The Doobie Brothers were formed in 1970 in California as a 4-piece headed up by songwriter and vocalist Tommy Johnston. By the time their second album came along, they sported an impressive lineup with constant new additions and changeups to fit the sound they were going for at the time. This penchant for reinvention came to represent one of the band’s most distinctive qualities. They also defied any box critics and listeners tried to fit them into, exploring all genres throughout their 50 years of playing, from rock and funk to gospel and soul.
With a long line of number 1 hits and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we chronicle the rise of the best Doobie Brothers songs below.
Written by bandmate and guitarist Patrick Simmons, ‘Mamaloi’ is a unique track included on the Doobie Brothers’ sophomore album Toulouse Street. Though the record itself is rock n’ roll through and through, the tune goes off the beaten path and lays down an easy-feeling Caribbean addition to the mix. The reggae-tinged tune is pleasing to the ear, with steel drums included to color the ambiance. Wondering what the name of the song means? There are a few different explanations. The term “mamaloi” is representative of nostalgia, of yearning for something that you can’t necessarily get back to. Mamaloi also means “voodoo priestess,” more specifically from the country of Haiti.
9. White Sun
One of the Doobie Brothers’ most unique qualities was their use of different lead vocals. On any given album, several different singers could be heard belting out both lead parts and solid harmonies. Though Johnston assumed the role early on of the main lead singer, other vocalists such as Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons hopped on the mic while holding down instrumental work as well. For ‘White Sun,’ we get one of their most dazzling vocal combinations with bassist Tiran Porter and Dave Shogren (by the time the album Toulouse Street was released, Porter had taken over bass work because Shogren quit the band). The inspiring song begins with the band’s trademark, rolling acoustic guitar picking, and Porter and Shogren follow that with a melodious duo vocal performance, topped off by harmonies that really make the song shine.
8. Another Park, Another Sunday
Johnston wrote ‘Another Park, Another Sunday’ about his breakup with a girlfriend. Though he often focused on lyrics last, this tune finds him switching gears and digging deep to write a song about one of life’s most elusive feelings: closure. It was originally released as a single, but stations ended up flipping the record over to the B-side and opting for ‘Black Water’ instead, which eventually went to number 1. One of Johnston’s theories on the changeup was that ‘Another Park, Another Sunday’ has a particular lyric in it he thought didn’t sit well with radio programmers: “And the radio just seems to bring me down.” That simple lyric, representative of how the radio reminds Johnston of his former flame, angered quite a few DJs because they thought it was a jab at them. Once word got out, radio stations pulled the reflective tune out of rotation.
7. Takin’ It to the Streets
Blue-eyed-soul singer Michael McDonald wrote the beginnings of ‘Takin’ It to The Streets’ while on his way to a Doobie Brothers show. With his keyboard set up in his dressing room he worked on the intro until show time and finished a lot of the tune after their performance. Inspired by an essay his sister had written, the funky tune took on a gospel feel because of the lyrical message. He wanted to shed light on the perils of poverty happening across America. Because of the serious nature behind his words, he added in harmony and “chanting” parts in the chorus to evoke a gospel choir. Prior to the song’s release, you rarely heard the phrase, “Take it to the streets,” which means “go spread an important message directly to people instead of going through gatekeepers.” The song was the catalyst behind the now-popular phrase often ironically used as a political slogan.
6. Minute by Minute
If the Doobie Brothers’ more rock-focused hits don’t quite do it for ya’, take a listen to their soul-inspired top 20 hit, ‘Minute by Minute.’ Co-written by band member Michael McDonald (he also played in Steely Dan), this light, funky, soulful track is lifted up high by McDonald’s smooth, silky vocals. He was quite surprised by the song’s chart success. When he played it for a friend after writing it, his friend told him the tune “just doesn’t have it” (some friend). It was ultimately nominated for a Grammy, but it lost. Ironically, it was beat out by the group’s previous chart-topper ‘What a Fool Believes,’ so the band still got to take home the award for Song of the Year.
5. Black Water
Guitarist Patrick Simmons found himself with a number 1 hit on his hands with ‘Black Water,’ a swampy, southern single that was the first of his to be released by the band. Singing lead as well instead of frontman Tommy Johnston, the song spread like wildfire after its release in ’74 but the band wasn’t aware of it. When they were touring through the south, their producer casually alerted them to the single’s top of the charts status right before they took the stage in Louisiana. In true Doobie Brothers fashion, they handled their newfound pressure with ease. Fiddle slides and scoops throughout the track, but it’s not a violin playing, it’s actually a viola, a bassier counterpart to its fellow stringed instrument with a higher pitch. At 2:30 into the track, a guitar and fiddle solo takes over, the two sounds dancing together. Songwriter Arlo Guthrie, who was close with the band, even has a credit on the cajun-inspired track for playing harp.
Recommended: This awesome tune features on our playlist of fingerpicking songs (some great tracks there).
4. China Grove
Quite possibly their most commercially successful song, ‘China Grove’ has made its way into many movies and TV shows thanks to its catchy opening guitar riff. Though the band was known for being experimental with their sound, this tune is about as classic early ’70s rock as it gets. The song centers around a zany little town and all the shenanigans that happen there. Interestingly, when Johnston wrote the lyrics for it, he made up the town “China Grove” in his head. Years later, when the band was traveling through Texas, they were informed that a town named China Grove really exists in the Lonestar state. He had to come to the conclusion he must have seen a sign for it when he was younger on one of his first tours, and the name stuck in his head on a subconscious level. Lyrics usually come last for Johnston, and he got the inspiration for them while he was listening to Bill Payne play the piano while rehearsing a song, and he added in a few eastern-sounding riffs.
3. What a Fool Believes
In the late ’70s, lead singer Tommy Johnston had to take a brief hiatus from the band due to an ongoing illness, so bandmate Michael McDonald stepped up to the mic quite a bit while Johnston was away. While Tommy wrote with a more rock n’ roll vibe, McDonald’s sultry voice and keyboard skills ushered in a softer soul feel for the band. Appearing on their album Minute by Minute (the title track to that record became another popular release for the band as well), McDonald’s prominent keyboard groove keeps the song light as he reflects on dead-end relationships that go nowhere no matter how hard you try. Like ‘Black Water,’ this single would go on to be another hit for the band. It peaked at #1 on the charts in ’79. The disco craze was still in full swing that year. ‘What a Fool Believes’ reaching the top of the charts was a surprise for the band, and one of the only “non-disco” songs to climb so high that year.
2. Long Train Runnin’
A hit in the states and across the pond for the Doobie Brothers, frontman Tommy Johnston worked on ‘Long Train’ Runnin” for several years before releasing it. While the music came rather easily for him, with an instantly recognizable funk guitar riff that opens up the song and drums throughout, the lyrics took time. The band is known for their open-ended, at times non-sensical, lyrics. With this tune, which he often had to discuss due to its popularity, he said he ultimately just let them come to him in a stream-of-consciousness fashion so they could get it recorded. He didn’t think much of the track when they released it but fans went wild with it. It became a set list anchor for them, sometimes jamming out to it for several minutes amid screaming fans in live settings.
Recommended: Love the harmonica work on this track? Then you’ll love our harmonica music playlist.
1. Listen to the Music
The Doobie Brothers scored their first hit on their second album with ‘Listen to the Music.’ Featured on Toulouse Street, the feel-good tune became a gigantic success and remains one of the band’s most popular tracks to date. Johnston wrote the tune in the wee hours of the morning after a long practice session. He was thinking about how music had the potential to lift people up, thus creating more harmony throughout the world. In the early ’70s, with economic tumult and a nation recovering from the Vietnam War, this sentiment became a common theme explored in much of the decade’s top hits. The group was known for their experimentation while recording, but for ‘Listen to the Music,’ not much at all changed since the first 3AM draft by Johnston. Even if you’re not familiar with the Doobie Brothers themselves, you’ve probably heard this cheery track with an immediately engaging opening guitar riff (Johnston is especially proud of coming up with that one) in a number of TV commercials and movies like Joe Dirt, Sing, and Riding in Cars with Boys. Their first hit takes the top spot on our countdown of the best Doobie Brothers songs ever recorded.
Recommended: This classic piece of feel-good wholesomeness appears on our yacht rock music playlist. If you’re listening to it on one, lucky you :).