The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Doobie Brothers – “Black Water”

HIT #1: March 15, 1975

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

There’s something fascinating about a rock band imagining a world where rock ‘n’ roll has yet to exist. That’s the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water,” a Californian band’s blissed-out reverie about an imagined American South, a place where you can drift on a raft down the Mississippi River and then go to hear “some funky dixieland.” Like Creedence Clearwater Revival, another Bay Area rock band who dreamed about Louisiana bayous, the Doobie Brothers felt a longing for a version of Americana that they’d never actually experienced.

But Creedence — who came a few years earlier, and who never hit #1, despite getting close a bunch of times — found grit and fire in those swamps. For the Doobie Brothers, this pre-rock ‘n’ roll wonderland was a lazy, beautiful idyll. The Doobies’ take on the South was about as real as the cornpone cartoon robots in the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World. But, I mean, that’s a pretty fun ride.

The Doobie Brothers took their sweet, lazy time getting to #1. Sometime around 1970, Skip Spence — former frontman of bugged-out San Francisco psych-rock weirdos Moby Grape, then just beginning his descent into addiction and mental illness — introduced Tom Johnston to John Hartman. Johnston and Hartman slowly put together a band, and that band’s lineup kept changing for years. It was a pretty ramshackle affair for a while. They called themselves the Doobie Brothers at the suggestion of a roommate, who was probably making fun of them for all the weed they smoked. They hated the name, and it was only supposed to be a placeholder for the first few shows. But somehow, they never came up with anything better.

For a while, the Doobies played Hell’s Angels clubhouses around their San Jose homebase. When they signed to Warner Bros., the label played that biker image up as much as possible, but their music was folksier and bluesier and gentler than the association might suggest. They grew their fanbase slowly and organically, finally reaching the top 10 with 1973’s percussive acoustic boogie jam “Long Train Runnin’.” (“Long Train Runnin'” peaked at #8, and it’s an 8.) As they put together their fourth album, 1974’s What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, nobody had any thought about making “Black Water” a single. Sometimes, though, things happen on their own.

Tom Johnston, the lead Doobie, wrote and sang most of the band’s songs, but “Black Water” came from guitarist Patrick Simmons, who also sang lead on it. Simmons, who’d been raised in San Jose, was a folk and bluegrass guy before he became a Doobie, and “Black Water” is his idealized vision of New Orleans and of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a shallow and romantic portrait of a region. On “Black Water,” Simmons sings about the South as a place where time slows down, where poverty and racism never quite enter the picture. If you wanted to find some white-on-black fetishization in “Black Water,” you wouldn’t have to look too hard.

Whether Simmons is singing of the river (“catfish are jumping, that paddle wheel thumping”) or of the city (“just take the streetcar that’s going uptown”), he’s thinking in mythic terms. Musically, “Black Water” is nothing like Olivia Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow,” the song it replaced at #1. Philosophically, it’s perfectly aligned: “I ain’t got no worries cuz I ain’t in no hurry at all.”

Simmons recorded “Black Water” solo, playing acoustic guitar along with a primitive drum machine, and producer Ted Templeman overdubbed the rest of the band in later. Somehow, though, it all sounds organic — loose and pleasingly sloppy, even. The arrangement is rich and detailed, but it’s not overcomplicated. Acoustic guitars weave in and out of each other, casual and conversational. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, the Steely Dan sideman who’d soon become a full-time Doobie, plays slide guitar, getting into a nice little call-and-response with session viola player and future Prince collaborator Novi Novog. The song opens with the sound of windchimes, and the song slowly becomes fuller and louder — like a party you’re slowly walking towards.

As the song ends, there’s a proudly goofy little a cappella break, which was Templeman’s idea. Templeman had been a member of Harpers Bizarre, a Santa Cruz sunshine pop group that had made it to #13 with a 1967 cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” That cover had an a cappella coda, and Templeman simply reused the idea. It had worked in 1967, and it worked again just fine years later.

Originally, “Black Water” was the B-side to “Another Park, Another Sunday,” the lead single from the album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, which stalled out at #33. But a radio station in Roanoke, Virginia started playing “Black Water,” and it took its time spreading through the country, making it to #1 more than a year after the album had come out. Before 1975 was over, lead Doobie Tom Johnston, suffering from a bleeding ulcer, would have to leave the band, though he’d rejoin periodically over the years. But the Doobies adapted, becoming one of the rare bands to switch frontmen without losing stride. They replaced Johnston with Michael McDonald and remade themselves as white-soul ramblers. We will hear from them again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Avalanches’ 2016 single “Subways / Going Home,” which subtly samples “Black Water”: