If you ask The Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons the one thing the band will most be remembered for, he won’t hesitate to tell you that it will probably be the time the band was featured on the black situation comedy, “What’s Happening!!” on Jan. 28, 1978.
Forty years ago, Simmons, along with the rest of his bandmates at the time, appeared as themselves in a two-part episode called, “Doobie or Not Doobie,” where they returned triumphantly to their former high school only to discover that one of the students, Rerun (played by Fred Berry), had been conned by a two-bit thug into tape recording the band’s concert.
It was an unusual situation and a bit of a risk for the band; whose hits include “Black Water,” & “Takin’ it to The Streets”, to appear on a television series. But in the end, it exposed The Doobies music to an entirely new demographic and has since become one of television's most beloved episodes.
AXS recently spoke with Simmons about the 40th anniversary of The Doobie Brothers appearance on “What’s Happening!!”, their new tour with Steely Dan and much more in this exclusive new interview.
AXS: How did the band’s appearance on “What’s Happening!!” come about?
PS: We had done the albums Takin’ It to the Streets and Livin’ on the Fault Line, and had just hired a new publicist named David Gest (who would later leave PR and go on to marry Liza Minnelli). A few months into working with us, David came in and told us there was an opportunity to do this situation comedy.
I was already familiar with “What’s Happening!!”, because I'd watched the show a few times. I thought it was hilarious and really liked the character of Rerun (Fred Berry). I had actually met Fred one summer at a show we’d done where he was dancing with The Lockers. Because it was a black situation comedy, I thought it would be an adventurous thing for us to do because our music had always been laced with R&B and soul. Not only would our fans tune in, but it would also expose us to a new audience of people who watched the show regularly, and would begin to listen to our music. I had no idea how we would fit into the show but thought it was something fun and different to do. David had great ideas, and that was certainly one of them.
AXS: The storyline dealt with the subject of bootlegging concerts. Was that something the band was concerned about at the time?
PS: For sure. We had been ripped off more than once, so we were certainly aware of it. I remember at the time, there was a lot of stealing of intellectual property going on. People would record shows and then sell them to some label in some other country. Then the label would produce it and ship it back to America. It was a difficult process trying to get in and record a show without being seen, but there was a certain amount of money to be made. It’s silly looking back on it now because everyone is recording shows on their phones and giving it away on YouTube, but it was a different world in those days.
AXS: You were also given few lines to say in the episode. Were you nervous about having to act?
PS: Of course. At first, I remember not even wanting to do it, but the publicists said it would be perfect for me, and that I was the only one in the band who could deliver the lines [laughs]. They had such great writing on the show and the characters were so good. The was a lot of good humor going on all around.
AXS: Let’s talk about this year’s Doobie Brothers tour with Steely Dan. What can you tell me about it?
PS: We have a few shows of our own in April as a warm-up and then will be touring with them from May through July. It’s going to be a long string, but we’re really looking forward to it. I’m a big fan of Steely Dan and have known Donald [Fagan] forever. We did a lot of shows with them from 1972-1973, when neither one of us were headlining. Unfortunately, Walter [Becker] has passed, but I have a lot of great memories with them.
AXS: Has the band given thought to record any new music?
PS: We’re working on some tracks and hope to get back into the studio to record a few more. Then maybe we'll just put them out there. It’s not so much a pay to play as it is about just getting a song out and letting the audience hear what you’re doing. Sharing your music and stimulating the core audience with new material and inspiring them to come see you play. It’s always a fun process coming up with ideas, making a home demo and then taking it to the band. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Fleshing it out as a band and seeing if what you were hearing in your head is as good as what you thought it was.
AXS: This year also marks the 35th anniversary of your debut solo album, Arcade. When you look back on that era, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
PS: Probably being a member of the Mullet Club of America [laughs]. That was the first time I had cut my hair in more than twenty years and the first time I ever attempted to do anything solo. It was a fun project and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Hopefully, I’ll get to do it again one of these days.
AXS: The band took a hiatus for several years in the Eighties until getting back together in 1987. What sparked the reunion?
PS: Keith Knudsen [Doobie Brothers drummer] had come to us with a proposal about doing a fundraiser. The show went over so well, and we enjoyed it so much that the suggestion was made for us to put the original band back together for an album. That’s what ended up happening and we’ve been doing it ever since.
AXS: Of all the highlights of your career is there anything that stands out to you as most memorable?
PS: There are so many, but more recent things seem to stand out as more meaningful. We had done a lot of touring with The Allman Brothers over the years and recently did a lot of touring with Gregg Allman on one of his last tours. Gregg and I had been friends for years and getting to hang with him and grow a little closer was a great thing for me, personally. Getting to jam nightly with Greg, Warren Haynes and Bruce and Derek Trucks is a great memory of wonderful music and a band that we had a lot in common with.