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Interview:
Chicago, Doobie Brothers Share Durability, Timeless Tunes
 

By GARY GRAFF
of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Tom Johnston freely acknowledges that he doesn’t remember “a lot of stuff” that his band, the Doobie Brothers, did with Chicago back in the 1970s.

“I remember one (show) in San Diego in ’73, specifically, that was a great show,” the singer and guitarist recalls. “And I guess we did a tour in ’74; that’s what Walt (Parazaider, Chicago’s saxophonist) was telling me, but I don’t remember that tour for some reason.

“(Parazaider) said he remembers running across some football field in some stadium we were playing. I said, ‘Boy, I don’t remember that ... ’”

Fortunately for both bands, who are touring together, the fans remember their ’70s work — quite well, and fondly, providing “the reason we can still come out and do this” according to Chicago trombonist James Pankow.

“I think in general, our longevity speaks to the fact that, little did we know ... this music that we wrote over the years would become timeless stuff, and not only timeless but multi-generational,” notes Pankow, 62. “When you look out in the crowd and you see people from 12 to 70, and they’re all boogeying and getting into it, that is a miracle. That is the phenomenon that I pinch myself about and ask, ‘What keeps them coming back?’”

The answer is simple — hits, and primarily those recorded and released during the ’70s, which was the heyday for both bands.

With more than 120 million albums sold worldwide during its 41-year recording career, Chicago reeled off 11 consecutive platinum-or-better albums during that decade, as well as a string of 18 Top 20 singles including “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Colour My World,” “Saturday in the Park” and the chart-topping “If You Leave Me Now.”

The Doobies’ statistics are nearly as impressive. The San Francisco Bay Area group’s ’70s yielded six platinum-or-better long-players — including 1978’s Grammy Award-winning “Minute By Minute” — along with a formidable corps of singles that ranged from rock radio anthems such as “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove” to the No. 1 pop hits “Black Water” and “What a Fool Believes,” as well as a cover of the Isley Brothers/Kim Weston Motown gem “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” that reached No. 11 in 1975.

“We’re very fortunate,” says Johnston, 61, who took a hiatus from the Doobies between 1977-87. “That’s the only way I can think to put it because there’s so many songs that have come out and so many bands that were so successful but aren’t around and aren’t doing it anymore.

“I think the one thing that helps keep the song alive in people’s minds is, obviously, first of all radio play and second of all playing live. It’s been a big part of that because if you’re out playing, then people are reminded of those songs and they’re reminded you’re the guys who made those songs, and that is gratifying.”

Neither the Doobies nor Chicago, however, had any inkling they were headed for such durability. In fact, when the original members of Chicago first gathered in Parazaider’s apartment to start the group, Pankow remembers that “we said, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got something great here, and maybe we’ll be able to make a record. Maybe two. We’ll be around for a couple years, and in the meantime we’ll have some fun and play some gigs,’ and that’s about as far as we could foresee at that point.”

The Doobies, meanwhile, came out of a fertile scene in San Jose that allowed the band members to blend disparate influences — primarily Johnston’s from early rock and R&B and Patrick Simmons’ from folk and roots music. “You take Pat’s background, the finger-pickin’ folk thing and folk blues, and mine, which is more like electric blues and soul music and R&B, and you come up with what we’re all about,” Johnston explains.

“And then I played a lot of acoustic guitar in those days, too, and that’s when I came up with that strumming style for ‘Listen to the Music’ and ‘Long Train,’ that chunka-chunka style of stuff.”

Both bands have been through their share of lineup changes and even tragedies along the way. Chicago has seen 17 members roll through its ranks, with four originals — Pankow, Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and keyboardist Robert Lamm — still there. Founding guitarist Terry Kath, who was so good the late Jimi Hendrix took Chicago on the road as his opening act, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978.

The Doobies’ roster has included more than two dozen musicians. Johnston and Simmons are the only co-founders remaining, while multi-instrumentalist John McFee has been on board since 1979. Drummer Keith Knudsen died in 2005 from chronic pneumonia, and a couple of longtime members, drummer Michael Hossack (on and off since 1971) and bassist Skylark (since 1995) have been sidelined by health concerns.

None of that, however, has kept the two groups from marching forward. While the oldies are certainly the draw and focus of the current tour — which features a one-hour set from each band and a half-hour encore where they play together — each is working on a variety of new projects.

Chicago, for instance, plans to convene in the studio with producer Phil Ramone in October to work on a holiday set, a successor to 1998’s gold-certified “Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album.” And Pankow says the group is also overseeing — but not playing on — an album of Latin-style recordings of “our heavy hitters” that’s being overseen by producer John Van Epps.

“We’ve been listening to the mixes, and it’s very, very interesting,” the trombonist reports. “These musicians are doing an incredibly unique take on our stuff. It’s a marriage of two genres, and the result is yet a third animal that is very unique and something we could never do because we’re not of that genre ourselves.”

The Doobies, meanwhile, have set a Sept. 28 release date for “World Gone Crazy,” their first new album in a decade. It reunited the band with producer Ted Templeman, who helmed the Doobies’ first 10 albums, and is “more musically diverse than anything we’ve done in the past,” according to Johnston. The group is playing three of the album’s songs in concert, too, including a remake of “Nobody” from its 1971 debut album that will be the lead single from “World Gone Crazy.”

The challenge now is for these ’70s stalwarts to figure out how to peddle their new wares in what Johnston calls “a very different” environment.

“It’s kind of like starting over again, because everything has changed so drastically,” he says. “The advent of online sales and downloading has changed everything. The record companies are not as powerful as they used to be. The music chains have died — even the Borders and places like that are kind of falling by the wayside. The whole world of music marketing has changed.”

Pankow says Chicago, which took control of its catalog during the ’90s, is relying on a multi-platform website to engage fans and promote its music, both new and old.

“We’re going directly to the fans to ... avail them of opportunities like they never were in the past,” he explains. “We can invite them into the writing process. We can invite them backstage. We can invite them into the studio. They can actually be on board with the creation of new material now, which they were never able to do before.”

Chicago, which performed with Lee DeWyze on the Season 9 finale of “American Idol” in May, is also using its website to allow fans to place bids to perform on stage with the group, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer initiatives.

“The record business as we know it is going away,” Pankow notes, “but the musical, the creative process continues.”

And if all else fails, he acknowledges, the legacy that Chicago, the Doobies and their other compatriots maintain from the ’70s guarantees the groups a continuing audience.

“We were lucky to come around at the time we did,” Pankow says. “We were at the right place at the right time to stick to the wall and become a timeless act ... when people discovered something and enjoyed it and wanted to stick with it.

“And they still want to stick with it, and that’s something we couldn’t buy, you know? That’s what the phenomenon is, and we certainly could not have predicted that.”



Chicago and The Doobie Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 14, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $50.50 and $32 pavilion, $21 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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