Tom Johnston may not be a household name, but anyone that has spent even a little time listening to classic rock radio over the past few decades knows his voice. Not only did the Doobie Brothers frontman sing lead on classics like “China Grove,” “Listen to the Music” and “Long Train Runnin,'” but he has sole songwriting credit on those songs as well. And even though he’s 71 and been at this for half a century, he still plays about 90 shows a year with the Doobies and belts the hits out with a voice that shows remarkably few signs of wear and tear.
Johnston spoke about the group’s long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the odds of reuniting with ex-members at the ceremony and their upcoming summer tour with Michael McDonald.
How do you feel right now?
I’m very excited. It’s awesome. We don’t sit around and think about it 24 hours a day, but we’ve talked about it over the years. It’s just really great to be recognized by your peers as well as the fans. It’s an honor.
How did you react when you heard the news?
First off, we heard we were nominated and that was a big deal to begin with because we’d been watching other bands that we’ve worked with or known over the years get inducted and we thought, “Man, that would be great.” And then we got nominated. That was the first big deal. To hear we were actually going, we were stoked. I don’t know how else to put it. We were very, very happy.
The timing is pretty great with your upcoming 50th anniversary tour.
Yeah. All this stuff is coming together at once. It’s pretty wild. All the stars aligned.
Did it ever upset you that all these years passed without the Doobies getting in?
I don’t know if I ever get upset. I used to think, “Man, we’ve done all this and been playing on the road forever and put out a lot of good products.” I wondered why we weren’t in, but I think I have a pretty good idea. Really, all that ends well is fine with me.
What’s your pretty good idea of why?
Well, I think you need a really efficient team. That’s a big part of it.
You mean that after you signed with manager Irving Azoff…
They are bringing in you, Patrick Simmons, 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?
Yeah. I think that’s appropriate.
Did they forget anyone?
No. There has been a lot of people that have gone through this band and some of them weren’t there for very long. I don’t know if they made a huge difference in what was going on. They weren’t writers. There has been a lot of flow-through in this band as far as musicians. The ones that you just named are the key members of the band.
Bands often reunite at this ceremony. Will you perform with former members?
I don’t think so, simply because we won’t get a chance to rehearse. We’re going to walk up there blind and do something? I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not going to sound good. My guess is, and I don’t know this, but I’m told we’re going to play and I imagine we’ll play with the guys we always play with.
I’m sure some fans will really want to see Tiran or Skunk back onstage with you guys.
I’ve thought about that and I understand that, but if we don’t get a chance to rehearse it’s kind of an uncomfortable thing to be onstage.
How do you pick just three or four songs?
That’s a really good question. I don’t have a super answer. [Laughs] We’ve talked about it and I don’t know how that will fall out. You’ve got to go for the chestnuts obviously. You just pick which ones. Michael will be there with the band, so we’ll do one or two with him. If we just get three or four songs, it makes the decision making much easier.
Do you know the names of your fellow inductees?
I don’t. Nobody has told me.
I’ll tell you right now. It’s Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, T. Rex, Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston and you guys.
Really! If that’s the case, the fan vote thing is not an accurate depiction of what’s going on. That’s amazing. I often wonder what the fans think about that.
Are you fans of any of those other acts?
We toured with T. Rex in 1972. That’s really the only time I’ve ever been around them, right around “Bang a Gong.” They haven’t done anything since then, I think.
Are you talking yet about the summer tour with Michael and how to structure the show?
We haven’t even gone there yet. We’re playing a gig the middle of next week and then we have a residency in Las Vegas for February. I think we’ll start nailing that down then, but we’re going to rehearse a lot in May with Michael. That time is probably the best time to put that together. We’ve played a lot with Michael over the years. He comes and sits in with us at corporate [events] and things like that.
You’ll both be onstage for the entire show, right?
Oh yeah. That’s part of the deal.
The Doobies do nearly 100 shows a year. What drives you to work so hard?
To be honest with you, we really enjoy it. Granted, the travel can be a tough thing, but getting in front of a crowd makes the whole thing worth it. I love playing in front of a crowd.
I see so many farewell tour these days. Can you ever envision a Doobies farewell tour?
I’m not looking at it now. I’m sure it’ll happen at some point for reasons that are beyond our control. But right now, everything is working fine. I wouldn’t knock it down yet.
The rock critics were a little snobbish towards the Doobies over the years, but the Hall of Fame is a real vindication.
Well, all’s well that ends well. This is definitely a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. It’s really a great thing. We’re very appreciative and we do not take it for granted.