The Doobie Brothers original members. Pat Simmons is in the hat. (Richard McLaren)
The selection of the Doobie Brothers as this year’s Santa Cruz Blues Festival headliner is an inspired choice, both because of the band’s deep connections to Santa Cruz and because they’re in their fifth decade of commercializing a sound that’s rooted in the blues and American roots music.
At least five Doobie Brothers members have lived in the Santa Cruz area; the band’s longtime producer, Ted Templeman, grew up and began his musical career here, and its most recognizable member lived in Santa Cruz County when the Doobies achieved superstardom.
“I used to spend all my weekends in Santa Cruz,” says guitarist and singer-songwriter Pat Simmons, who grew up on the west side of San Jose. “By the time I was 12 or 13, I would find a way to get over to the coast and surf any time I could.
“I used to go down to United Cigar, which had the best magazine rack in Northern California. They had just about every magazine published.”
He remembers Tom Scribner sitting on the mall playing his saw. “I used to play with him,” he recalls.
“I loved the redwoods, and I loved the beach. When I got into cycling, I enjoyed riding in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Riding a motorcycle in California—it doesn’t get much better.”
Attracted by Santa Cruz’s “magical sun” and what he describes as its progressive/libertarian tolerance, Simmons bought “a funky old farm house” off Vine Hill Road near the Santa Cruz Mountains summit around 1976. He lived there until the end of the 1980s, when he moved to Mendocino County and later to Hawaii, where he lives with his family today. “It was just a great place to live,” Simmons says about Santa Cruz.
By the time Simmons had bought the farmhouse on Vine Hill, four of the Doobie Brothers’ six albums had gone platinum and he’d become the band’s leader following Tom Johnston’s departure in 1975. One of the biggest rock stars of that era, Simmons cut an unmistakable figure as he rode into town on a Harley to run errands, a low-key, lean figure in jeans with hair to his belt line.
The band’s fame grew with the release of the 1978 triple-platinum Minute by Minute, which contained the hit “What a Fool Believes” and dominated the 1980 Grammy awards.
In 1979, Simmons recruited Santa Cruz sax player Cornelius Bumpus to join the Doobie Brothers. Bumpus had two years earlier fronted a Moby Grape reunion with Jerry Miller and Skip Spence at the Crossroads Club in the Sash Mill and could frequently be seen playing his sax on the sidewalk in front of the Cooper House on Pacific Avenue, where Don McCaslin’s Warmth was the house band. “I met him on the street,” Simmons says. “I walked up to him and said, ‘You’ve got to be Cornelius.’”
Longtime Doobie Brothers bass player Tiran Porter lived in the hills by the summit as well. Porter left the Doobie Brothers in 1980 but can be seen today playing with Santa Cruz’s White Album Ensemble with Dale Ockerman, who spent eight years in a later incarnation of the Doobie Brothers. After dispersing from San Jose in the early 1970s, the Doobie Brothers became a trans-California band with members living from Lake County to Los Angeles. So, while no locale could lay exclusive claim during the band’s ascent to superstardom, any paternity test would find Santa Cruz DNA to be a pretty generous part of the mix.
In the spring of 1981, Simmons opened a vintage motorcycle shop on Mission St., where Ristorante Avanti stands today. He operated it with Bill Craddock, author of the seminal psychedelic ’60s classic Be Not Content. Simmons and Craddock, who lived in Simmons’ guest house and died in 2004, rang up purchases and talked about the collection of immaculately restored Harleys and Indians for anyone who showed interest.
The Doobie Brothers broke up in 1982 when Simmons, the band’s sole surviving original member, decided to leave. Bassist Porter says the break occurred over the divergence between Simmons’ guitar picking style and Michael McDonald’s soft soul sound. “The direction of each one was vastly different from the other. There weren’t so much creative clashes so much as … it was just the output of two different writers,” Porter told me in an interview in the 1980s.
“I’d say after Minute by Minute, Michael was sort of taken aside by Ted [Templeman] and told he was a genius and Ted and Michael became one faction against Pat and the rest of us.”
After leaving the Doobies, Simmons recorded a solo album and formed Skin Suit, which played at the Crow’s Nest and other local venues. In 1987, drummer Keith Knudsen organized a reunion benefit concert to support a veterans’ charity. At the time, Simmons said, “I kind of doubt that we’ll do anything beyond this.”
The pairing of Simmons and Johnston worked well, however, and the band reunited. They’ve been playing together continuously for more than two decades now. With the death of drummer Michael Hossack in March, the core band is now down to three members and includes Santa Cruz-born steel guitarist John McFee, who’s legendary for his guitar work on Elvis Costello’s “Allison.”
Simmons says the Santa Cruz Blues Festival performance will likely include both new and old material like the bluesy “Long Train Running” and “South City Midnight Lady.”
The late Cornelius Bumpus singing "Long Train Running"
“Our music is based around the blues,” he says.
Simmons isn’t sure whether they’ll play “Neal’s Fandango,” a tribute to Beat-era icon Neal Cassady. If it makes it into the set, the lyrics will surely draw cheers from the crowd.
Goin' back, I'm too tired to roam, Loma Prieta my mountain home
On the hills above Santa Cruz, to the place where I spent my youth
“Really, I wrote it about me,” he says. “It parallels my life and his life.”
THE DOOBIE BROTHERS at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival
Saturday, May 26 at 5:45pm
Aptos Village Park
Tickets $65 single day; $125 two-day at www.santacruzbluesfestival.com