How Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston Wound Up on ‘Dirty Dancing’ LP
Fifty years ago, the Doobie Brothers' Tom Johnston urged people to "Listen to the Music." Fifteen years later, he helped them do some dirty dancing.
Johnston was, at least on paper, an outlier on the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, the hit 1987 film about Catskills summer-resort life that grossed more than $214 million at the box office and ensured that nobody ever put Baby in a corner again.
The soundtrack was big, too — it hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was the No. 2 top-selling album for the year. It's been certified 14-times platinum and launched a series of sequel albums, 1988's More Dirty Dancing, 2003's Ultimate Dirty Dancing and 2007's Dirty Dancing: 20th Anniversary Edition.
In addition to the big hit single — "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes — Dirty Dancing also launched star Patrick Swayze's "She's Like the Wind" and Eric Carmen's "Hungry Eyes." And it gave new life to early Motown favorites the Contours and "Gimme Shelter" guest singer Merry Clayton, who were both on the soundtrack and took part in a subsequent Dirty Dancing live tour. Thanks to the movie, a younger, MTV-era audience was able to expand its musical vocabulary with tracks by Otis Redding, the Ronettes, the Five Satins, the Surfaris, Solomon Burke, the Shirelles and others.
And in the midst of all this was Johnston, a decade out of the Doobies and singing the brassy, soulful "Where Are You Tonight?"
"It was completely out of left field, to be honest with you," Johnston tells UCR, explaining that the offer came from Leon Medica, a musician and producer friend from Baton Rouge. "He called me up and asked me if I'd be interested in singing at tune for a movie soundtrack. I said sure. I wasn't doing a lot at that point. I was playing with the band, but I hadn't been with the Doobies for a couple of years. I'd done two solo albums, but I was at that point of not doing a great deal. So I flew to Baton Rouge, and then we drove up to another town in Louisiana, just a little there, to a place called the Studio in the Country, where I think they were recording a bunch of stuff for [Dirty Dancing]."
Listen to Tom Johnston's 'Where Are You Tonight?'
The singer was "assigned" "Where Are You Tonight?" written by Mark Scola. "I thought it was pretty cool," Johnston says. "We were there for probably three or four days. I watched them build the track, and then I went out and sang it. I really didn't think too much about it; it was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it. I didn't know anything about the movie — I don't think anybody did at that point. And then, lo and behold, [the movie] was a bit hit and the soundtrack was a huge hit. I was just blown away by how popular it was. I was just amazed at how well it did. It was like walking in the right door at the right time."
Johnston — who rejoined the Doobies for a reformation the same year Dirty Dancing came out — got to see the film shortly after it hit theaters. His review: "It was pretty good. It was a huge hit with women was my understanding. I heard all this second-hand if you will, but the women liked to watch Patrick Swayze dance. At least that's what I heard ... and that'd make sense."
While Dirty Dancing celebrates its 35th anniversary, Johnston and his Doobies mates are still on the road celebrating the band's 50th (now 52nd) with Michael McDonald in tow. "I didn't know what to expect," Johnston says. "I thought it was gonna be good, and it's gone over pretty well, nearly full houses everywhere we've played. So it's been a very successful tour." Johnston added that the Doobies are looking at taking the show overseas, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other territories.
He and co-founder Patrick Simmons, meanwhile, published a band memoir, Long Train Runnin': Our Story of the Doobie Brothers, earlier this year, while Liberte, the band's first set of new material in 11 years, came out in 2021, and Johnston is hopeful there's more to come. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out. I'm always up for writing new tunes," he says, adding that there are no concrete plans for another album yet. "Right now the focus is basically on the tour and putting on the best show we can do. Anything else, we'll have to see what it's like when we get there."