Along the way, the Doobies have survived constant personnel upheaval (there are no brothers, and only one of the original band remains in the present six-man ensemble) and, more incredibly, a totally revamped sound. Their new Minute by Minute LP is both a Top Ten smash and their eighth straight gold album. It's also the third (after Livin' on the Fault Line and Takin' It to the Streets) with their new "feel"—a slick pop/R&B fusion with a mellow lyricism far removed from their rousing early hits like Listen to the Music and China Grove.
Responsible for the metamorphosis is the Doobies' bearded but baby-faced sex symbol, Michael McDonald, 27, who joined in 1975 after Doobie founder Tommy Johnston quit touring to heal his road-induced bleeding ulcers. McDonald has written, played keyboards and sung his bluesy vocals on almost all of the group's recent tunes, including the current hit, What a Fool Believes. The five elder (all 30 or 31) Doobies may privately resent McDonald's dominance (the first three cuts on Minute are his) but they ain't stupid. "Sure, we said, 'Hey, what's this, McDonald and the Doobie Brothers?' " admits drummer Keith Knudsen. "But, listen, they're all great tunes."
The Doobies began as a trio in San Jose nine years ago with Johnston on guitar, John Hartman on drums and long-departed bassist Greg Murphy. Then came vocalist-guitarist Patrick Simmons, bassist Tiran Porter and drummer Knudsen (the band generally tours with three percussionists, now including Bobby LaKind, a lawyer-turned-conga player). Jeff Baxter—a gifted and fluid guitar stylist who has played with Steely Dan, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton—joined in 1974. The following year McDonald began his takeover.
Michael had grown up around St. Louis, where his father, who was an Irish tenor, played local piano bars and got his son started in music at age 4. Michael came to L.A. at 17 to cut an LP that was never released and made a local name for himself as a writer and session player for groups like Steely Dan. He co-wrote You Belong to Me with Carly Simon, and his music has been recorded by Kenny Loggins, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll, the Fifth Dimension and Quincy Jones.
The one brotherly aspect of the Doobies has been the closeness—and the hassles. "The band knew we were getting married before I did," reports Knudsen's wife, Tracy. "They themselves are like a marriage. They live together, travel together and work together. Sometimes they get on each other's nerves, like a married couple." Hartman, for one, has had enough of living on brotherhood alone and is leaving at year's end to study veterinary medicine. "I've learned to smile at people I hate in the music biz," he says bitterly. "I can't be a part of it anymore. Rock'n'roll has become big business, and tax concerns have eaten away at my true love—simple old blues music." Thus departs the sole charter Doobie.
Uncle Sam notwithstanding, all of the Doobies can still afford fashionably funky life-styles. The disaffected Hartman and his wife, Heather, raise Arabians on a ranch in Sonoma County. Simmons and his girlfriend of 10 years, Diane Craddock, live on 80 spectacular acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains with antiques, birds, goats, two Mercedes, a Jaguar and a Harley Davidson 1,200-cc cycle. Porter (who once worked in L.A. manufacturing Barbie dolls) is divorcing and lives in peaceful retreat in the same area. Baxter plans to build a solar-heated home on land near Tucson. Knudsen and his wife raise horses in the San Francisco exurb of Nacasio (which has the nation's highest per capita income), next door to George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars.
McDonald lives alone outside L.A. in the San Fernando Valley. "I'm not much for relationships," says the man whose Giancarlo Giannini stares sends frissons through female fans. "I stay pretty aloof from the whole thing. I date chicks here and on the road, but I go out with girls who won't give me any trouble. I'm your basic free spirit."
To their credit, the Doobies enjoy as big a rep for giving it away as they do for raking it in. Their benefits center on political and environmental issues like solar energy, but their pet project—the golf tourney—henceforth will support the construction of a Doobie Brothers wing of a children's hospital at Stanford Medical Center. They've also donated electronic games, stereo and video gear and $20,000 cash for patients. Simmons, speaking for all six, finds their annual visit to the hospital's terminal illness ward "sobering. It's a shame more rock bands don't give of themselves. They have the power. Besides, it would keep their heads in perspective," he notes. "It means a lot to kids to show them their idols care. The kids we're playing for may not even be alive next Christmas."
The Doobies, who just returned from Japan, end their show with Kiss-like smoke and flames enveloping Hartman's drums. "Lawrence Welk has his bubbles, I have my fire," he cracks. McDonald, on the other hand, actively resists the posturings of punk rock. "If those punk guys were anti-everything, they wouldn't stand up there and act like morons in front of people," he seethes. "They'd go in the woods and eat mud and really live like rebels." In their hearts, as bassist Porter puts it, "the Doobie Brothers are still real, still hanging out with our original message: listen to the music."
Any rock group with the impudence to name itself after a street word for a marijuana cigarette would seemingly rather jive the Establishment than join it. But a decade after they stormed out of the San Francisco area like dozens of other blues-rock bands, the Doobie Brothers have outlasted and outsold just about all the competition. With record sales of 25 million, they now have the sort of elder-statesman status that entitles them to an annual golf classic. And what other rockers boast fans like Dinah Shore (who last year saluted them on a 90-minute special) and Jane Fonda, who admits to "getting high on their good vibes"?