With the Doobie’s Hall of Fame induction, there’s never been a better time to get familiar with the captains of Yacht Rock. Their heyday was basically the entire decade of the Seventies, though a major shift occurred when frontman Tom Johnston, who wrote the majority of their hits, stepped aside in 1975 to deal with a bleeding ulcer and other medical issues.
They recruited a largely-unknown Michael McDonald, who was fresh out of Steely Dan, and kept jamming out the hits, albeit with a bit of a funkier edge to them. Here’s a look at five of the songs that helped them secure a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1. “Listen To The Music” (1972)
The Doobie Brothers were in serious danger of vanishing without a trace shortly before they released “Listen to the Music” in the summer of 1972. Their self-titled debut LP peaked at a pathetic 210 on the charts, and they feared their follow-up, Toulouse Street, would do the same and result in Warner Bros. dropping them. All that changed when rock radio embraced lead-off single “Listen to the Music” and put it in heavy rotation all over the country, bringing it to Number 11 on the Hot 100. The anthemic, joyful tune was written by the Doobies’ own Tom Johnston as an ode to the power of music as a uniting force. It’s the perfect showcase for the group’s three-part harmony sound, and it’s remained a cornerstone of their live act ever since.
2. “China Grove” (1973)
Even after they broke through to the mainstream with the mellow vibes of “Listen to the Music,” the Doobies still held onto their biker-rock edge. “China Grove,” which conjured images of crowded, Hells Angels-populated bars, began during a loud basement jam between Johnston and founding drummer John Hartman, and they developed it into one of the band’s hardest-slamming tracks. What takes “China Grove” to another level are Johnston’s lyrics, likely inspired by the time the band was passing through Texas on tour and saw a sign for the actual town of China Grove. In Johnston’s mind, the fictional China Grove became a wacky place populated with an insane preacher and a sheriff who was, for some reason, brandishing a samurai sword. The finished track, from their third album, The Captain and Me, cracked the top 20.
3. “What a Fool Believes” (1978)
If yacht rock had to be reduced to a single song, it might be “What a Fool Believes.” Not only was it written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, two titans of the genre, but the debut episode of the actual Yacht Rock web series was devoted to the song’s creation. In real life, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter didn’t threaten to fire McDonald from the Doobies if he didn’t produce a hit song. He was already four years into his role as in the group and had demonstrated his songwriting chops over and over, but this one went to Number One and remains one of their most beloved and well-known tunes. They rarely play it without McDonald, they’ll be joined by the man himself this summer and will surely break it out every single night.
4. “Long Train Runnin'” (1973)
Side One of 1973’s The Captain and Me kicks off with a startlingly great three-song streak: “Natural Thing” and “China Grove,” with the rollicking soul burner “Long Train Runnin'” cozy in between. Lines about a train (“I saw miss Lucy down along the tracks!”) chug along an R&B bass line with bluegrass fingerpicking. Written by Johnston (who takes a sizzling harmonica solo in the video above, complete with Seventies turquoise rings), the song peaked at Number 8 on the Top 100. A fair amount of head-scratching would ensue just two years later, when Led Zeppelin released the eerily similar “Trampled Under Foot.”
5. “Black Water” (1974)
This Patrick Simmons ditty, a showcase for the band’s hippie-folky side, remains one of the Doobies’ crowning happy accidents. It began when Simmons was toying around with the song’s recognizable fingerpicking lick in the studio, and producer Ted Templeman encouraged him to turn that morsel into a song. Simmons later added lyrics based around one of the band’s visits to New Orleans, heard in the rousing a cappella finale of the song. When the Doobies released their fourth album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, in 1974, everyone assumed the hit would be Johnston’s “Another Park, Another Sunday.” But it wasn’t a smash (radio DJs were supposedly turned off by the line “My car is empty and the radio just seems to bring me down”). Months later, the Virgina AM station WROV began playing “Black Water,” the B-side to “Another Park, Another Sunday,” in honor of the nearby Blackwater River. The song then caught on at other stations around the country, and within months, the Doobies had an unlikely chart-topper.