It’s difficult to write about the success of the Doobie Brothers without also talking about Ted Templeman, an uber-successful record executive, who produced their classic period albums.
Two books help tell different sides of the same story. These are not the typical rockstar tell-all book of 1970s bad behavior.
Templeman was one of the red-hot rock producers of the 1970s and 1980s. He is primarily known for the Doobie Brothers, Van Halen, Van Morrison, Carly Simon, Nicolette Larson, Michael McDonald, Little Feat, Montrose, Captain Beefheart, Aerosmith and many others.
Occasionally, an artist is matched with the perfect producer; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, magic. The Beatles and George Martin, Elton John and Gus Dudgeon, the Cars and Roy Thomas Baker, Yes and Eddie Offord, Moody Blues and Tony Clarke, Allman Brothers and Tom Dowd, Doors and Paul Rothchild, Carole King and Lou Adler, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, Doobie Brothers and Ted Templeman. It’s a rarity.
Templeman was a young producer at Warner Bros. Records, the Doobie’s label. He had been in a 1960s pop band called Harper’s Bizarre, who had a couple of moderate chart hits (“Feelin’ Groovy,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo”). Prior to that, in 1965 he had several songs produced, by Sly Stone, that unfortunately only charted in the Santa Cruz, California area. Harper’s Bizarre released four albums, but with declining sales and concert bookings, Templeman knew that his days in a pop group were limited, so he looked ahead and groomed himself to be a producer. He attended every recording session, tape mixing and picked the brains of engineers and producers. Lenny Waronker served as a mentor to Templeman and helped get him a position with Warner Bros.
Templeman tells the story of how as a young recording artist at Warner Bros., he happened upon Frank Sinatra getting ready for a recording session. Templeman wormed his way into the control booth to watch. He saw Sinatra control the session instead of his producer. In his mind, Templeman felt the producer should not have deferred so easily to the artist, even if it was Frank fucking Sinatra! The session etched in his mind the producer’s function in the recording process.
He also tells a fascinating story of being asked to play an anniversary party for Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra at famed Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood. Sinatra hated the music, but his young wife loved it, as did Natalie Wood, Jimmy Stewart and other stars.
Templeman is full of other interesting stories. On a routine flight from L.A. to San Francisco: it was hijacked by a gunman. While the passengers were let off in Denver, the plane eventually ended up in Rome.
Templeman’s production career started at the label as a music tape listener, tapes submitted by potential signees, for the incredible pay of $50 a week. Sometimes the coupling of an artist with a producer is magic, this is an example.
His path crossed with the Doobie Brothers who were without a record deal, but were a hot item in Northern California area. Templeman and fellow Warner’s producer Lenny Waronker were sent to listen to them play at a biker bar. The GQ dressed pair were a bit out of place in the leather and tattoo crowd, but they liked what they heard and outbid another label for the Doobies.
It’s amazing how much music the Doobie Brothers released between 1971-1975, when co-founder Tom Johnston had to leave the band because of illness (more on that later). Their first album stiffed, it didn’t sell and cost the label money. It was also Templeman’s first production and he said that if he had produced it alone (Lenny Waronker co-produced), he would have been fired, and the Doobies would returned to the shack they lived in sharing a can of beans. A lot was riding on that second album.
Templeman’s next production was co-producing Tupelo Honey with Van Morrison. This album served as a significant learning experience for Templeman as it was up to him to supervise the sessions, recording and mixes correctly – and of course fix the many rookie mistakes he encountered. He learned another valuable lesson in working with head-strong, quirky artists and how to navigate them through the recording process. “Wild Night” was the big hit from these sessions.
Templeton worked back to back with Morrison, Little Feat on Sailin’ Shoes, and then took over the stalled second album recording sessions for the Doobies’ Toulouse Street. Templeman had worked with Little Feat’s Bill Payne, so he brought him in to add keyboards to the Doobie sessions. Payne would work with the Doobies off and on for the next five decades, including in their touring band. Templeman would later produce Little Feat’s Time Loves a Hero.
The difference between the first album and Toulouse Street is significant, certainly the songs were stronger, but the performances and production are what make this album a grand success. As Templeman remembered small things about where to place the microphones and recording techniques like flanging, and direct input to the recording console, to bring out the strengths of the songs and the players, you get a real sense of his growth as a producer. Listen carefully to “Listen to the Music” and the subtle textures of what you hear in the voices, instruments and arrangement elevate this song from good to a classic.
The success of Toulouse Street got Templeman a promotion; he was now a member of the small group of production executives at Warner Bros. At one point, he was working with Van Morrison, Little Feat, Montrose, Doobie Brothers and Captain Beefheart, all within the same year. Success also allowed Templeman to get a percent or points on each album he produced, something only top producers achieved.
The Doobie Brothers began as Tommy Johnston and Pat Simmons on guitars, John Hartman on drums and Dave Shogren on bass. These were unpretentious guys who loved music and had grown up listening and playing many different styles. Folk and R&B can clearly be heard in Simmons and Johnston’s writing.
Johnston remembers that he developed the signature guitar sound, the “chunka-chunka” rhythmic style as a way of combining the guitar and drums. This was before they added a second drummer. Johnston was a great power-chord kind of player and Simmons was a fingerpicked, their styles blended and complemented as well as their voices.
When the first album bombed, the band was disappointed, but not crushed. “We were right back where we started,” Simmons said. “But it was cool. We loved what we did, and didn’t have any huge expectations.”
The Doobies were constantly on the road and played shows with Steve Miller, Little Feat, Steely Dan, T. Rex and many others. Marc Bolan of T. Rex was a huge influence on Johnston and the Doobies. “It anything was learned from touring with Marc, it was the importance of the show aspects like clothes, stage moves and personal interaction with the crowd, and special effects smoke, flashier lighting and so on,” Johnston writes.
Two Doobie Brother hit songs that might never have happened if Templeman hadn’t encouraged Johnston and Simmons to complete them. Templeman was more than just a session producer, he worked with the band on songs and advised them. He took the A&R responsibility seriously, forging a strong working relationship with the band to encourage creativity and guide its development.
Johnston had an incomplete riff song that he really liked and felt like a hit. He even called Templeman late one night, waking him up to play the riff. The band, along with Little Feat keyboard player Bill Payne, worked on the song. They remember that Payne played a piano run that sounded Chinese. lacked musical form. Long story short, this became “China Grove.”
Simmons had a slow, fingerpicking riff that he would play, but it had no structure or lyrics, but it was unique and much different from the band’s typical rocker. “Black Water” was inspired by the mighty Mississippi while Simmons was in New Orleans. Templeman recorded the song by building it in the studio including a viola and other acoustic instruments, and an a cappella of voices, and manually fading the different sections of the song. The song was meant to be an album track and released as the B-side of “Another Park, Another Sunday,” a moderate charting hit. In Roanoke, Virginia, a DJ flipped the single and started playing “Blackwater.” From regionally to nationally, the song gained legs under Warner released it as an A-side single, eventually topping the chart. How’s that for an unexpected hit!
The last album Johnston recorded with the band (until the reformation in 1987) was Stampede. Recording the album included welcoming Jeff “Skunk” Baxter from Steely Dan, and drummer Keith Knudsen who replaced Hossack. The band’s experimentation continued with synthesizers, R&B horns, strings and other ideas. Templeman hired jazz musicians, a Motown string arranger, and even Curtis Mayfield to add some soul to Johnston’s “Music Man.”
One standout track that was as unique as “Black Water” had been was “I Cheat the Hangman,” a bit like “A Day in the Life” in terms of structure. The song starts as a slow, melancholy piece with haunting vocals. Then it turns frenetic with a soaring guitar solo with frantic, high-pitched strings that build to a conclusion. It’s an exquisite recording.
With the release of Stampede, the Doobies had four albums in the Billboard Top 200!
Then Tommy Johnston got sick and had to leave the band, leaving them on tour, his future and the band’s future hung in the balance.
End of part one.