There were a few snickers about the band name when the Doobie Brothers came rolling out of San Jose, Calif. But what the high times the group achieved during its next 50 years were certainly not to be laughed at.
At a time when rock had its fist in the air or its head buried in proggy noodling, the Doobies were more down to earth. The 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees just wanted us to “Listen to the Music” and give everyone a “Song to See You Through.” The group’s double-drummer, pre-Americana blend of rock, country, soul and blues was fresh in its own right, with an easy, breezy charm that registered hit after hit yet still maintained an AOR credibility that made the Doobies an arena and even stadium headliner during much of its first decade.
The group hardly rode one lane, either, and the additions of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and, more importantly, Michael McDonald from the ranks of Steely Dan took the Doobies in a new direction that peaked with 1978’s Minute By Minute and earned the band and/or McDonald four Grammy Awards. The group broke up in 1982 but founders Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons got back together five years later and have kept going ever since, with McDonald occasionally guesting.
Choosing the 10 best Doobies songs is no easy task, but an immersion in the group’s catalog is a reminder of how diverse and sophisticated it’s been over all this time, and how genuinely overdue the Rock Hall honor is.
10. “Song To See You Through” (What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, 1974)
The Tom Johnston-penned track gets the Doobies’ fourth album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, off to an easy start and follows a formula the group does so effectively — gentle, rootsy, melodic and soulful, this time with an accent of horns that adds to the R&B flavor of the choruses.
9. “Dependin’ On You” (Minute by Minute, 1978)
“What a Fool Believes” and Minute By Minute‘s title track charted higher but this gem, a Simmons-McDonald co-write, offers a more genuine synthesis of Doobies old and new. Simmons’ gruff(er) vocal roughens up the track’s yacht rock polish, and McDonald’s insistent piano hook blends with Baxter’s biting solos, straight out of Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill playbook, to give the song a bit more muscle.
8. “South City Midnight Lady” (The Captain and Me, 1973)
Simmons’ vivid, cinematic lyricism is a highlight of this relaxed love song from The Captain and Me, a track filled with acoustic shimmer, back porch harmonies and weepy pedal steel accents from then-guest Baxter. The group takes its time over these five and a half minutes, and truth be told we wouldn’t be sorry if it lasted even a bit longer.
7. “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” (Stampede, 1975)
It’s the rare rock band that truly nails a Motown song, but the Doobies sure did with this deep-ish cut by the Isley Brothers, from the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. With Tiran Porter channeling James Jamerson’s dancing bass part and strings sweetening the mix, the Doobies captured the song’s ebullient swing and buoyant call to, well, arms with enough rock edge to play both sides of the line.
6. “Long Train Runnin'” (The Captain and Me, 1973)
There’s a lot going on in this first single from The Captain and Me, with Johnston and Simmons laying punchy guitars over the jammy polyrhythms provided by Porter and drummers John Hartman and Michael Hossack. It also received one of the most unlikely covers from the Doobies’ canon when Bananarama took it on in 1991 — and even made a video for it.
5. “Another Park, Another Sunday” (What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, 1974)
The first single from What Were Once Vices didn’t set the world on fire but has aged very well as a catalog favorite. Johnston’s tale of heartbreak and loss pulls all the right strings. and the finger-picked guitars and layered chorus harmonies are unusually beautiful. And, like Johnston, aren’t we all “just trying to find a pretty smile” to “get into?”
4. “China Grove” (The Captain and Me, 1973)
Plain and simple — it rocks. Johnston’s opening riffs are the stuff of air guitar legend, and the “sleepy little town” comes alive in clear detail. We’re still talkin’ ’bout “China Grove” decades later, and with plenty of good reason.
3. “Takin’ It to the Streets” (Takin’ It to the Streets, 1976)
McDonald’s first single with the Doobies (and title track of the group’s sixth album) was a winner, a people-have-the-power anthem that fit his native Ferguson, Mo., nearly four decades later as it did bicentennial America — and will probably sound just as relevant, and resonant, for eternity. “Takin'” hits an elemental theme and drives it home with soulful urgency.
2. “Black Water” (What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, 1974)
Country music, and Mississippi for that matter, were about as far away from FM rock as you could get at this point in time. But the Doobies took us there and sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time, with acoustic guitars, fiddle, a melody that meandered like a lazy, rolling river and a karaoke-ready a cappella section. It topped the Hot 100 in 1975, and that Mississippi moon is still shining brightly.
1. “Listen to the Music” (Toulouse Street, 1972)
The Doobies’ breakthrough hit is a soft-touch anthem that crossed formats from rock to top 40 to adult contemporary — hilariously getting the word “doobie” mentioned, quite a bit, on generally conservative airwaves of the latter two. “Listen” ranks high in the pantheon of rock n’ roll feel-good hits, and if it doesn’t get your foot tapping and bring a bit of a smile to your face, immediately go and get yourself checked for a pulse. And a heart.