'A big event in my life': Doobie Brothers' Tom Johnston recalls titanic James Brown show

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Tom Johnston, longtime frontman of the Doobie Brothers, traces his inspirations past other 1970s rock titans — all the way back to Little Richard, blues legends like Albert, Freddie and B.B. King and, especially, James Brown.

Johnston and Co. are toward the end of a summer tour with Chicago, a series of shows that kicked off in July at Tuscon, Arizona, and has continued through more than 20 shows into August. Before the tour had even gotten underway, the group was hit with the devastating news of Michael Hossack’s passing. The 65-year-old drummer, with the Doobie Brothers from 1971-73 and 1987-2010, had been battling cancer.

But they soldiered on, with well-received dates that have found Chicago and the Doobies performing seperately, then combining for a final encore — in much the same way that Chicago did with Earth Wind and Fire during earlier combo tours.

In Johnston’s mind, there is a pretty high standard for the showmanship required to pull off such things. In fact, asked to recall a signature moment in his early musical life, Johnston points to an unforgettable 1962 concert by Brown in Fresno, California.

“That was pretty much a life altering event, musically,” Johnston tells Amy Harris of CityBeat.com. “I had never seen anything like that. It just blew me out of the water. I couldn’t believe someone could work that hard that consistently and put on just an incredible show. That was a big event in my life.”

The Doobie Brothers, which have featured Johnston out front over two different stints, have gone on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide. Their influences have often run far and wide — as evidenced by their induction into the the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004. Their most recent album was 2010’s World Gone Crazy.

“Most of my early stuff came from blues and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll by the guy I consider the king of rock ‘n’ roll — that was Little Richard — and people like Jerry Lee Lewis,” Johnston says. “Later on, that changed, I got into Hendrix and Cream and quite a few other people I am not going to be able to think of right now. David Mason albums, old Fleetwood Mac albums, you know from the ’70s, just a lot of stuff going on then. As far as players, Albert, Freddie and B.B. King were huge in my guitar playing. I call them the Three Kings, that’s basically how a lot of people refer to them.”

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on the Doobie Brothers and Chicago. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

ONE TRACK MIND: THE DOOBIE BROTHERS, “NOBODY” (2010): “Nobody” is a direct link to their past on 2010’s World Gone Crazy, because it was the very first cut from their first album 39 years ago. Producer Ted Templeman wasn’t happy with the way the recording came out the first time around (actually, the whole record suffered from subpar production), so he persuaded the group to take another crack at Tom Johnston’s song. A great suggestion, as this time Templeman got the mixing right. The rich blend of acoustic and electric guitars, the strutting rhythm and those sumptuous backing vocals are there just like the hitmaking days. Johnston, as before, takes the lead vocal and all the years and health issues hadn’t worn down his R&B pipes one iota.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: News that the rejuvenated Doobie Brothers would be joining Chicago on a summer tour sent us scurrying back to the stacks. And not just the Tom Johnston stuff, though his reunion with the band has sparked a third-act resurgence for the Doobies — one that included a return-to-form studio project back in 2010. We also gave a tip of the hat to second vocalist Michael McDonald, who moved the band into a smooth-as-glass hitmaking period by the end of the 1970s.

SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: DRUMMER DANNY SERAPHINE, FORMERLY OF CHICAGO: A group co-founder, Seraphine had been in two prior groups with eventual Chicago saxophonist Walt Parazaider and guitarist Terry Kath. Together with trombonist James Pankow, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, keyboardist Robert Lamm and bassist Peter Cetera, they helped establish a muscular improvisational amalgam in the early 1970s. After the untimely death of Kath, inarguably the very soul of Chicago, it was Seraphine who brought in producer David Foster, a new management team and R&B-soaked singer Bill Champlin – moves that hurtled the band to superstardom in the 1980s, even as it fundamentally shifted the group’s sound towards a more commercial bent.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: CHICAGO: ans of their initial music could be forgiven for barely recognizing Chicago by the 1980s, as fussy power ballads eventually flushed out the band’s signature horn sound. A group that had built its reputation on organic experimentation, a kind of prog-fusion that earned heavy rotation on a then-new FM radio format, never returned to the album-length suites that once defined it. Well, we have. Often. Travel back now, to those thrilling days of roman numerals and Terry Kath. Here are five hand-picked sides, from their pre-guilty pleasure era.

ONE TRACK MIND: THE DOOBIE BROTHERS, “MINUTE BY MINUTE (1978): The intro of departed Doobie Michael McDonald playing chords up and down and up again on a Rhodes at the offbeat intervals is sweet soulful stuff. Then the song settles into a mid-tempo shuffle and McDonald’s brawny baritone kicks in. There’s a little synth interlude that sounds a little cheesy today, but that’s not enough to disturb this groove; right after that the bridge takes the song to a higher key and McDonald’s voice just soars in response.

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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