Monday, March 10, 2014

Doobie Brothers - Snapshot - 'What A Fool Believes'

Elsewhere on this blog you can access a number of posts chronicling the career of singer/ songwriter Kenny Loggins.  In 1978, Loggins released his sophomore solo album, titled ‘Nightwatch’.  Within the grooves of said album lay a track that Loggins had composed with good friend Michael McDonald.  It was a tale of love lost, or rather love that never really was at all.  Loggins included the original version of ‘What A Fool Believes’ on his platinum album, but didn’t release it as a single.  McDonald took the song back to his band, the Doobie Brothers, with a view to recording it for their next album in late ‘78.  But McDonald saw the song as having greater commercial potential than to be just another album track. As it would turn out ‘What A Fool Believes would realise that potential and much, much, more.

The Doobie Brothers formed as a quartet in San Jose during 1970 (taking inspiration for their name from the slang term for a joint).  The original line-up comprised Tom Johnston (vocals/guitar), Pat Simmons (guitar/vocals), Dave Shogren (bass), and John Hartman (drums).  They started out playing a brand of bar room boogie that drew good crowds.  In 1971, they signed to Warner Brothers, and released an eponymous debut album, produced by Ted Templeman, that missed the charts.  Bassist Tiran Porter then joined in place of Shogren, and a second drummer was added to the mix in the form of Michael Hossack.

The Doobie Brothers shifted style to incorporate a West Coast guitar/ harmonies driven rock feel to their sound.  This was evidenced on their second album, ‘Toulouse Street’ (US#21/ OZ#57), which went gold and produced the hits ‘Listen To The Music’ (US#11/ OZ#50), and ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ (US#35).  The band struck platinum with their 1973 album, ‘The Captain And Me’ (US#7), which spawned the top ten hit ‘Long Train Runnin’ (US#8/OZ#58), and ‘China Grove’ (US#15/OZ#61).  Keith Knudson then joined on drums (in place of Hossack), and a fifth member was added in the form of keyboardist Bill Payne.

1974’s ‘What Were Vices Are Now Habits’ (US#4/ UK#19/OZ#24), yielded the Doobie Brothers’ first chart topping single.  ‘Black Water’ (OZ#22) debuted on the U.S. charts in December of ‘74, and bubbled to the top of the Hot 100 in March of ‘75.  Guitarists Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons handled most of the song writing duties during this part of the band’s tenure.  In what was the continuation of a virtual revolving door policy with regards personnel, ex-Steely Dan guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter came on board in place of Payne (on went on to join Little Feat).

April ‘75 marked the release of the Doobie Brothers’ fifth studio album, and the last for some time with Tom Johnston in the mix.  ‘Stampede’ didn’t exactly cause one among record fans, but it sold in good numbers to reach #4 Stateside (UK#14/OZ#6).  It yielded the rollicking ‘Take Me In Your Arms’ as a top 30 single (US#29/OZ#94).

The band hit the road over the summer of ‘75 in support of the album, but just a few dates in vocalist and guitarist Tom Johnston fell ill with a stomach ailment and had to pull out of the band indefinitely.  On Jeff Baxter’s recommendation, Steely Dan session player Michael McDonald was drafted in at short notice to continue the tour commitments.  McDonalds R&B/funk roots, powerful falsetto styled baritone vocals, and deft soulful keyboard playing would have a marked effect on the musical direction of the Doobie Brothers.

The first ‘McDonald era’ album hit the streets in March of ‘76, in the form of ‘Takin’ It To The Streets’ (US#8/ UK#42/OZ#7), supported by the title track single (US#13 /OZ#94).  In addition to having substantial input into the writing of new material, McDonald also oversaw the reworking of old Doobie Brothers’ songs to suit his vocal style, and more polished R&B/funk come AOR (adult oriented rock) sound.  In essence he was the key figure in creative control.  A ‘best of’ collection was issued in late ‘76, and Johnston attempted a return to the band, but when it was clear McDonald was now in firm control, he opted out again.

A relatively stable band line-up was in evidence during this period, led by McDonald (vocals/keyboards), Baxter (guitar), Simmons (guitar/vocals), Porter (bass), Hartman (drums), Knudsen (percussion).  1977’s ‘Livin’ On The Fault Line’ (US#10/ OZ#16/UK#25), yielded the hit single ‘Little Darling (I Need You)’ (US#48/OZ#55), but it would be the band’s late ‘78 album release that would yield the biggest hit of the Doobie Brothers’ career.

Long time producer Ted Templeman was on hand to oversee proceedings on the ‘Minute By Minute’ album (US#1/OZ#6), released in late ‘78.  The album comprised ten tracks of which McDonald had a hand in writing seven, with guitarist Pat Simmons taking the lead on the balance.  Apparently there had been a good deal of conjecture over whether to release the band’s 1975 chart topper ‘Black Water’ as a single, with it originally being relegated as the B-side to the single ‘Another Park, Another Sunday’.  After the B-side got added to every FM radio play list in the country, ‘Black Water’ was released as a single.  Producer Ted Templeman recalled to Billboard Magazine that there was no such initial doubt over ‘What A Fool Believes’.  The moment McDonald played the demo in studio, it was unanimous that they had a hit on their hands.  Co-written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins (see previous posts), ‘What A Fool Believes’ was perfectly suited to McDonald’s rich soulful baritone.  The song debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 in February of ‘79, and by April 14 had supplanted the Bee Gees’ ‘Tragedy’ at #1 (OZ#12/UK#31), in turn being replaced a week later by Amii Stewart’s ‘Knock On Wood’ (see previous post) - disco still ruled the airwaves at the time.  The emphasis in the mix for ‘What A Fool Believes’ was squarely on McDonald’s keyboard playing and vocal harmonising, with guitarists Pat Simmons and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter left with little to do - in one of the clips for the song, Baxter looks positively bored on the sidelines (maybe one reason why he left the group soon after).  Regardless, the song scooped the pools at the ‘79 Grammy Awards - Record of the Year; Song of the Year; whilst McDonald won for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists; and the album ‘Minute By Minute’ was awarded for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus.  The album, ‘Minute By Minute’, went on to sell over three million copies and also spawned another top twenty single with the title track (US#14).  The style and sound of the Doobie Brothers circa ‘79 was barely recognisable compared to their humble beginnings as a country-boogie band, but the sales numbers didn’t lie, and the evolution had paid dues.

Post ‘What A Fool Believes’ witnessed the first personnel shake up in some time, with the departures of Baxter and Hartman for guitarist John McFee and Chet McCracken (drums) respectively, and the addition of Cornelius Bumpus on saxophone.  1980’s ‘One Step Closer’ (US#3/ OZ#18/UK#53) spawned the top five hit ‘Real Love’ (US#5/OZ#53), but it would prove to be the final Doobie Brothers’ album under Michael McDonald’s stewardship.

No new material surfaced over the ensuing eighteen months and in March of ‘82 it was announced that the Doobie Brothers had disbanded.  A live album (US#79) was recorded later that year and released in June of ‘83.  By this time Michael McDonald was already forging ahead on his solo career.

The Doobie Brothers, featuring original members Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons, and John Hartman, reformed in mid ‘88 alongside percussionist Bobby LaKind and bassist Tiran Porter, and released an album of all new material a year later.  The album ‘Cycles’ (US#17/OZ#45), showed the band had lost none of its 70s vintage verve, and spawned a top ten single with ‘The Doctor’ (US#9/ UK#73/OZ#32), though the 1991 follow up album ‘Brotherhood’ failed  to possess the same prescription for success and missed the mark.  Undeterred, the Johnston model Doobie Brothers hit the road once more in 1994 for a major summer tour.  By 1995, McDonald had rejoined the band’s ranks and was in studio with Johnston for the first time with the album release, ‘Rockin’ Down The Highway’.  By 2000, McDonald had departed once more, leaving Johnston, Hossack, Knudsen, McFee and Simmons to release the album ‘Sibling Rivalry’.  The Doobie Brothers latest offering was the 2010 set ‘World Gone Crazy’, featuring Johnston, Simmons, Hossack, and McFee with Michael McDonald a guest player on the track ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’.

It hadn’t taken Michael McDonald long to fashion himself as a solo act.  He released his debut set, ‘If That’s What It Takes’ (US#6/OZ#41), in late ‘82, spawning the hit single ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)’ (US#4/ OZ#64/UK#43).  In 1983, McDonald teamed up with James Ingram on the duet ‘Yah Mo B There’ (US#19/UK#12).  His 1985 album featured a harder edged sound, but ‘No Lookin’ Back’ looked forward at #45 on the charts, with its title track single peaking at #34.

1986 witnessed McDonald return to the top of the U.S. Hot 100, this time in partnership with soul icon Patti LaBelle.  Written and produced by the legendary Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, ‘On My Own’.  The track had originally been intended for LaBelle to sing on her own, but on listening to the playback, Bacharach and Bayer Sager felt certain it should be a duet, with a male vocal needed.  Michael McDonald was offered the chance to lay down some vocals.  Originally ‘On My Own’ wasn’t slated to be a single release, thereby allowing McDonald to record beyond the bounds of his Warner Brothers contract.  The two vocalists laid down their tracks in two different cities but when the finished product was fed through the mixing desk, all concerned knew they had a major hit.  ‘On My Own’ peaked at #1 in June of ‘86 (UK#2/OZ#12), replacing Madonna’s ‘Live To Tell’, and maintaining its solitude at the top for three weeks, before Billy Ocean’s ‘There’ll Be Sad Songs’ (see previous post) took over.  It was only after the song hit #1 that LaBelle and McDonald met face to face for the first time, performing the song on ‘The Tonight Show’.

McDonald ran into the US top ten a few months later with the single ‘Sweet Freedom’ (US#7/UK#12), lifted from the soundtrack to the Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal action comedy ‘Running Scared’.  McDonald didn’t release another album of solo material until 1990’s ‘Take It To Heart’ (US#110), but did return to the top 20 once more with the 1992 hit duet ‘Ever Changing Times’ with Aretha Franklin (see previous post).  His fourth solo album, 1993’s ‘Blink Of An Eye’ proved to be a missed in the blink of an eye effort.   After stints back touring with the Doobie Brothers, and involvement with Steely Dan alumnus Donald Fagen’s ‘New York Rock and Soul Revue’, McDonald released his first album in three years with 1997’s ‘Blue Obession’.  Over the ensuing decade, McDonald release a number of Motown and Christmas related albums, before returning to his soul roots on 2008’s covers album ‘Soul Speak’.

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