Lively Little Jam Evolves into “Long Train Runnin’”
“Long Train Runnin’,” by the San Jose-based band The Doobie Brothers, began as, what lead singer and group co-founder Tom Johnston called, “a jam.” It was a bluesy rock instrumental that the band messed around with for several years while playing small club gigs. There were no lyrics, and the jam didn’t even have an official name.
Until Tom wrote the lyrics to what became “Long Train Runnin’,” the band gave the jam light-hearted references like “Rosie Pig Moseley,” “Osborne,” and “Parliament.”
It was producer Ted Templeman who convinced Tom to write lyrics for the song and cut it for The Doobie Brothers’ next album. As Tom tells it, Ted heard Tom and the band playing the jam and told Tom that he should write words for it, because he thought it could be a hit single. The band greatly valued Ted’s instincts, since Ted was pivotal to the band’s ascension in the early 70s, producing The Doobies’ first two albums, including their breakthrough record Toulouse Street.
Some Songs Write Themselves
At Ted’s insistence, Tom frantically tried to write lyrics, although he lacked the inspiration to ignite his creativity. Once again, Ted came through with an invaluable tip, when he told Tom to “write something about a train.” That suggestion was exactly what Tom needed to start writing. Tom sequestered himself in one of the bathrooms at the Amigo Studios in North Hollywood, California. The aesthetics weren’t pretty, but the lavatory provided enough privacy for Tom to get into the zone. Focusing on the train theme that Ted recommended, the words began to materialize. He finished writing “Long Train Runnin’” at the last minute, right before the band started its recording session.
“Some songs just seem to write themselves, and flow off the top of your head to the paper,” Tom explained. “Listen to the Music” (the band’s signature song) was like that. There was no basis for anything in “Long Train Runnin’,” except for trains,” added Tom.
One of the most poignant lines in Tom’s composition is the verse:
You know I saw Miss Lucy
Down along the tracks.
She lost her home and her family,
And she won’t be coming back.
It’s hard to believe that verse was randomly selected, and not based on a real person, but Tom insists that it wasn’t. “It’s not like I had a reference for anybody named Lucy, but I had been around trains all my life,” Tom summarized.
The recorded version of “Long Train Runnin’” starts with an infectious guitar progression that was the essence of the nameless jam that the tune was rooted from, similar to the memorable guitar riffs of other hit songs by The Doobie Brothers, such as “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music.” The Doobie’s co-founder Pat Simmons came up with a brilliant bluegrass overlay to the guitar parts, using a finger-picking-guitar playing style that truly accentuates the song’s classic melody. In addition to playing rhythm guitar, Tom also performed the harmonica solo on the song. Tom is adamant about giving credit to Donn Landee, who engineered “Long Train Runnin’” and the rest of the tracks on The Captain and Me. “Donn had a lot to do with the sound of our records,” Tom lauded, he was excellent at mixing the instruments, the voices, and the harmonies together.”
The Captain and Me Produces The Doobie Brothers’ First Top 10 Hit
Included on The Doobie Brothers’ double-platinum 1973 album The Captain and Me, “Long Train Runnin’” was the second single from the album, and became the first Top 10 hit for The Doobies, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
In many ways, “Long Train Runnin’” pays homage to artists who have inspired The Doobie Brothers. For example, the harmonica playing, featured in the bridge of the tune, is reflective of Tom’s admiration for Paul Butterfield, from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, while the Doobies’ distinctive harmonies are influenced by the band’s love for Moby Grape, another Northern California based group that famously blended folk, blues, country, and jazz to create a unique rock style.
“Long Train Runnin'” Remakes and Remixes
The English New Wave pop group Bananarama remade “Long Train Runnin’” in 1991. Their version broke the top 40 in Ireland, the UK, and Italy, and went to #10 in Portugal.
A dance remix version of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’,” released in 1993, re-charted the song in several countries, and went all the way to #7 on the UK Singles chart, although the original version did not chart in that country.
Tom Johnston left The Doobie Brothers in 1977 but rejoined his longtime friend Pat Simmons and the rest of the group for a reunion tour in 1987. He has been a front man for the group ever since. Tom and Pat and The Doobies continue to tour extensively around the world. In 2010, the band released its 13th studio album, entitled World Gone Crazy, produced by the inimitable Ted Templeman, the man whose hunch about a fun little jam tune led to the recording of one of the most popular Classic Rock songs of all time.