Doobie Brothers star goes from San Jose State to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Tom Johnston still sounds great on the microphone after more than a half century of rocking with San Jose’s legendary Doobie Brothers.

“Practice,” Johnston says from his home in Marin County. “To me, that’s the key to it. I don’t mean only when you are rehearsing to go on a tour. You’ve got to do it when you are off, too. You’ve just got to keep your voice in shape. It’s a muscle like anything else. And if you let it atrophy, then it’s really hard to bring it back.”

Johnston is getting ready to showcase those vocals once again. The Doobies will hit the road later this year for a 38-city national tour that includes stops at Wheatland’s Toyota Amphitheatre on June 20 and Concord Pavilion on June 22.

The 75-year-old vocalist and guitarist credits the band’s road work as vital to its longevity. “Touring a lot is one of the big (things) that keep everyone aware that you are around,” he says. “That’s one of the things that keeps us going.”

Beyond a full slate of gigs, the Doobies also plan to release a new album this year, the band’s second studio album in roughly three years. Many of the Doobies’ contemporaries have pretty much given up on putting out new albums, preferring to just bank upon decades-old fan favorites. Yet, Johnston says it is important for the Doobies to keep recording.

“It keeps the band fresh,” he says. “You play new stuff in the live show, and the crowd likes it. I mean, it’s not going to be something that they are ready to sing along with like one of the big hits. But — who knows? — maybe it could end up being one.”

The Doobies have more than a fair share of big hits, including such gems as “China Grove,” “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Listen to the Music,” “Black Water,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and “Jesus Is Just Alright.”

Those songs remain staples on classic rock radio many decades later. Even Johnston can’t tell you what it is about these songs that continues to charm both old and new listeners.

“I wish I could tell you what that is. We are extremely fortunate,” he says. “The songs strike a chord with people, both rhythmically and lyrically, and they like singing along with whatever the chorus is.”

Johnston has certainly witnessed massive crowd sing-alongs whenever the Doobies — Johnston, vocalist-guitarist Patrick Simmons, vocalist-keyboardist Michael McDonald, multi-instrumentalist John McFee and several touring members — unleash the greatest hits in concert.

“People always know those songs,” he says. “They always stand up, singing them back to you, and it’s amazing. There are just a lot of songs that fit in that mold. We are very lucky. It’s not something where you sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a hit that everybody is going to love 50 years from now.’ That’s not the way it works. It’s that you happen to walk in the right door.”

Johnston definitely walked in the right door when he first left home in Visalia in 1968 to study graphic design at San Jose State. He laid the foundation for his music career at his first home here. That house at 285 S. 12th St. is now a historic landmark.

“Other musicians were over there all the time. We were always jamming in the basement,” Johnston says. “It was kind of a music center for San Jose — a great place to be at that age at that time.”

One of his roommates was John Hartman, who became the Doobies’ original drummer. The two met Patrick Simmons, a graduate of San Jose’s Leigh High School, who certainly knew his way around the guitar.

“John and I watched him play with a band he was in — it was an acoustic thing — and we were kind of blown away,” Johnston remembers. “We thought he was a really great guitarist. He sang, and that was a plus. So, we asked him to come over and jam.”

Eventually, the jam turned into a band and with the addition of bassist Dave Shogren, the Doobie Brothers were born. The group began gigging around the area and soon drew the interest of Warner Bros., which signed the Doobies to a deal. The band’s self-titled debut came out in the spring of 1971.

“It was all just — for lack of a better way of putting it — magical. It just kind of happened,” Johnston says. “The first album didn’t do a lot. The second album (1972’s ‘Toulouse Street’) took off with ‘Listen to the Music.’ And it just kept going.”

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They hit double-platinum status with the back-to-back releases of “The Captain and Me” (1973) and “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits” (1974), then saw  their fortunes zoom even higher with the triple-platinum success of 1978’s “Minute by Minute.” Along the way, they’d showcase a variety of styles and genres in their music.

“We were an eclectic bunch,” Johnston says. “We all had rock ’n’ roll roots, but Pat was into finger-picking and guys like Doc Watson. I was more R&B as well as the blues. So, we mixed that all together, if you will. We just wrote songs, and they came out sounding the way they sound, because you’d have those various influences on each tune, and it just sort of happened.”

The Doobies were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. The nod came after years of eligibility and much debate among fans as to whether the Doobies would someday get the call. Yet, the band members never really joined that discussion.

“We didn’t ever sit around and talk about it a lot,” Johnston says. “In fact, we didn’t really talk about it at all. Occasionally, it would get batted around with management. But we most always kept our head down and kept working.”


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