40 Years Ago: The Doobie Brothers Begin the Michael McDonald Era with ‘Takin’ It to the Streets’
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The Doobie Brothers stared down a crisis prior to the sessions for their sixth studio album, making a fateful personnel decision that would redefine their sound while sending them to even greater commercial heights.
Lineup changes had always been a fact of life for the Doobies, and early in their career, the band overcame its mostly road-induced attrition by always managing to pick up the right musician in the right role at the right time. But in 1975, as co-founder Tom Johnston grappled with creative burnout and some serious health issues exacerbated by years of touring while cranking out annual albums, it looked like they might be in danger of losing one member they genuinely couldn’t afford to do without.
“Tommy had cut, maybe five songs or something,” Doobies co-founder Patrick Simmons told Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw in an exclusive interview. “They were just rhythm tracks. Some ideas that he had and we made arrangements to the changes that we had. They came out really good; we really liked them. And then he took a left turn and said he didn’t want to finish the record and that he was going to stay home and kind of do something different. So we didn’t know where we were going to go.”
Johnston’s health kept him off the road for a tour in support of 1975’s Stampede album, and to help fill the void, freshly inducted Doobies guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter recommended the group hire a musician he knew from his time with Steely Dan: keyboardist, singer and future five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald. While McDonald obviously couldn’t stand in for Johnston on guitar — and sounded nothing like him vocally — Simmons knew he’d add something extra to their sound, and by the time they got around to starting work on the Stampede follow-up in earnest, McDonald was a full-time fellow Brother.
“We got back to town and we tried to figure out what we were going to do as far as the record was concerned. I had about a half-dozen songs that I had been working on. Some were finished, some were not,” Simmons told UCR. After booking the sessions with producer Ted Templeman, Simmons let it slip that the group had some new blood — not only McDonald, but percussionist Bobby LaKind, who’d graduated from the road crew after winning the band over with his enthusiasm and conga skills.
According to Simmons, Templeman was a little nervous about the changes — particularly on the percussion front — but they were soothed on the first day, when the band, augmented by Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward sitting in while they waited for Keith Knudsen to arrive, banged out a first-take performance of a new song titled “Wheels of Fortune.”
“t was all live,” Simmons recalled. “All the solos — Jeff’s solo and Mike’s solo. There’s a percussion breakdown with the drums. Everyone is playing live and Tiran did this bass breakdown with the drums and we kept the track. I think we only played it twice, but I think the first take was the one we kept. So it was kind of a first take, live in the studio with Richie sitting in, and Ted was ecstatic because we had a track without beating ourselves up as we sometimes did. So that was the beginning of that record, and it gave us a great deal of confidence.”
What it didn’t immediately give them was more new material, but Simmons had a plan, and it started with the new guy at the keyboards — who, Simmons knew, came to the Doobie Brothers after starting out as a solo artist, and had a pile of songs just waiting to be tapped.
“I said, ‘Ted, I don’t know if this is of any interest at all, but this guy we’ve got playing keyboards, Mike, he’s a really great singer.” and Ted’s going “Ah, Pat, I think we’d be safer if you did the vocals. You know, the familiarity with your audience. It might be really chancy to introduce another lead vocalist,'” said Simmons. “I said “Ted, you should really hear this guy sing. He’s got a pretty darn good voice.” So I said, ‘Hey Mike, do you feel like playing one of your songs for Ted?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, I guess so.’ He sat down at the piano and started playing ‘Takin’ It to the Streets.'”
Listen to “Takin’ It to the Streets”
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While McDonald’s voice was definitely different from the lead vocals heard on previous Doobies recording, Templeman quickly realized what Simmons and the rest of the band already knew — he had a powerful and distinctive instrument. “I’m looking over at Ted and I’m looking at his eyes,” Simmons told UCR. “His eyes just got wider and wider, into big saucers. He looked at me and started mouthing, ‘Oh my God.’ He recognized immediately the thing that I had seen. Here’s this guy with this incredible voice and here’s a great song on top of it. So that was kind of it. … From there we just kept on going and didn’t look back.”
In retrospect, McDonald slaying Templeman with “Takin’ It to the Streets” was one of the more fortuitous moments in the Doobie Brothers’ long history — one that found them at a crossroads that could have gone in any number of more unpleasant directions. “Necessity is the mother of invention. We didn’t have a choice in the matter,” said Simmons. “We needed to explore, we needed to cover some new territory because we didn’t have Tom to pick up the slack, so we had to pick up our own slack.”
That easy motion carried over to the rest of the sessions as well. As Simmons recalls, the arrangements came together quickly, with the band playing live the bulk of the time and only minimal overdubs added. “Everything is basically the band,” he told UCR. “Everything was pretty streamlined on that record. Trying to keep things fresh. We didn’t beat ourselves up or overthink things too much.”
It all came together on the group’s sixth studio album, titled Takin’ It to the Streets and released March 19, 1976. Another platinum success and their fourth consecutive Top 10 effort, it added a pair of Top 40 singles to their growing collection — the No. 13 title track and another McDonald composition, “It Keeps You Runnin’,” which hit No. 37. Yet to Simmons’ lasting bemusement, McDonald’s tenure with the band — which also produced the Grammy-winning smash Minute by Minute two years later — proved divisive among fans who missed the Doobies’ old sound.
“Some people like the guitar band, some people like the keyboards and the band with Mike. But looking at both audiences, they recognize that it’s good quality singing and playing and writing, either way,” Simmons pointed out. “Usually that’s the way. Like Crosby, Stills & Nash, who do you like the best? Well, I was a Stephen Stills guy, but now I’m more of a David Crosby guy — but I like Graham Nash‘s stuff, too. You gravitate towards a certain guy. I like Steve Stills, because he was a great guitar player and more of a folky guy and that’s kind of me. After a while, I’d see David Crosby the same way.”
In spite of the turmoil surrounding the band going into the album, Takin’ It to the Streets ended up being what Simmons described as a “fun record to work on” — and Johnston, after dealing with his difficulties, even managed to return for a couple of tracks. With the players all getting room to shine and the group’s circle of fans continuing to expand, the album gave the Doobie Brothers the best of both worlds.
“It was really rewarding for all of us. Just great memories all the way through, and great production on Ted Templeman’s part — I can’t say enough about that guy. He really did so much for this band,” Simmons told UCR. “Tommy came in and did some stuff on that record too; there’s a song of his on there. He did some singing on other songs. It was nice to have that connection and to understand that there were no hard feelings in any way. We were able to get our record done, and he was able to do what he wanted to do and not feel pressured or guilty about it.”
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