Let’s set the record straight up front: The Doobie Brothers are one of the most underrated bands in rock history, period.
Founded in 1970, the band lived two lives—the first, led by Tom Johnston, featured bombastic guitar riffs, intricate melodies, and beds of rich vocal harmonies, capturing the dynamic, sunshine-y energy of the ‘70s at its finest. Then in 1975, the band kicked off its second life (led by then-new addition, Michael McDonald), perfecting a signature blend of rock, soul, and classic song-smithing that’s influence can still be heard in pop music today. In both iterations, the group not only turned out hit after hit but also poured their talents into a series of records that constitute some of the finest creative contributions of the entire album rock era.
Yet, these days, only some of the band’s biggest singles sit readily on the tongue of pop culture. Songs like “Listen To The Music,” “What A Fool Believes,” “Black Water” and a few more remain in the canon, but the deeper cuts often don’t get their time out in the sun. Even with official recognition, the band’s been overlooked—they’re giants of the 20th-century rock scene and have sold tens of millions of albums, but it wasn’t until last year that they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
So, while the definitive version of this list would be nearly the group’s entire catalog, we’ve narrowed down the pickings to the five most underrated Doobie Brothers songs. Showing off everything from the technical talents of the band’s members (like bassist Tiran Porter and additional guitarist/songwriter Patrick Simmons, who is just as responsible for the Doobie Brothers sound as its two “leaders” were) to their knack for soul-stirring writing, the list paints a picture of a band much more complex than their hits alone. Check out the songs below:
The title track from the group’s second album, “Toulouse Street” is an excellent doorway into the acoustic side of the early Doobie Brothers. Penned by guitarist Patrick Simmons, it opens with two layers of finger-picked patterns cascading over each other, instilling a sense of mysterious wonder. From there, a beautiful song unfolds, complete with the signature Johnston-era vocal harmonies and a flute solo to boot.
“Clear As The Driven Snow”
Another Simmons cut, “Clear As The Driven Snow”—off the band’s seminal third album, The Captain And Me—is almost like an evolution of “Toulouse Street.” Starting in a similar way, Simmons’ ingenious approach towards layering acoustic guitars establishes a blissful melodic foundation, capturing a similar sense of wonder. But when a faster groove is introduced at 1:30, “Clear As The Driven Snow” blows open into a whole other beast. With a driving backbeat, twangy guitars and a chorus hook so grand that it’d be fit to shake the walls of a cathedral, the midsection of this song is a formidable force. And, of course, the mind-blowing Johnston guitar solo afterward makes for a pretty nice cherry on top.
“South City Midnight Lady”
Like a lot of songs from this era of the Doobie’s output, “South City Midnight Lady” is like a journey unto itself. At first, it’s laid back, grounded by the tasteful bass line of Tiran Porter (whose timing and sense of musicianship is so impeccable that he could give you goosebumps from something as simple as a three or four-note run alone). Then, at 1:21, a sublime pedal steel guitar line leads you further into the dreamy world of Simmons’ melodies. With unforgettable hooks, an innovative arrangement, and one particularly brilliant 18-second stretch at the end (seriously, listen to 3:57 to 4:15—the strings, the pedal steel, and Simmons’ voice all take turns delivering something incredible), it’s a shining treasure of songcraft.
“Another Park, Another Sunday”
A Johnston cut off their fourth album, What Once Were Vices Are Now Habits, “Another Park, Another Sunday” is a pristine example of the Doobie Brothers sound. With glistening major 7th chords and a top-line akin to a summer-y daydream, it manages to be subtle, intricate, and a pure chunk of rock’n’roll all at the same time. And while it may not be the best example, it also features Johnston’s distinctive playing on the tasteful electric fills—he referred to this disco-esque strumming technique as the “chunka-chunka” rhythm.
“That style of guitar playing had a lot to do with those tunes,” Johnston told Jim Newsom in a 2013 interview. “That style—on ‘Long Train Runnin’, ‘Listen to the Music,’ ‘Eyes of Silver’—what I call that ‘chunka-chunka’ rhythm, was something that got developed because I didn’t have a drummer handy. That way you can play drums and guitar at the same time. I developed it on acoustic rather than electric and then I just transferred it over.”
“Wynken, Blynken and Nod”
A true deep cut, this interpretation of the 1889 poem by Eugene Field appeared on the 1980 Sesame Street compilation record, In Harmony, which featured prominent pop and rock stars singing kids’ tunes. Featuring the truly inimitable vocals of Michael McDonald, an incredibly vibey acoustic-jazz arrangement, and an irresistible flute-and-violin melody, the tune demonstrates that even when they’re making children’s music, The Doobie Brothers can craft something brilliant. While it may have been recorded for children 40 years ago, it—like the rest of the band’s catalog—remains timeless.
The Doobie Brothers are currently on tour with Tom Johnston and Michael McDonald—check out the tour dates HERE and watch their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speeches below: