A large part of what has made the Doobie Brothers‘ music so enduring is the diversity that comes from having had three distinctive lead singers throughout their history.
Tom Johnston established himself as the primary lead singer early on with his radio-ready voice. But Patrick Simmons also had his own powerful gift, and he was the one who sang lead on the folksy, funky “Black Water,” their first No. 1 single.
Then you have one of the great reinventions in ’70s rock when Johnston exited the band in the middle of the decade and Michael McDonald joined as a singer, songwriter and keyboardist. All of a sudden, the band had a newly defined sound thanks to his arrival.
The Doobie Brothers’ legacy is built on strong songwriting and diverse, soulful musical styles; having three lead vocalists helped give the band its depth and staying power. Below, we uncover who sang lead on their songs.
The Doobie Brothers (1971)
Tom Johnston – 10: “Nobody,” “Slippery St. Paul,” “Greenwood Creek,” “It Won’t Be Right,” “Travelin’ Man,” “Feelin’ Down Farther” “The Master” “Growin a Little Each Day” “Beehive State” “Chicago”
Patrick Simmons – 1: “Closer Every Day”
The Doobie Brothers’ 1971 debut, like many first efforts, only begins to hint at what is to come. The album, top-heavy with Johnston tunes, established his soulful growl as a signature sound of the band. But Simmons used his lone effort, “Closer Every Day,” to plant the seed that his folksy, mellower style was an effective counterpoint. The album failed to attract much attention, but it did set the stage for what was to come the next year. A couple of key personnel changes and one arena-ready anthem later, it was fasten-your-seat-belts time.
Toulouse Street (1972)
Tom Johnston – 9: “Listen to the Music” (with Simmons), “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Mamaloi,” “Cotton Mouth,” Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Jesus Is Just Alright” (with Simmons and Porter), “White Sun,” “Disciple” and “Snake Man”
Patrick Simmons – 3: “Listen to the Music?” (with Johnston and Porter) “Toulouse Street” and “Jesus Is Just Alright” (with Johnston)
Tiran Porter – 1: “Jesus Is Just Alright” (with Simmons and Johnston)
For many listeners, Toulouse Street is the Doobies’ de facto debut album. It features their first hit and signature anthem, “Listen to the Music” – a song that includes a shared lead vocal, with Johnston on the verses and Simmons stepping forward on the bridge. On the second single, a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” Johnston, Simmons and new bassist Tiran Porter sing in harmony throughout the verse, with Simmons taking the lead on the bridge. But with the bulk of the lead vocals, Johnston’s voice was fast becoming the sound of the band, though Simmons would soon begin to tip the scales.
The Captain and Me (1973)
Tom Johnston – 7: “Natural Thing,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “China Grove,” “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” “Without You” (with Simmons), “Uklah” and “The Captain and Me”
Patrick Simmons – 4: “Clear as the Driven Snow,” “Without You” (with Johnston), “South City Midnight Lady” and “Evil Woman”
On the follow-up to Toulouse Street, the Doobies proved that creating anthemic hit singles was not a onetime deal. Tom Johnston handles lead vocals on seven The Captain and Me tracks, including soon-to-be classics “Long Train Runnin’” and “China Grove.” Juxtaposing the rough-and-tumble Johnston hits are a pair of country-rock ballads crafted by Simmons that quickly and quietly became fan favorites. “Clear as the Driven Snow” and “South City Midnight Lady” perfectly represent the subtle nuance Simmons brings to the band. The balance between Simmons and Johnston on this album is nothing short of majestic.
What Once Were Vices Are Now Habits (1974)
Tom Johnston – 7: “Song to See You Through,” “Spirit,” “Pursuit on 53rd St.,” “Eyes of Silver,” “Road Angel.” “Down in the Track” and “Another Park, Another Sunday”
Patrick Simmons – 4: “Black Water,” “You Just Can’t Stop It,” “Tell Me What You Want,” and “Daughters of the Sea”
Like what usually happens after a couple of big hits, the expectations for the Doobie Brothers continued to rise on What Once Were Vices Are Now Habits. Its first single, “Another Park, Another Sunday,” is one of Johnston’s seven tunes here, but it failed to connect. Then a tiny radio station in Virginia started playing its B-side because its name was synonymous with a local tributary, the Blackwater River. Pat Simmons’ introspective ode to a rare day off he and the band had around New Orleans caught on like wildfire, and “Black Water” became the band’s first No. 1 hit. As Simmons explained to UCR, “We had no idea that song would do what it did. It was such a nice surprise. We were on tour in Europe when we got the call that it had started going crazy. You just never know with these things.”
Tom Johnston – 7: “Sweet Maxine,” “Texas Lullaby,” “Music Man,” “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” “Rainy Day Crossroad Blues,” “I Been Workin’ on You” and “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher” (with Simmons and Knudsen)
Patrick Simmons – 3: “Neal’s Fandango,” “I Cheat the Hangman” and “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher” (with Johnston and Knudsen)
Keith Knudsen -1: “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher” (with Simmons and Johnston)
For number of years, Johnston had been pushing the band to cover one of his favorite Motown tracks, Kim Weston’s “Take Me in Your Arms.” Finally, everyone relented and the joyful, upbeat swinging arrangement (featuring a blistering solo by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who had recently joined the band after Steely Dan quit touring) became a hit. Once again, Johnston has more songs (seven) than Simmons (three), but drummer Keith Knudsen gets his first lead vocal, sharing chores with the other two on “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher.”
Takin’ It to the Streets (1976)
Michael McDonald – 4: “Takin’ It to the Streets,” “Losin’ End,” “It Keeps You Runnin'” and “Carry Me Away”
Patrick Simmons – 3: “Wheels of Fortune” (with Johnston), “8th Avenue Shuffle” and “Rio”
Tom Johnston – 2: “Wheels of Fortune” (with Simmons), “Turn It Loose”
Tiran Porter – 1: “For Someone Special”
A few dates into the Stampede tour, Johnston had to bail for health reasons. Baxter helped bring in Michael McDonald, a background singer he had worked with in Steely Dan. The future five-time Grammy winner not only brought his soulful voice and keyboards, but also his songwriting chops. He made his presence felt immediately, with four songs, including the hits “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “It Keeps You Runnin’.” Simmons had three, and Johnston, who was still in the band, was heard on the powerful “Wheels of Fortune.” Bassist Tiran Porter got his first solo lead vocal opportunity on “For Someone Special,” which he wrote for Johnston.
Livin’ on the Fault Line (1977)
Michael McDonald – 6: “You’re Made That Way,” “Little Darling (I Need You),” “You Belong to Me,” “Livin’ on the Fault Line” (with Simmons), “Nothin’ But a Heartache” and “There’s a Light”
Patrick Simmons – 4: “Echoes of Love,” “Livin’ on the Fault Line” (with McDonald), “Chinatown” and “Larry the Logger Two-Step”
Tiran Porter – 1: “Need a Lady”
Livin’ on the Fault Line boasted no hit singles but lots of good music, including Simmons’ “Echoes of Love.” McDonald sang lead vocals on six songs, firmly establishing himself as the primary lead singer while Simmons handled duties on four tracks. Porter gets another shot at lead vocals with his composition “Need a Lady.” But they soon returned with a vengeance.
Minute by Minute (1978)
Michael McDonald – 6: “Here to Love You,” “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” “Open Your Eyes,” “You Never Change” (with Simmons) and “How Do the Fools Survive?”
Patrick Simmons – 4: “Dependin’ on You,” “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels,” “Sweet Feelin'” (with Nicolette Larson) and “You Never Change” (with McDonald)
In many ways Minute by Minute was the true debut of the “new” Doobie Brothers, with Johnston completely gone from the lineup. The musical emphasis was now more on McDonald’s piano along with soulful horns instead of the twin guitars of Pat Simmons and Jeff Baxter. The jazzier, funkier sound was a radical departure from the band’s original style, and it scored big. McDonald takes lead vocal on no less than six songs, including the Kenny Loggins co-write “What a Fool Believes,” the band’s first No. 1 since “Black Water.” Simmons also comes up big with four lead vocals of his own, including the ultra-catchy “Dependin’ on You.”
One Step Closer (1980)
Michael McDonald – 5: “Dedicate This Heart,” “Real Love,” “One Step Closer” (with Bumpus), “Keep This Train A-Rollin’,” “One by One” (with Simmons)
Patrick Simmons – 3: “No Stoppin’ Us Now,” “Just In Time” and “One By One” (with McDonald)
Cornelius Bumpus – 2: “Thank You Love” and “One Step Closer” (with McDonald)
Coming off the Grammy-winning Minute by Minute, the pressure was on once again and the Doobies delivered with platinum results. McDonald took lead on five songs, including the hit “Real Love.” New addition to the band Cornelius Bumpus gets a pair of lead-vocal opportunities, and Pat Simmons is in there with three songs. But One Step Closer wound up being the last studio album before they packed it in for a few years.
In Harmony: A Sesame Street Record (1980)
Michael McDonald -1: “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”
The Doobie Brothers scored a minor hit with their contribution to an all-star record of children’s songs. The track is based on a poem about three children sailing and fishing at night on a boat shaped like a wooden shoe.
Tom Johnston – 7: “The Doctor,” “One Chain (Don’t Make a Prison),” “South of the Border,” “Time is Here and Gone,” “Need a Little Taste of Love,” “Tonight I’m Comin’ Through (the Border),” “Wrong Number”
Patrick Simmons – 3: “Take Me to the Highway,” “I Can Read Your Mind,” “Too High a Price”
Cycles brought back Johnston into the fold, mixing the 1971-73 lineup with later additions Cornelius Bumpus and percussionist Bobby LaKind. Johnston quickly re-assumed his spot as the primary lead vocalist with seven songs, including the hit single “The Doctor.” The 70/30 percent split with Pat Simmons is a throwback to how it was in the early days; the album’s familiar balance strikes a major commercial chord, setting up the next chapter for the Doobie Brothers.
Tom Johnston – 5: “Is Love Enough,” “Our Love,” “Excited,” “Showdown,” “Rollin’ On”
Patrick Simmons – 5: “Something You Said,” “Dangerous,” “Divided Highway,” “Under the Spell,” “This Train I’m On”
For the first time in Doobies history, Simmons evenly split lead-vocal chores with Tom Johnston, at five each. Veteran songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams came in to co-write three of the tracks on Brotherhood, and many of the album’s songs recall familiar Doobies themes, incorporating metaphors involving trains and moving bodies of water.
Sibling Rivalry (2000)
Tom Johnston – 6: “People Gotta Love Again,” “Jericho,” “45th Floor,” “Higher Ground,” Rocking Horse” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” (bonus track)
Patrick Simmons – 4: “Leave My Heartache Behind,” “Ordinary Man,” “Can’t Stand to Lose” and “Don’t Be Afraid”
Keith Knudsen – 2: “On Every Corner” and “Gates of Eden”
John McFee -1: “Angels of Madness”
On Sibling Rivalry, Johnston once again gets the majority of lead vocals (six) but Simmons is right behind him this time with four of his own. Noteworthy: Longtime band member Keith Knudsen takes lead vocals on two tracks, and John McFee, who was brought on to replace Jeff Baxter in 1979, gets his own moment in the sun with “Angels of Madness.”
World Gone Crazy (2010)
Tom Johnston – 9: “A Brighter Day,” “Nobody,” “World Gone Crazy,” “Young Man’s Game,” “My Baby,” “Old Juarez,” “Law Dogs,” “New York Dream” and “Lie to Me”
Patrick Simmons – 5: “Chateau,” “Far From Home” (with McFee), “Don’t Say Goodbye” (with McDonald), “I Know We Won” (with Willie Nelson), “Little Prayer”
John McFee -1: “Far From Home” (with Simmons)
Michael McDonald -1: “Don’t Say Goodbye” (with Simmons)
The big story on World Goes Crazy was the Doobies’ reunion with producer Ted Templeman, who was behind the boards when the band first blew up in the early ’70s. The lead vocals are proportioned pretty much the way they were back in the day, with McFee checking in with a Simmons duet, “Far From Home.” The surprise, in addition to Templeman’s return, is the guest shot by Michael McDonald on “Don’t Say Goodbye.”