Some songwriters instinctively know when they’ve written music or lyrics that’s going to strike a chord with the listening public.
Tom Johnston apparently isn’t one of them. As a co-founder of The Doobie Brothers and the composer of some of the band’s best-known early hits, there was only one time when Johnson says he knew he’d written a solid hit song: “Listen To the Music,” from the band’s 1972 sophomore album, Toulouse Street.
Johnston remembers sitting in his bedroom at around 3am and coming up with the familiar guitar riff that opens the song.
He woke up Ted Templeman, one of the band’s record producers, and played the song over the phone. Templeman wasn’t impressed and felt the song needed some work. “He said, ‘Well, yeah, it might be pretty good. Needs a couple of changes.’ But we didn’t ever change anything. It stayed the way it was, the way I had it,” Johnston recalled in an October interview with songfacts.com
The song became their breakout hit and today, more than 30 million singles and albums later, “Listen To the Music” remains the band’s most distinctive signature.
The song “China Grove” is a better example of a Doobie Brothers’ hit that Johnston wrote without many expectations. The music came first, as it usually does, and then the words came later.
“Generally I write the music first, and sometimes I have a devil of a time getting the words,” he offered. “Sometimes they come right away, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.”
Johnston was afraid that was going to be the case with “China Grove,” not unlike the difficulty the band had with the song “Long Train Running.”
“In the case of ‘China Grove,’ it was a very similar situation,” he said. “The words were written last, and they were made up around this whole idea of this wacky little town with a sheriff that had a Samurai Sword and all that sort of thing. The funny thing was that I found out in 1975 in a cab in Houston that there really was a China Grove, although what happened was in 1972, we were touring in Winnebagos, and we were driving into San Antonio. And there is a China Grove, Texas, right outside of San Antonio. I must have seen the sign and forgotten about it.”
Watch the Doobies circa 1972 play “Listen to the Music” on Japanese TV:
Johnston, who’ll be leading the latest version of the Doobie Brothers onto the stage of Caesars Atlantic City on Friday, April 30, helped put the band together in late 1969 along with drummer John Hartman. One year later, they teamed with Pat Simmons and Dave Shogren to form the nucleus of a band that eventually became the Doobies Brothers.
Beginning with their 1971 self-titled debut album, they began piling up hit songs and massive radio air play with their southern-style rock ‘n roll, catchy music and memorable lyrics on songs like “Jesus Is Just Alright,” “Black Water,” “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me),” “Takin’ It To The Streets,” “What A Fool Believes” and more.
The band’s recording career during the 1970s seems to be divided into two distinct categories: The songs that came before Michael McDonald joined the band — most written by Johnston — and those written and sung by McDonald during his six-year tenure. The band split up between 1982-87 and then regrouped for a non-stop run that’s lasted nearly 25 years.
Of all the Doobies’ songs, “Long Train Running” took the most circuitous route from the stage to the recording studio. The band began playing it live around 1970, when the tune was first titled “Osborne,” not for any particular reason. Then the name of the song was changed to “Parliament.”
“It was just anything to put down on the set list so we’d know what song it was,” Johnston said, “but it didn’t have any words — I would just make up the words as we played the song.”
After performing the song live at every show for over three years, producer Templeman persuaded the band to record the tune, so Johnston was forced to write words that actually made sense.
“[I thought], ‘Oh, man, this is just a throwaway song.’ I didn’t think it was any big deal,” he said. “I didn’t think it had any great merit as far as the chords and everything went, because it seemed too simplistic to me. But I was wrong.”
Casual conversations with the stars. Watch the Emmy-winning Curtain Call with David Spatz, Saturdays at 6pm on WMGM-TV NBC40.
Johnston and Pat Simmons, who remain the only original members of the Doobie Brothers, were the band’s principal songwriters. Their self-titled 1971 debut album for Warner Bros. went nowhere and didn’t even crack the Billboard Hot 200 chart.