As a guitarist and vocalist with The Doobie Brothers, Tom Johnston wrote the kind of joyful rock that is truly classic: "Listen To The Music," "China Grove," "Long Train Runnin'" and so much more. In 1975, an illness forced him to take some time off, which is when Michael McDonald joined the group. The original band reformed in 1989 and released the album Cycles, which contains the hit "The Doctor."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When you came up with the guitar riffs for your famous songs, did you always know you had something special?
Tom Johnston: I was only right about that once. (laughs)
SF: Which song was that?
Tom: “Listen To The Music.”
SF: Really? Tell me about coming up with that one.
Tom: Well, I was sitting in my bedroom in San Jose. I was doing what I always do, I had been up playing guitar for hours. It was like 2 or 3 in the morning. I had the opening riff to it, and I think I figured out all of the chord changes as well. I called Teddy (producer Ted Templeman), woke him up, and played it for him over the phone, and he was less than enthusiastic. (laughing) I think it was because I woke him up. But he said, “Well, yeah, it might be pretty good. Needs a couple of changes.” But we didn’t ever change anything. It stayed the way it was, the way I had it. The chord changes and everything we made are the same. In the studio, the bass part was added by Tiran (Porter), drums were added by Mike (Hossack), and Pat (Simmons) came up with a couple of parts and put in that banjo at the end. And it was the second time anybody had ever used something like phasing on a record. First time was “The Big Hurt” by Toni Fisher. But things like “Long Train Runnin’,” I said, “You’re nuts. It’ll never be a single.” And it was. And “China Grove” I don’t think I felt one way or the other about.
SF: Tell me about coming up with the lyrics to “Listen To The Music.”
Tom: It was all based around this somewhat Utopian view of the world. The idea was that music would lift man up to a higher plane, and that world leaders, if they were able to sit down on some big grassy knoll where the sun was shining and hear music - such as the type I was playing - would figure out that everybody had more in common than they had not in common, and it was certainly not worth getting in such a bad state of affairs about. Everybody in the world would therefore benefit from this point of view. Just basically that music would make everything better. And of course I’ve since kind of realized it doesn’t work that way. (laughing)
SF: Is there any truth to the record company ordering you guys to come up with a hit?
Tom: No, there isn’t. Any record company of course wants a hit, but nobody ever said to me specifically, “I want a hit, write one.” This was back in the days when a record company would – and I’m speaking of Warners in particular, but I imagine it was the same in a few other companies – would hang onto you for a while. Today, the first time out of the box, if you don’t have a hit, you’re gone. And if you have a hit and don’t follow it with another hit, you’re gone. And those days, you could have a whole album that stiffed – which we did, the first one we did stiffed and we didn’t have anything happen until the second album. And that was “Listen To The Music.” That was the song that got everything going. But they believed in the band, and they believed that we would eventually come up with something that would happen, and stuck behind us, gave us some money to make the records. And consequently it all paid off.
SF: Did you guys make a conscious choice to do things differently on the second album?
Tom: No, not really. And we still do everything pretty much the same way as far as writing goes. We’ve never been a concept band. Everything is based on songs - whatever songs you come up with are the songs that get recorded. It’s usually Pat and I that do the writing, unless we do a cover tune. We would bring it in, and the producer would say yea or nay or whatever, and nowadays, actually, we have more say about the yea and nay part, of course. But it’s essentially the same idea; whatever songs people have written, we choose the best ones and record ‘em.
We don’t do albums every year now, anyway. We’re in the process of finishing one up that’s been in the works for about two years. That’s the first one we’ve done since 2000.
SF: You were talking about how you didn't think one way or another about “China Grove.” Can you tell me about writing that song?
Tom: Yeah. I didn’t wake up the producer this time, I woke up the drummer. I had this lick, and I was playing it on an acoustic. I went and grabbed the drummer and dragged him downstairs in the basement, which is where we always jammed on 12th Street. I went from acoustic to electric, but I don’t think it was real late at night. I think it was probably around 10 or something like that. I said, “Let’s try this,” and I started playing that lick. Then I figured out the chord structure, the rest of the chords that were in the song. Initially all I had was “Bow, bow, bomp de bomp de bomp, chica bow bow.” They added the Echoplex when we got in the studio - the echo that was on the guitar.
The words came later, which for me is not uncommon. Generally I write the music first, and sometimes I have a devil of a time getting the words. Sometimes they come right away, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. We played “Long Train Runnin’” for three years before it got recorded, and it got called several different names, and most of the time I would make up the words as we were playing the song. Then I finally wrote some final words for it when we actually recorded it. In the case of “China Grove,” it was a very similar situation. The words were written last, and they were made up around this whole idea of this wacky little town with a sheriff that had a Samurai Sword and all that sort of thing. The funny thing was that I found out in 1975 in a cab in Houston that there really was a China Grove, although what happened was in 1972 we were touring in Winnebagos, and we were driving into San Antonio. And there is a China Grove, Texas, right outside of San Antonio. I must have seen the sign and forgotten about it. And when I came up with the term “China Grove,” I thought I was just making it up because of the words being about this crazy sheriff with a Samurai Sword. And all that came from a Billy Payne piano lick. That’s where I got the idea for the words. Billy Payne played on a lot of our stuff in those days. Keyboard player for Little Feat.
SF: How did the piano lick influence the words?
Tom: Well, the piano lick went, “Dadadadun, dadadadadundun.” It was an Oriental sounding lick. And so from there I took off and went to the place I ended up with lyrically. I must have seen that sign and forgotten it. And when the cab driver told me this in Houston, I said, “You gotta be kiddin’ me.” He said, “There really is a China Grove.” I said, “No, there isn’t.” He says, “Yeah, there really is. And it is right outside of San Antonio.” I said, “That’s weird.” And it turns out there’s one in North Carolina, too.
SF: Now, that’s bizarre.
Tom: I thought so.
SF: You were talking about how “Long Train Runnin’” took you three years to write the words. Can you tell me about that song?
Tom: We just played it live a lot. I think we started playing that in the Chateau, so that would have been around 1970-71. And it got called “Osborne,” it got called “Parliament,” it got called a lot of things. It was just anything to put down on the set list so we’d know what song it was, but it didn’t have any words - I would just make up the words as we played the song. So they might be nonsense – might be? They’re definitely nonsensical. And it continued that way until Teddy heard it and said, “You should cut that.” And I said, “Oh, man, this is just a throwaway song.” I didn’t think it was any big deal. I didn’t think it had any great merit as far as the chords and everything went, because it seemed too simplistic to me. But I was wrong, and wrote the words in the bathroom, which happened a lot down there. I wrote the words sitting in the bathroom at Amigo Studios in Burbank, which doesn’t exist anymore. But that’s where we did all those records, and it was owned by Warner Brothers. So it was like a last-minute deal, and then I came in and sang, and boing, the record was done.
SF: Do you remember where you came up with these words? Like, was Miss Lucy from anything in particular?
Tom: No, none of that stuff really had any basis in anything. It was just out the top of my head, which, quite frankly, is where all lyrics come from. Songwriting’s a weird thing, and everybody does it differently. For me, I always write the music first, the words come later. But I’ve had songs that just seem to write themselves, and those are blessings for me, because you don’t have to sit there and strain your brain for hours trying to come up with the lyrics, it seems like they just flow out on the paper, and you don’t even have to think. Other songs, like “Long Train Runnin’” - not that the words are that difficult or anything - it’s just finding the words that I thought fit the track. Took me a long time. I got into the whole train mode, and it’s just stuff that comes into your head. It’s not like I had a point of reference with anybody named Lucy, I had been around trains on and off throughout my life. Coming from the Central Valley in California, there’s a lot of trains running up and down that valley. And I assume that’s where some of that stuff probably came from.
SF: But you didn’t think that was just an amazing guitar part you came up with?
Tom: No, I did not.
SF: Wow, that’s pretty surprising.
Tom: Yeah, it surprises me, because we just finished doing that song in Japan for a TV show, and they wanted to know all about the guitar lick, and I really can’t tell anybody anything in depth. It’s just a lick to me.
SF: All right. What is an example of one of these songs that kind of wrote itself?
Tom: Well, “Listen To The Music” is the first one I can think of right off the bat. On the first album we had a song called “Nobody.” And that chord – that kind of wrote itself. And as a matter of fact, for whatever reason, even though that album didn’t do anything, a lot of the songs on there seemed to just come naturally, songs like “Greenwood Creek,” and “Growing A Little Each Day,” which is something I wrote on a piano and played the piano on. Later on, “Another Park, Another Sunday” wrote itself. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” wrote itself more or less. I always feel like I’m a conduit when things like that are going on. I’m just the one putting it down on paper and playing the chords. But wherever it’s coming from was out of the ethersphere somewhere.
SF: Is “Another Park, Another Sunday,” based on events that happened to you?
Tom: Yeah, that was. That was based on breaking up with a girlfriend. And that’s basically what that was all about. Including the park and all the rest of it. You know, that was a single, and actually got put out, and was doing real well, and then it got yanked off the radio for the line, “And the radio just seems to bring me down,” because the song being played reminded me of the girl. But radio took it as, “Oh, yeah? The radio brings you down, huh? Well, guess what?” – yank.
SF: Wow. That’s a little harsh.
Tom: I thought so.
SF: Kind of a common theme to hear a love song on the radio and, if you’re in that situation, want to turn it off immediately.
Tom: Yeah, they pulled it off the air. Which I thought was a little over the top, because at that time, “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones was out, and they were singing about sweeping the shit off the shoes, and that was okay. But nevertheless, that’s what occurred. And then the flip side to that was “Black Water,” which was another story that could have happened back then, but never would ever ever happen now: Roanoke, Virginia picked that tune up and started playing it in heavy rotation, and somebody in Minneapolis who I guess knew somebody in Roanoke heard the song and decided to follow suit, and it ended up becoming our first #1 single.
SF: And this must have surprised you guys.
Tom: Oh, completely, yeah. That was Pat’s first single. And oddly enough, it was never looked at as a single by the record company.
SF: Do you remember when you found out that this thing had taken off?
Tom: Yeah. I remember when I first heard it was #1, we were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and we were just getting ready to go on stage, and then I guess Bruce (their manager Bruce Cohn) must have told us. I think we were already aware of the fact that it was getting airplay, but nobody was really paying a lot of attention. And then all of a sudden it became #1 and we were paying attention. I remember I went in and congratulated Pat backstage, and we’ve been playing it ever since.
SF: It’s just amazing to me that sometimes you don’t know that these songs are really special. I was on radio for so long playing these, and people just love these songs.
Tom: Well, this was in a time period which doesn’t exist anymore. That would never happen now. The whole landscape of the musical industry is completely and totally changed. It’s 180 degrees away from where it was in those days. Not just because it’s not violent anymore, it’s not because of CDs now, it’s because record companies have drastically changed because they refuse to embrace the Internet, and that causes them a great deal of heartache, and as a result, lots of other things have popped up and record companies have taken a huge dive. Which is too bad, but that’s the way it is. And the only thing that’s coming out of that shining like a star, I guess, would be iTunes. Which is a major force now, and kind of looked at almost like Billboard magazine, only with the tunes involved, as well. People go and look on iTunes and see what’s the number one song they played.
SF: Yeah, I think in your case YouTube helps you out, too.
Tom: Probably, yeah.
SF: On the air, I would play your live stuff a lot, and when everything got computerized, one day the program director told me not to anymore because corporate wanted us to stick to the playlist exactly.
Tom: Yeah, I kind of remember those days. We would be doing interviews at radio stations, and all of a sudden the guy wouldn’t be just pulling the stuff down and spinning it anymore. It was like he was being told what he was gonna spin, and I remember that transition. And then there’s the other transition where you almost didn’t need anybody in the studio, which I really thought was weird.
SF: Oh yeah. You should have seen it. Voice tracking. You could do your show in 15 minutes and then go to the bar.
Tom: That to me is completely sad. I find that really a shame, because all of the humanity has been taken out. The whole human touch, the whole element of somebody choosing records. When the corporate giants came in and started buying up all the radio stations, all that went away. I liked the whole idea of the creativity on the part of the PDs, who were still creative in those days, as well as the disc jockeys who would play the stuff. I was in a radio station last year, and although the guy was chatting over the air to people, whatever he played was preordained. He didn’t have anything to say about it. Totally different feeling.
SF: Sounds familiar. Now, you did this cover of “Jesus is Just Alright,” which intrigues the hell out of me. Can you tell me how you guys ended up playing that song?
Tom: What I remember is that we liked the Byrds’ version, which was the only version there was. The song was written by a guy named A.R. Reynolds, still to this day I don’t know who he is. But the Byrds put it out first, and we just took it and rearranged it. We were playing it live, and then on Toulouse Street we put it on that record and rearranged it even a little bit more. Once again, with Billy playing keyboards. And that’s how it came out.
SF: Was there any discussion about how the nature of the song being so overtly religious would be an issue?
Tom: That’s the silly part about the whole thing, because nobody was. And the funny thing about that, we weren’t anti-religious. We weren’t anything. We were just musicians out playing a gig. We didn’t think about that kind of stuff very often. We would be out playing that song when that came out as a single, and all these One Wayers, which was a big movement at that time, would be at the show, and they would run up to the stage with their fingers pointed straight up. At first we didn’t get it, and we finally said, “Oh, I know what’s going on.” So when we would play that song, they would go nuts. They would throw scriptures on the stage, that sort of thing. Little did they know they were trying to enlist the support of the wrong guys.
SF: Do you remember who came up with the idea to break it down and do that middle section?
Tom: I think Bill Payne was involved, because it involved a B3 Hammond, and the “da da la da, da da la da.” We had a song that we did by Randy Newman on the very first album called “Beehive State,” it had a similar lick, and possibly it came out of that, but that’s a guess.
SF: One of the songs you haven’t mentioned yet is “Rockin’ Down The Highway.” Can you talk about that a little bit?
Tom: “Rockin’ Down The Highway” was a good times song. It’s just what it sounds like. It’s about being in a car with the top down flying down the road, which was not uncommon. I lived in San Jose, but I spent a lot of time in the Santa Cruz Mountains and driving up and down Highway 1 down by Santa Cruz. You know, we hadn’t signed with a label at that particular time, and I would imagine that the words came out of those experiences: it was footloose, fancy free, and just groovin’ up and down the coast, partying. I don’t think there was anything more in depth about it as far as the words. I don’t think there’s any major story to be told there. I mention a motorcycle in there, and it’s not a direct mention, but it kind of glances off motorcycling and riding around in cars. I was motorcycle nuts in those days, so there’s a reference to that.
SF: What about the song “Take Me In Your Arms.”
Tom: Well, I didn’t write that. “Take Me In Your Arms” was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, and it was done by Kim Weston, and I had been a fan of that song since it came out somewhere in the ‘60s. I just loved that song. So somewhere around ’72 I started lobbying to get the band to do a cover of that. And I didn’t get anywhere until ’75. Then finally in 1975 we actually did it. And we got to have some chick singers, which was to me the ultimate nirvana thing to do, come in and sing on the thing with us. And then the strings were put on by Paul Riser, who was the Motown string guy.
SF: It must’ve felt pretty good to put your spin on a Motown song.
Tom: Oh, it did. I was in hog heaven. I absolutely love that song. And when we actually got to do it, for me that was a real thrill. I felt not only satisfied, but elated. And then to get to go out and play it live as well, that was a kick.
SF: When you did the hit “The Doctor,” you wrote that with some other guys.
Tom: I actually wrote that song before the band even re-formed. It wasn’t called “The Doctor” then. I was playing with some guys around here in Marin County. I was in a band called Border Patrol, and the chorus that you hear where the actual “doctor” part is, “I need to go to the doctor, yadda yadda,” didn’t exist. That was written by Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz, that whole – if you want to call it - hit lead chorus. I was never that nuts about that song, I gotta be honest with you. It just sounded way too poppy and slick for me. I just didn’t think it really had quite the balls as some of our previous tunes. And, you know, it served its purpose. It got us national attention for a little bit. It didn’t last very long. But you know, people are paying attention again, and we had just come out with a new album, so that was a good thing.
SF: Were Charlie and Eddie in Border Patrol with you?
Tom: No, they were both producers. I didn’t meet them until we ended up signing with Capitol. Originally we were gonna go with Warners. The reason the band got back together in the first place, I really have to give all the credit to (Doobies drummer) Keith Knudsen, he called up and asked each member of the band if they would be interested in getting involved and doing a benefit for Vietnam vets. Because he was heavily involved with a group made up of Vietnam vets who were raising money for people who had been in that war. And everybody said yeah, because nobody was doing anything of any great import at that time. And so we got back together, just for that, and then we ended up doing two other benefits. And then we did ten more shows to pay for putting all that together, so we could go out and play, because it took a lot of rehearsal. We had four drummers, four guitar players, two keyboard players. Took a lot of rehearsal to put that many people on the stage and get everything going in the right direction at the same time. So in doing that, one of the people who was involved was Ted Templeman, and he made a suggestion after everything was over and we’d done all the shows, that the original band re-form. The pre-Michael McDonald version, the one that did all the songs we’ve been talking about. And so we looked at each other and said, “Well, why not? We’re not doing anything else.” So we did. But we didn’t do it in ’88, which is when it was supposed to happen. We did it in ’89 and we didn’t do it with Warner Brothers, and we didn’t do it with Ted. We ended up doing it with Capitol. And by then Joe Smith was the head of Capitol. He had been the head of Warners while we were over there for all those years, and he had moved over to Capitol. So it seemed natural to go over and get into something with Joe. And we did, we did two albums with him. We did Cycles which had “The Doctor” on it, and then we did Brotherhood. And that was pretty much it. The next album we did was Sibling Rivalry, which we just did on our own. We didn’t even use a producer, which is not something I was too wild about as far as an idea. But we did that on our own, and now we’ve been doing another one for the better part of two years, and we’ve been working with Ted again. But we’re paying for everything. It’s not on any label or anything. We’re just doing it out of our own pocket.
SF: When you’re playing these songs live, are there any that are really difficult to play?
Tom: I don’t think there’s anything that’s really difficult to play. Whatever it is, we play it enough that pretty soon it becomes second nature. Certainly the ones that we’ve been playing forever and a day, they are certainly not a problem.
SF: And what are the ones you look forward to seeing show up in the set list?
Tom: There’s two reasons to like a song for me. One is because it’s just fun for me to play, and the band gets into it and really has fun with it. Doesn’t mean it’s a hit or anything, it just means it’s fun to play. And the other reason is they're the chestnuts. And you generally have to play those or the crowd gets disappointed. And those always – I do mean always – evoke a huge response in the crowd. Things like “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen To The Music” and “China Grove” and “Black Water,” those kind of tunes. And so you know you’re gonna play ‘em every night, and you know what’s going to happen every night. I don’t mean you take it for granted, but from almost 40 years of doing this on the road, that’s generally what’s gonna happen. And that’s fun to play because by that time you supposedly have already got the crowd up and rocking, which is to me what it’s all about if you’re gonna play live. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing live if they’re just sitting there looking at you? So it’s our job to get them up and involved in the show. I really would be bummed out at the end of the night if people didn't respond. But that generally isn’t the case. I don’t care who the audience is and how hard core they are, or how disinterested they are - like if it was a casino or something, and we don’t play a lot of that, but that does happen on occasion – they always respond to those tunes. So that’s fun for me, because it is a heightened interaction with the crowd, and I feed off that. Just as I get a bang out of playing some of the tunes that people don’t really know that are album cuts, and we have a huge catalogue of tunes to choose from. Every year we throw in a couple and take a couple out, and rearrange the set a little bit to keep it interesting for us, and then of course if we’re doing anything new we start to throw in a couple of new songs as well.