December 1 – Doobies Smooth Transition Gamble Paid Off

It’s almost difficult to believe this is the same hippie bar band that came out of California in 1970.” So opined Rolling Stone and it was difficult to disagree with them. Whether or not fans liked it, by the decade’s end, the Doobie Brothers didn’t sound all that much like they did in the beginning. We got evidence of that with Minute By Minute, which came out this day in 1978, their eighth studio album which kept their pace of releasing one new album per year to that point. Judging by the results, most of the fans did like it.

The transition towards smooth pop from “bar band” rock had really begun a little over a year earlier, when Tom Johnston left the band (he does make a cameo doing some background vocals on one track on this album mind you). The band brought in Michael McDonald to replace him, Michael instantly taking over co-leadership of the group with Patrick Simmons, one of the founding members and the creator of their previous big (and decidedly not “rock”) hit, “Blackwater.” Unlike Lennon & McCartney who although quite different often were able to collaborate, Simmons and McDonald appeared two distinct entities and voices. By Minute By Minute, it seemed the tide was turning towards McDonald being the dominant one.

The 10-song, 36 minute work seemed split between the two, with six of them – including all three singles – being primarily written by McDonald and the others by Simmons. Tying it all together was Ted Templeman, their long-time producer. Although the album did have some bits of rock-ish material and an instrumental hoedown (Simmons’ “Steamer Lane Breakdown”) the overall effect was well-produced pop-by-way-of-Blue-eyed-soul… as the singles clearly demonstrated. There was “What A Fool Believes”, which McDonald had penned with Kenny Loggins, the title track and “Depending on You”, the only joint composition between the two main men, sung by Simmons.

If you liked the sound, you’d like the album by and large. Rolling Stone gave it a good 4-star review, making it clear in their review why. They suggested “Simmons numbers are no better than second-rate lounge fare,” but McDonald was “their only hope of becoming something more than a fading, middleweight ‘people’s’ boogie band,” he being the “greatest White blues singer since Joe Cocker (and) also a gifted songwriter.” Allmusic later would grade it the same, but were a little less blunt in their assessment. They call the record “pretty compelling” and where “the ‘new’ Doobie Brothers really make their debut, with a richly soulful sound throughout and emphasis on horns and McDonald’s piano more than on Patrick Simmons or Jeff Baxter’s guitars.” Speaking of Baxter, he perhaps didn’t care for that shift; he quit the band after this one came out.

The album certainly connected with the masses however. “What A Fool Believes” became their second #1 hit at home and also topped charts in Canada, although Britain received it more coolly, reaching just #31 there. “Minute by Minute” and “Depending On You” both were top 30 hits in North America as well, leaving them with a tally of 13 American top 40 hits in the decade, only one shy of the Eagles. The album became their only #1 one in the U.S. and Canada, and hit #6 in Australia and New Zealand. The UK yawned apparently , with it not hitting the charts! At home, however, at triple platinum it is their biggest hit outside of the Best Of compilation. The Grammy Awards took a shine to it as well; it took home the Best Performance Pop Group trophy as well as Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “What A Fool Believes.”

Surprisingly both McDonald and Simmons, as well as Johnston are all in the current touring version of the Doobies.

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14 thoughts on “December 1 – Doobies Smooth Transition Gamble Paid Off

  1. Badfinger (Max)

    They were indeed like two different bands after McDonald joined. Blackwater and China Grove remains my favorite by them but you can’t argue with the success McDonald had with them. I can’t believe it didn’t even hit the UK charts. I’ve never been a huge fan of them either way but they did have some good songs…
    It’s cool that they are all touring now together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve always liked most of their singles but seldom had much in my collection besides a few singles (from both ‘eras’). I should look to get a good compilation that covers the whole 70s. Funny thing now is looking back, they NEVER seemed much like a bar rock band kind of outfit, at least through their hits – ‘Listen to the music,” ‘Blackwater’, ”Long Train Runnin”… fine tunes but pretty easy-going in retrospect.

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      1. Badfinger (Max)

        Yea I don’t see the bar band thing either. Just some solid singles. I forgot about Long Train Runnin’…good song. I remember some guys bringing their album to school at the time and of course joking about “Doobie”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. they were probably nearing the end of their run as big names when I clued in to the not-so-hidden reference in their name. Hard to imagine them as favorites of bikers, but apparently they were in the early days.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Always enjoyed listening to these guys but they were not on my purchase list. I had assumed McDonald was the only reason they had that rebound success. However his solo career was not all that successful after his first album. Outside of that cover of a song I can’t remember with Patti LaBelle. Seems he needed the other guys more than I had assumed. Shows “what a fool believes…” Still hard to think it was 1978, my first year of College.

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    1. Mcdonald certainly seemed to redirect them by about ’77 and they did great for a few years with it. He’s an oddity, his solo material like you say , is OK and sold moderately but it wasn’t really memorable. But man, as a session guy – was there a record made in California from about ’77 to ’85 he wasn’t singing in the background on? And he made almost all of them better.

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  3. I like a good deal of the Doobies’ songs and have seen them twice, most recently in July 2018 in a double header with Steely Dan. Both gigs were without Michael McDonald and mostly focused on the pre-Mc Donald era, which is my favorite. I also like their 1989 reunion album “Cycles”.

    There’s nothing wrong with Michael McDonald who has a very soulful voice. It’s just a very different sound.

    I also think it’s cool McDonald, Simmons, Johnston and McFee are currently on the road for their 50th anniversary tour. I kind of missed it. Looks like the U.S. leg is about to wrap up. In April 2024, they are picking it up again in Australia and Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. one would imagine they’d pop some 2023 shows in there in the meantime. McDonald is very distinctive, I like his voice but he does really stand out on any record he shows up on. Did he pop out to play anything with Steely Dan when you saw them together?

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    1. Seems like a lot of us think that too. I had four or five of their 45s in the ’70s but never had any albums until I think the ’80s when I seem to remember getting their ‘Best of ‘ thru Columbia House.

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