell drugs to make connections

Future Doobie Brother Michael McDonald was in L.A., trying to make a name for himself as a keyboard player and songwriter when he realized he'd have to sell cocaine in order to make connections, as per Rolling Stone. "If you were the guy who had a gram in your pocket, you were golden." McDonald would sell coke to musicians and anyone else who would give him money to pay his bills. Not long into his side gig dealing drugs, McDonald got high on his own supply, saying, "I only wound up snorting it all." In 1971, McDonald got busted, but his sentence was brought down to a misdemeanor.

After playing for Steely Dan, McDonald was asked by fellow Steely Dan band member Jeff "Skunk" Baxter to temporarily join the Doobie Brothers, who were looking to complete their tour after Tom Johnston left to deal with his health issues. McDonald flew out to Louisiana, joined the band, and added piano parts to the songs as he sang. When Johnston didn't come back, the band kept McDonald and let him contribute to the songwriting. McDonald added songs, including "Takin' It to the Streets," which was inspired by his sister's high school paper on inner-city social strata in America (via Rolling Stone). The song became a hit and the Doobie Brothers sound, band, and reputation expanded even more.

"Such a long way to go" before the Doobie Brothers were taken seriously

The Doobie Brothers went through an uphill battle to first establish themselves as more than a band that played local bars for bikers. Even when they were selling records, the band felt their record company didn't respect them by placing more importance on the acts. John Hartman said they were stuck "playing second fiddle to Captain Beefheart."

Those who've seen the Judd Apatow classic, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, might remember a certain scene in which Michael McDonald is featured performing a concert on multiple televisions in Smart Tech, an electronics store, supposedly on repeat for the past two years. During the scene, Paul Rudd's character who's an employee at the store, confess to his manager, played by Jane Lynch, how McDonald's music is driving him insane, saying, "For the first time today, I woke up, I came to the store, and I feel confident to say to you, that if you don't take this Michael McDonald DVD that you've been playing for two years straight off, I'm going to kill everyone in the store and put a bullet in my brain!"

The classic sketch comedy show, SCTV, also made fun of McDonald, who was portrayed by Rick Moranis, in which the repetition of McDonald's singing was again part of the punchline. In the sketch, McDonald is first seen driving through traffic on his way to the studio while the song "Ride Like the Wind," by Christopher Cross plays. McDonald makes it just in time to run into the recording booth and record his only backing vocal, "Such a long way to go," which he sings, many times throughout the song.

The Doobie Brothers' DoobieLiner

As the Doobie Brothers continued to grow, they naturally needed to travel the skies in true rock star fashion. According to Rolling Stone, the Doobie Brothers were given their own private plane known as the DoobieLiner. While it wasn't as luxurious as most rock stars' planes, it was a perfect fit for a band who partied as hard as they did in between shows. The Martin 404, once used by Eastern Airlines, was pushed to the limit just as much as its passengers. "You could smoke weed on the plane," said Patrick Simmons. "Nobody cared. We had a full bar and drinks and chicks. It was a party in the air, pretty much continuously."

Eventually, someone came up with the idea of filming the Doobie Brothers experiencing zero gravity while on the plane for their eighth studio album, Minute by Minute. This led to one of the band's worst experiences ever. "There's nothing worse than someone hurling while there's zero gravity," said Michael McDonald. "You're watching the vomit quiver in midair. Then the gravity goes back into play and it lands on someone." It was quite a messy time and one that the band was happy to never experience again.

The Doobie Brothers break up

After nearly ten years together, the Doobie Brothers started losing steam. The band members felt they weren't the same band they used to be, and Michael McDonald was stressing members out with his fears about living up to what he believed were the band's standards. "Everything was falling apart," said John Hartman. "I remember sitting in a rehearsal in California and hearing Michael say he didn't want to get out his car because of some anxiety."

"My basic fear was that I didn't have what it took to do what people expected I could do for the band," said McDonald. "That was always my biggest fear, that what we were doing was not befitting a band like the Doobies." 

It wasn't long before both Hartman and Jeff Baxter quit. The members were able to look back at who they were and what they had become. Tiran Porter and Patrick Simmons once reminisced about their days as an opener for AC/DC. "Pat said, 'They're too loud,'" Porter recalled. "And I said, 'I can remember when we were that loud, dude!'" The Doobies embarked on their farewell tour in the summer of 1982.

The Doobie Brothers' band members pass away

Over the years, the Doobie Brothers' lineup changed many times. The band had many different members, and sadly, some of those iconic musicians passed away. Michael Hossack, who was a member of the Doobie Brothers between 1971 and 1973, passed away from cancer in 2012, as per Rolling Stone. Hossack had reunited with the band in 1987 and played with them until 2010 as his health declined. Drummer Keith Knudsen joined the Doobie Brothers in 1974 and passed away in 2005 from pneumonia. According to Billboard, Knudsen would reunite with the band in 1993 and play with them for years.

According to AP News, Bobby LaKind, who joined in the late 70s, played percussion for the Doobie Brothers after working for the band's lighting crew. LaKind reunited with the band again in 1989 and passed away in 1992 from cancer. Dave Shogren, who played bass and co-founded the band in the early 70s, passed away in 1999 from unknown causes. However, pneumonia might have been the cause, according to Shogren's father, as per the Tampa Bay Times. According to Today, saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus, who joined in the late 70s, passed away from a heart attack in 2004. Bumpus also played with other popular bands and released his own solo albums.

The Doobie Brothers lose out on a high-paying residency in Las Vegas

Since their first break up, the Doobie Brothers would reunite and go on more tours to play to thousands of loyal fans around the world. It wasn't until 2020 when the band was given a residency at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, where they were expected to make as much as $300,000 a night, writes Rolling Stone. However, as the band was in the middle of their shows, Tom Johnston was hit with a serious illness that he thinks might have been Covid-19. Johnston said he had a dry cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath. "Nobody was even talking out testing at that point in February," Johnston said, months later. "So it could have been [Covid]. We'll never know."

Not only was it truly bad circumstances that the band lost out on continuing some of their best paying gigs or that Johnston was very ill, it was also an upset to the fans who could have seen Michael McDonald and Johnston back on the same stage for their first gig since 1976. After the rest of the shows were cancelled, it wouldn't be the last memorable moment Covid would destroy for fans and the band.

The Doobie Brothers' 50th anniversary tour is rescheduled

After fans waited for years to see the Doobie Brothers perform for their 50th anniversary tour in 2020, they were forced to reschedule until 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. "This decision has been made with the health and safety of the Doobie Brothers' fans, crew, and local employees in mind," the band said in an announcement, as per Yahoo News. Even worse, the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was postponed. According to ABC News Radio, the band has been eligible to be inducted since 1997, but this was the first time they were nominated.

"[I]t's something that...we didn't know if it would ever happen, quite honestly," said band member John McFee. "It's been a long time [that we've been eligible], so when it finally happened...even after all that time, it's still a little bit of a shock." The ceremony was replaced by pre-recorded tributes combining archival footage and new commentary from the inductees and various celebrities. The Doobie Brothers were inducted along with T. Rex, Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G., and Depeche Mode.

Bill Murray cheated the Doobie Brothers out of money

Bill Murray is known for snagging people's French fries, being mean to people's coats, crashing parties he's not invited to, and now, not paying the Doobie Brothers for using their song, "Listen to the Music," in his golf apparel commercials. According to USA Today, in September 2020, the Doobie Brothers' lawyers sent a well-deserved warning to Murray's company, William Murray Golf, saying, "It's a fine song. I know you agree because you keep using it in ads for your Zero Hucks Given golf shirts ... However, given that you haven't paid to use it, maybe you should change the company name to 'Zero Bucks Given.'"

The Doobies' lawyer, Peter Paterno, didn't pull any punches, saying, "This is the part where I'm supposed to cite the United States Copyright Act, excoriate you for not complying with some subparagraph that I'm too lazy to look up and threaten you with eternal damnation for doing so. But you already earned that with those Garfield movies. And you already know you can't use music in ads without paying for it."

Of course, Murray's lawyers had to respond, saying, "First, I would like to compliment you on finding levity in the law at a time when the world and this country certainly could use a laugh," wrote lawyer Alexander Yoffe. "We would also like to confirm that both our firm, and the good folks at William Murray Golf, are indeed fans of the Doobie Brothers' music, which is why we appreciate your firm's choice of 'Takin' It to the Streets,' rather than to the courts, which are already overburdened 'Minute by Minute' with real problems." We can only hope that Bill Murray and the Doobie Brothers actually cross paths at their 50th anniversary tour in 2021 make amends.