Twenty-nine different men have been in the Doobie Brothers during the past 50 years, but only one of them has been there the entire time: Patrick Simmons. And while Tom Johnston may be the face of the band and Michael McDonald the one that went on to huge success outside the group, Simmons is the songwriter and singer behind some of their most famous songs, including “Black Water.” He’s also a key part of the band’s signature harmonic blend.
Just about 24 hours after he learned the Doobie Brothers were entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Simmons got on the phone with us to talk about the honor, plans for their upcoming 50th anniversary tour with Michael McDonald, and the five songs they just recorded with producer John Shanks.
What was your first reaction when you heard the big news?
I was really happy about it. It’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time. That’s kind of one of the things you always hope will happen, especially with a band like ours that has been around this long. We’re celebrating 50 years. It might even be 51, but who is counting?
There are so many deserving artists that aren’t in the Hall of Fame yet yet. Because of that I never thought, “We deserve it” or “Why haven’t we been chosen?” because I look at all these other artists that are as deserving as we are. Even to be mentioned along with the other inductees, to me, is a great honor. And there’s also so many people that weren’t even nominated that are just waiting to be nominated. It’s pretty vast.
Now your name will be enshrined on the wall by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly …
We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy! [Laughs]
They’re bringing in Tom Johnston, you, John McFee, John Hartman, the late Michael Hossack, Tiran Porter, the late Keith Knudsen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Michael McDonald. Did they get that right?
I think that all makes sense. I think Bobby LaKind might be in there too. He has since passed. Those were the guys that were there for lengthy moments throughout our career. They definitely deserve recognition. They definitely contributed to the songs and the records.
Bands often reunite at these things. Do you see a scenario where Tiran and/or Skunk Baxter might perform with you guys?
I hope so. There’s no telling. This is such a new moment to know that we’re being inducted. I certainly hope that all those guys will show up and be part of the proceeding. They definitely deserve the recognition.
Will picking three or four songs to play that night be a challenge?
No. The nucleus of this band, the guys that have been playing with Tom and myself for years, I’m sure they will be there to lend support through it all. We’ve been basically touring this entity for the last 30 years. We have a really great, tight touring band right now. All of the guys that have been with us during this time, every one of them are crack players. I don’t have any doubt that we can get up and put it out there. We’ll just have fun. I know that for certain.
The class this year is you guys, Depeche Mode, the Notorious B.I.G., Nine Inch Nails, Whitney Houston, and T. Rex.
That’s fantastic! I’m surprised that some of the other artists that really got more fan votes than we did aren’t in there, but it is what it is. I’m really happy about Whitney Houston. I’ve always loved her music and she certainly deserves that recognition.
You toured with T. Rex in 1972, right?
Oh, yeah! They were good guys. That was the first band that we ever really had a major tour with. We toured with Mother Earth early on before that, but that was our first national tour that wasn’t a sponsored tour. The T. Rex tour was a real tour where we were an opening act and we were able to do it just from the guarantees we got from them. Marc [Bolan] was such a nice guy. We got real close to all those guys.
Marc was a genius.
He was also just a really nice guy. It’s funny because he was such a flamboyant guy. When we first got out there, we were these streets kids from San Jose. Here’s this guy in all these ruffly clothes and makeup and giant platform shoes. We were like, “Wow! What planet did this guy come from?” He taught us a lot about showmanship and class. After we got to know him it was like, “He’s just a normal person.” He was a super showman and he knew what he was doing.
There’s sometimes a big all-star jam at the end of the night, but I can’t imagine you guys and Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode all getting together.
[Big laugh] We’ll come up with something, I’m sure! We’ll play the blues! [Laughs]
Do you have a plan for how you’ll structure the set list for the big tour this summer with Michael McDonald?
I have it in my own head, but we haven’t really talked about it much. But I did mention it to the guys before we had this little break. I figured we’d probably do songs we knew people would want to hear, the hits, of course. I always think you owe the fans those songs you know they are going to want to hear. Beyond that, we’ll probably dig deeper into the albums. I know there are songs of Mike’s I always love to hear. I’m thinking about some other songs that Tom has written and I’ve written.
We are always changing it up. We usually sprinkle the most popular songs among the set, but we always dig deep and find other tracks to present. Since we did this thing at the Beacon Theater [in 2018] where we performed Toulouse Street and The Captain and Me we learned these other songs and some of them we’d never performed before. That’s been kind of fun getting those into the set from time to time. We rotate the tunes in and out. We want to dig a little deeper and make it more interesting for the fans.
So many bands from your generation tour and they don’t have their original singer. It’s some soundalike replacement. You not only have your original singer on this tour, but also Michael McDonald and, of course, you.
Yeah! I just played with Mike here in Maui. We do this yearly benefit for Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper’s manager. Alice comes and plays and brings part of his band. I’ve done it six or seven times, I think, maybe more. I’m losing count. It provides resources for the food bank here in Maui. We do it every year and Mike was just at the top of his game. He was singing his ass off and sounded so good. I could say that about Tom as well. It’s pretty amazing since I don’t even want to mention how old they are, but both of those guys are singing so good. It’s amazing that old guys like us can still do it.
Your last album of new songs was 10 years ago. Are you thinking about a new one?
We’re doing an EP, I guess you can call it. We recorded five songs a few months ago. We recorded them, mixed them, and mastered them, but they’ve kind kind of been sitting there waiting for springtime to roll around because that is when we like to put new things out there since we’re out there on the road able to perform it, support it, and talk about it as we go from town to town. That’s what we are doing.
For a band like ours, we have a core base that’s always waiting for something new and then there’s people out there that will be paying a little more attention at this point simply because of the tour and the Hall of Fame. It’ll be a nice moment for us to introduce some new music, but we don’t have huge illusions about where it’s going or what’s going to happen. We just have some great songs that we want to put out there and show our fans that we’re capable of some new stuff. That’s where it’s headed now.
We figured for a band like ours there’s no point to go in there and spend hundreds and thousands of dollars trying to do a whole album. We’re better off just recording some songs and kind of testing them out and seeing how people respond. That is where we’re at. In this day and age, it’s more song by song. There are artists like Beyoncé and Billie Eilish that put an album out and people are waiting breathlessly for it. I’m not sure they are waiting breathlessly for us at this point.
But I gotta tell you, of course my perspective is my own, but I feel like we wrote some good songs and performed them well, so I think it’ll be something great for the hardcore fans. It is Tom and I doing what we do. I think there’s a different edge to these songs. We both wrote with John Shanks. He’s a great writer and a great producer. He really brought a lot to what we wanted to do and vice versa. He had some ideas going in with us. We had a lot of fun working with him. He had some great energy. It was really great to have his slant on what we’re doing. It was really rewarding.
Thinking back, there were so many moments when this band could have ended, especially when Tom left that first time. But you always seemed to be the one that fought to keep it alive, and you’re the only one in every incarnation of the thing.
I always wanted to be in a rock band from the time I was a kid in junior high school. I was in a lot of different bands and kicked out of a lot of different bands. I saw a lot of bands I was a part of come and go. To have a great bunch of people that you’re playing with, I didn’t take it lightly. Different people, especially leading forces like Tom and Mike, have come in and out of the band. But there’s always this core of players that have committed themselves to it. When Tommy left, it was me, Jeff, Tiran, and John Hartman and Knudsen. We really were committed to moving it forward somehow.
We talked about it during those stressful moments. Can we continue? We went ahead and did it just us for a while. And then we recognized that we could use another person, so we brought Mike on just to contribute something to the rhythm section in terms of keyboards, not realizing what a great singer he was. As soon as he came onboard we realized the talent was undeniable, so we did everything we could to incorporate that into what we were doing at the time.
It’s just by luck that you land on your feet in those instances. It’s not anything you can forecast or predict. It’s just, “If we can hold it together long enough to do these gigs we have, maybe we can rethink it down the line.” That’s been the story of this band: continually rethinking it, reinventing it, recommitting ourselves to it. It’s not just me. I couldn’t do it without all these writers and players.
Almost everybody in the band, regardless of how much output they’ve contributed, almost everybody in the band has been a part of writing. You know, when someone has something good, and we tried to work to make it the best we possibly could at any given time.