'I didn't think I'd be around to enjoy it': Doobie Brothers on Rock Hall induction, 50th anniversary

Patrick Ryan

On Saturday, the Doobie Brothers will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It's an honor that's a long time coming for the beloved soul rockers, best known for early '70s hits "Listen to the Music" and "Long Train Runnin' ": They became eligible for induction more than 20 years ago in 1996 but didn't receive their first nomination until this past year. 

"I was wondering why it took so long for them to nominate us, and then to actually be inducted the first time around was pretty random," singer, guitarist and co-founder Patrick Simmons says with a laugh. "I thought it'd happen (eventually), but I didn't think I'd be around to enjoy it." 

"Sure, we'd like to have gotten in earlier, but I'm not holding it against them," adds co-founder Tom Johnston. "We're just happy to be here. At this point, it's a celebration."

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Pat Simmons, left, Tom Johnston, John McFee and Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers.

Of course, this year's festivities will look much different for the Rock Hall class of 2020, which also includes Whitney Houston, Notorious B.I.G., Nine Inch Nails, T. Rex and Depeche Mode. Normally, they'd be feted with an arena-sized ceremony in Cleveland or Brooklyn, where inductees and their peers would come together for a rollicking night of speeches and performances. 

But due to COVID-19, this year's live event was canceled and replaced by a two-hour TV special, premiering Saturday on HBO and HBO Max (8 EST/PST) and featuring a mix of pre-taped speeches and archival footage. 

The Doobies wish the ceremony was postponed until it could be done in person or that they could've reunited to tape some performances together. "But that's not in the cards because of the pandemic," Johnston says. So they, along with former frontman Michael McDonald, will accept the award virtually from their respective homes, and "it will be the best it can be under the circumstances." 

The induction comes 50 years after the Doobie Brothers formed in San Jose, California, in 1970, releasing their self-titled debut album the following year. They had planned to commemorate the milestone with a 50th-anniversary tour across the U.S. this summer, which has now been rescheduled for next year.

Patrick Simmons, left, and Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers perform on stage in Nashville, Tenn., in 2014.

"It's hard to believe it's been that long – it's gone by really fast," Johnston says. "I think one of the reasons is because we've remained so active. We've stayed on the road, we've made more music, we just keep going. We love playing live and we love touring, and as soon as the pandemic's over, we'll get back to it." 

The Doobies' lineup has shifted through the years, although Simmons has been with the band the longest. He's responsible for co-writing many of the group's most popular songs, including "Dependin' on You," "Wheels of Fortune" and "Black Water," their first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1975. 

"I always felt great about being in the band, in terms of the music. The songs are so great," Simmons says. "And to be part of, gosh, such a creative bunch of guys. That's really what made me stick around." 

He recalls the first time he knew they were onto something: It was 1972, and they had just played a gig at a small blues club in San Francisco. They were hanging out with Walter "Herbie" Herbert, former manager for Journey and Santana, at his house when "Listen to the Music" came on AM radio. 

"I was upstairs and I heard this voice, 'Pat! You gotta hear this! Come down here!' And it was 'Listen to the Music,' which blew my mind," Simmons says. "I remember thinking, 'We finally got a song on the radio!' Not that I thought we had arrived, but I thought, 'You know? This could be the beginning of something.' " 

The Doobies say they have about 10 new songs in the can with producer John Shanks (Stevie Nicks, Van Halen), which they hope to release at some point next year. McDonald, who is reuniting with the group on tour, is not featured on any of the completed songs, although "we are doing some exploring with Mike on some other songs that we're working on right now," Simmons says. "So hopefully, we'll bring him into the fold." 

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While they've been busy writing new music, they insist they had no part in writing the jocular cease-and-desist letter Bill Murray received from the band's lawyer in September. The comedy icon owns a golf apparel company called William Murray Golf, which had apparently been using "Listen to the Music" in ads without the band's permission. Murray's lawyer responded with a similarly witty letter, thanking the Doobies' legal team for " 'Takin' It to the Streets' rather than to the courts." 

"Honestly, I had no hand in that," Johnston says, laughing. "If you wanted to get really particular about it, you could say, 'Yeah, he didn't pay us for doing it,' but I don't think anybody was that upset about it." Although he's never met Murray personally, "it was just a fun thing given the times we're in right now. A little humor and levity is a good thing to have."