When the Doobie Brothers take the open-air stage at B.R. Cohn Winery on Saturday and Sunday this weekend for the annual Fall Music Festival, it will not be of itself unusual. They've played nearly all of the 26 annual charity concerts, which with their other charity efforts over the years have earned some $6 million. This year the beneficiaries include the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the local veterans American Legion post 489, and the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance.
"It's all for charity," Bruce Cohn likes to say.
But for fans of the multi-Grammy winning band, it's more than that. The October concert at the Glen Ellen winery on Hwy. 12 is widely regarded as the best way to see the multi-award winning Doobie Brothers in action. Founding members Pat Simmons and Tom Johnston will be there, with 30-year veteran John McFee, and - on Saturday only - onetime band singer and songwriter Michael McDonald.
"He hasn't performed with them for a long, long time," said Cohn, the winery owner, classic car collector, band manager and long-time Sonoma County resident who produces the Cohn Charity Events shows.
"Pat [Simmons] asked him to come. They're friends, you know - Mike sang on the last album that was released about a year and a half ago," referring to World Gone Crazy, the band's lucky 13th studio album, and first in ten years. "He tours solo and does his own thing, and the Doobies do theirs, and when they can get together, it's great."
Cohn's office is upstairs of the winery's popular tasting room, in the house where he and his family have lived since the mid-1970s. It was a conscious decision for Cohn to get back to agriculture, where he could raise his family the way he was raised. His own parents had moved to Forestville in 1957 to start a goat dairy, though his father and uncles had owned a shoe store chain in Chicago since the 1920s.
"This was the days of Al Capone, the same neighborhood as all the gangsters," said Cohn as we talked casually in the room literally wall-to-wall covered posters, platinum albums and gold records. "It was a very weird scene there, gangsters shooting each other in the street, and all these comedians and musicians and artists coming out of the same neighborhood."
Bruce Cohn's stories are like that, bubbling with strange conjunctions of gangsters and concert producers, a merry-go-round of musicians, hit records and forgotten bands.
Not just the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana but Moby Grape, Harpers Bizarre, Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, Sea Train, Sly Stone - "All these bands were coming up in the Bay Area and they needed a place to rehearse. Santana was rehearsing in a store front on Fillmore Street. "
His brother Marty had become a recording engineer, while Bruce worked nights at a San Francisco television station. Together they ran an old condemned warehouse at 3rd and Howard as a rehearsal studio. The time was the late 1960s, and a couple scruffy bikers named Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons came in looking for a place to practice with their band, known then as Pud.
"We were friends first," said the man who has managed the Doobie Brothers non-stop for 42 years. "It started out informally. In those days you just kind of helped out and took care of things."
The band had come together over a couple years in the Bay Area and South Bay, until solo artist and fingerpicking guitarist Pat Simmons combined with Tom Johnston's more R&B styled guitar. That became their sound, with John Hartman's drumming and Dave Shogren on bass. It was brother Marty Cohn who cut the demos that got them the contract with Warners.
Their biggest audience at the time were the Hells Angels, and associated social groups, but when they cut their first record for Warner's it had a more country, acoustic feel, and they went on the road to get national exposure. It didn't work out.
"It was a disaster," said Cohn flatly. They opened for Tracey Nelson and Mother Earth, which had seemed poised to break out. They didn't, and neither did the Doobies. "They didn't sell any tickets, the album only sold a few thousand copies, and by the time we got off tour it was in the cut-out bins of record stores."
It was producer Ted Templeton, a protégé of Warner Brothers' then-president Lenny Waronker, who got the best out of the Doobie sound on their second album, Toulouse Street - more rock, with piano from Bill Payne of Little Feat (also a Warner Bros. band) and Tiran Porter taking over bass and vocals from Shogren.
Cohn recognized that trying to record in San Francisco would be "distracting," as he put it, so the band packed up and went to L.A. to record at Sunset Sound in Hollywood. It worked.
In the summer of 1972 it was impossible to go anywhere without hearing "Listen to the Music," written by Tom Johnston in a single sitting, or so he claimed. The album went platinum and produced another hit, "Jesus is Just All Right with Me."
From 8,000 copies of the first album to 3.2 million for the second. It was the beginning of the first stage of the Doobie Brothers success, marked by hits like "Black Water," "Long Train Running," "China Grove" and others. But by 1975, Tom Johnston was "having some issues," said Cohn, and temporarily left the band. "He does not do well on the road."
Jeff Baxter, of Steely Dan, had joined the group as touring guitarist, but he was no singer. He suggested another Dan alumnus, a back-up singer named Michael McDonald - then 24, living in a garage apartment (and then with brown hair).
By the time Templeton finished producing their next album, the band had a new hit-maker. "Taking It to the Streets" and several others written by McDonald and featuring his distinctive voice propelled the Doobie Brothers to another wave of Grammies and gold records: "You Belong to Me", "Minute by Minute," and "What a Fool Believes" among others.
They officially disbanded in the early 1980s, but by 1987 they came back together at a concert to promote veterans' causes, and they have remained a productive and l,largely ucrative rock act for the 25 years since.
It all comes back to Bruce Cohn, the durable and smart manager, winemaker, olive oil impresario and car collector. He'll tell you it's all for charity, of course, and it is.
"I have to call 75 bands to get the line-up for a weekend," he says. "It depends on who's touring, who's got a date open, who will play for half their normal rate."
Cohn, who persuaded Van Morrison to do a $10,000 concert for $1500, and went eyeball to eyeball with Bill Graham over the door take at the Fillmore (and won), has pulled it together again.
As well as the headlining Doobie Bros. with guest Michael McDonald, Saturday's bill includes Chicago blues giant Buddy Guy, R&B hit-makers War, Tom Johnston's rockin' daughter Lara Johnston, and - wait for it - 60s chart-toppers the Turtles.
"That's the only band that everybody always asks for. 'Are the Turtles playing?' Yes, they are. They put on a great show." Think "Happy Together" and a host of lesser hits, delivered with fun foremost and good times guaranteed.
On Sunday the Turtles show up again, with Dave Mason, Kenny Loggins and Pat Simmons Jr., along with Tyrone Wells and the Zen Road Pilots. The Doobie Brothers close this time without McDonald, but surprisingly the Sunday show is almost sold out, while there are plenty of general admission tickets for Saturday's Doobies-McDonald reunion.
"I think it's because Monday is a holiday, so people are making a long weekend of it," said Cohn. "But we'll do okay.
"It's all for charity," he says, one more time.
As well as the Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. concerts, the B.R. Cohn Charity Fall Music Festival includes a Friday night Charity Auction Dinner and a Monday Celebrity Golf Classic. More information including ticket links for these events can be found on the winery website, www.brcohn.com.