Doobie Brothers Frontman Tom Johnston: Michael McDonald Was a, ah, ‘Blessing’ for the Band

We’d be fools to believe that original Doobie Brothers vocalist and guitarist Tom Johnston wasn’t a little—just a tad, mind you—envious of Michael McDonald.

After all, it was Michael who propelled the band to superstar status in 1979, by composing and arranging What a Fool Believes, which snagged them their first-ever Grammy Award. Three Grammys, in fact—for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Vocal Arrangement.

CAPTION: "I left the band in ‘77 because I just decided this isn't working for me," Tom (above) tells us of his Doobie departure. "I just left and went and played baseball for a year."

"I left in ‘77 because I decided this isn't working for me," Tom (above) tells us of dumping The Doobies. "I just left and went and played baseball for a year."

Co-written with Kenny Loggins, the tune, which hit No.1 on the pop charts, featured backup vocals by none other than Michael Jackson, who also sang on two of Michael’s (McDonald’s, that is) other tracks from the Minute by Minute album: Here to Love You and Minute by Minute, the latter winning The Doobies their fourth Grammy, for Best Pop Vocal Performance.

Interviewed on Icon Fetch, Tom—who co-founded The Doobies in 1970 but was replaced by Michael in 1975 due to a peptic ulcer—reflects on Michael’s contributions to the band.

When host Tony Peters points out that Michael took The Doobies in a completely different direction than the path Tom had paved, Tom says:

“That would be correct. And, ah—actually, that was a blessing. Because he also had a slew of songs.

“He was not brought in for that reason, but it turns out he had all these songs he had written.

The beginning of the band's glory years—with Michael (far right).

The beginning of the band's glory years—with Michael (far right).

“That ended up being Takin’ It to the Streets [in 1976]. And then Minute By Minute was a huge album. They got, like, two or three Grammys on that.

“So he kept the band present in people’s minds. Brought in a whole new audience, because it was a totally different style of music.”

Fair enough.

While Michael retired from the rock scene in 2001, Tom is back with The Doobies for their first new album more than a decade, World Gone Crazy, which was released Tuesday—as well as a world tour, which kicks off today.

Click here to hear Tom Johnston’s full interview.

Click here to visit The Doobie Brothers official website.

4 thoughts on “Doobie Brothers Frontman Tom Johnston: Michael McDonald Was a, ah, ‘Blessing’ for the Band

  1. CP One

    Great revealations regarding Michael Jackson being in the background of those tunes. I love Michael McDonal’s music. Probably one of the most underrated vocalists and writers of his era. “I Keep Forgettin'”, one of all time favorites. The entire album is awesome!. Keep it goin’ Michael.

  2. QED

    Michael McDonald is one rung shy Michael Bolton status for mind numbingly dull music. While it’s true that some of McDonald’s early work with the Doobs is nominally bearable rock pablum, the Doobs run as what was to ostensibly become McDonald’s smoothly jazzy-ish back-up band nearly cost them their legacy. The smooth jazz direction was out of character for the gritty rock band of the 70s, whose blend of electric and acoustic arrangements continue to influence current alternative artists. The same sort of sustained influence cannot be claimed by the Doobs of the McDonald era. The Doobies Brothers that came out with “Listen to the Music”, “Long Train Running”, “Jesus is Just Alright”, “Blackwater”, “Snake Man”, “Another Lonely Park Another Sunday”, “China Grove” contributed greatly to defining the American 70s rock scene. It is on the strength of Tom Johnston’s early writing, vocals and guitar work, that the Doobie’s legacy continues on.

    This is not a knock McDonald’s songs, “What a Fool Believes”,”Minute by Minute” or “Real Love”. If taken on their individual merits, they are fine pieces in the American rock lexicon of songs. However, most people would more likely than not presume these were McDonald’s hit singles. These songs did little to define the Doobs or the music of the 70s. It could be reasonably suggested that songs like “Minute by Minute” made the watering down of rock in the 80s and 90s possible, leading to what is now widely seen as an over-commercializing of rock that is more concerned with capturing market share than with the nurturing expression of an individual’s creativity. No, much of what came from McDonald’s influence led to music by committee, i.e., the Boltons and Richard Marx’s and the watering down of Chicago. Fine artists, but tangential to the rock generation of the 70s, e.g., The Doobie Brothers, ZZ Top, and The Allman Brother, and early Chicago.

    So, why would Johnston be “a, ah” envious of McDonald? For a Grammy? Really? In previous years, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences historically overlooked rock artists of the day in favor of more adult friendly sounds. Like Herb Alpert, Henry Mancini, The 5th Dimension, Sinatra, and Captain and Tennile. Obviously absent are the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix, etc., No, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are not exactly known for being edgy in their awarding of the Grammy. McDonald’s and the Doobs winning of the Grammy says more about the smoothing off the edgy sound than the quality of their artistry. So Johnston should envy being put in a category with the likes of Hendrix? Come on, whoever wrote this blog should have put more thought into this than a knee jerk reaction to an award whose credibility has not improved through the years. Yes, the Grammy is a big deal. It produces sales. But the Grammy, by all appearances by and large continues to be a very political/economic award that is ensconced in tradition rather than exploration. So in an historical reference, saying Johnston should be envious of a Grammy garnered in the 70s lacks logic and serious contemplation.

    Charles Thomas Johnston, you were instrumental in creating the legendary sound of the Doobie Brothers! Rejoice!

  3. Tom Johnston


    After reading this blog, I felt compelled to respond but I read your post first and I’m glad I did because I couldn’t have said it better. Although Michael McDonald is good, the Doobies became an almost “easy listening” band when he was at the helm. The “real” Doobies have that great, hard-edged sound that makes you want to get out and drive. Tom has no reason to be envious of McDonald at all. When he returned to the band, the Doobies returned to their true sound and what most would consider the classic DB sound.

    Tom Johnston

    (No! I am not the Doobie’s Tom Johnston. My name is a total coincidence and I was a fan of the Doobies since 1970 before I even knew his name.)

  4. BubbaT

    Yeah Michael McDonald brought the ‘Doobs dangerously close to elevator music status but they were catchy tunes and gave them commercial success. Something every band aspires to whether they admit it or not.

    Sure, every musician lives to play but at some time there becomes a point where if you ain’t getting paid it’s just a hobby. I liked ’em both before and after MM.


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