40 years ago, the Doobie Brothers' 'What's Happening!!' episode preached evils of bootlegging, joys of racial harmony

The Doobie Brothers confront Rerun and his giant tape recorder on <em>What’s Happening!!</em> (Photo: YouTube)
The Doobie Brothers confront Rerun and his giant tape recorder on What’s Happening!! (Photo: YouTube)

Forty years ago, on Jan. 28, 1978, an entire generation was educated about the evils of concert bootlegging in a two-part Very Special Episode of What’s Happening!! guest-starring the Doobie Brothers. The show, titled “Doobie or Not Doobie,” made such an impact, in fact, that it later inspired its own Facebook page, “That Episode of What’s Happening!! Where Rerun Bootlegs the Doobie Brothers.” And the band’s founding member Patrick Simmons is still frequently greeted with the What’s Happening!! catchphrase “Which Doobie you be?”

All the time. I always laugh,” Simmons tells Yahoo Entertainment. “That’s one of those things that when people forget what the hell the Doobie Brothers ever did musically, they’ll remember that we were on What’s Happening!!

Of course, in retrospect, there were many suspension-of-disbelief moments in this two-parter’s storyline, and many questions that went unanswered. For instance, why were the Doobies playing a tiny Watts high school auditorium in the first place — were they really all campus alumni, as the sitcom’s script claimed? Is that much dry-ice smoke even allowed in school auditoriums? When brainy student Raj interviewed the band for his school newspaper, how did he not know any of the members’ names, even though he repeatedly noted that the Doobies were his “favorite rock group”? And why did the band take such a shine to Raj’s bratty little sister, Dee, even though she made every effort to sabotage Raj’s interview with her snarky insults?

And … most important … why did beret-topped, pop-locking student Rerun, who’d been bullied by local gangsters into this bootlegging scam, strap an encyclopedia-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder to his trench-coated torso to do the job? And how, when that recorder came loose due to Rerun’s overenthusiastic dancing to “Takin’ It to the Streets” and fell to the floor, did not only every single onstage Doobie Brother stop and notice, but even concertgoers in the back rows witnessed the incident and immediately fell silent like extras in a ’70s E.F. Hutton commercial?

Simmons still doesn’t have all the answers. But he does shed some light on the whole phenomenon when he mentions, almost in passing, that the Doobies’ What’s Happening!! cameo was masterminded by the band’s publicist at the time, David Gest.

Yes, that David Gest.

Gest, a television producer who passed away in 2016 at age 62, is perhaps best known as Liza Minnelli’s ex-husband, but he launched his entertainment career in music PR, and, Simmons says, “he was a great publicist. He was really good. He kind of made it up as we went along, but he had great ideas — how to stage events, interesting interviews for us, different things that we hadn’t really done before. That’s how we ended up on the show. That was his idea. So I give him credit in that regard.”

Simmons knew he’d be out of his element (“I never considered myself an actor; I’m not that good”), but he loved Gest’s What’s Happening!! brainstorm. However, the other Doobies needed some convincing. “I know a lot of the guys didn’t want to do it,” Simmons recalls. “They were embarrassed, I guess, to actually be on a television program. But I recognized it as something fun. I loved the show, and I thought it was a unique thing to do. Between David and I, we had to talk the rest of the guys into it.”

In part 2’s climactic post-concert scene, Simmons and his bandmates confronted Rerun over his betrayal (“We thought you were our friend!”), but in real life, the Doobies were more laissez-faire about the 1970s’ supposed bootlegging crisis. “It was a concern at that time,” Simmons shrugs. “Some bands didn’t care — with bands like the Grateful Dead, that was part of their shtick. We didn’t actually care much about it either; we’d had plenty of bootlegs of stuff. I don’t think you really cared too much about that, unless it sounds s***ty. We’ve had plenty of those! But I can remember at that time in New York City, you could walk into a video store and buy videotapes of a movie that had come out the day before — people would go into movie theaters with cameras and video a film — so there was an awareness that this was going on. We felt it was a relevant subject.”

Simmons concedes that their What’s Happening!! episode did little to actually stop rampant bootlegging in America, but recalls, “People did come up to me and say, ‘God, I never really thought about it before. It’s a pretty terrible thing for people to steal your performance and try to make money off of it!’ But these days, of course, people tape entire shows on their cell phone.”

A 1978 ad for Part 2 of the <em>Doobie or Not Doobie </em>episode. (Photo: www.pmsimon.com)
A 1978 ad for Part 2 of the Doobie or Not Doobie episode. (Photo: www.pmsimon.com)

As for the accuracy of the show’s depiction of pre-smartphone-era bootlegging, with Rerun’s massive cinderblock of a tape recorder, Simmons chuckles, “Well, the portrayal kind of had to be a bit over-the-top, just in order for it to become a dramatic sequence. You know, [the recorder] had to be big in order to be able to see it. But people were actually using much bigger things than that to record with. There was some pretty blatant, crazy stuff, with people showing up at concerts with big microphone stands and recording equipment. People were doing it all over the place!”

More seriously, Simmons doesn’t think increased bootlegging awareness is the episode’s lasting legacy, four decades after it aired on ABC. Instead, he believes it was the cultural connection that the Doobies made, as “a bunch of middle-class white guys doing a show with a mostly African-American cast,” that was the ultimate “great, socially cool statement.”

Says Simmons: “Our music is pretty pop, but it’s based in rhythm and blues, and it always has been. At the time, we had a song called ‘Takin’ It to the Streets,’ and I think [Michael McDonald’s] intention with writing that song was a message that is as relevant today as it was then — that African-Americans have been getting a bum shake here in this country for a long time. In some ways it’s gotten better, but as we can tell from the social climate these days, there’s a perpetuation of racism that just blows my mind. I mean, I can’t even. I guess because of growing up in California with a multicultural population, I just never viewed other people with that kind of lens. My musical idols, more than half of them, were African-American, Hispanic. That was an absurd concept to me, that there was any difference whatsoever between people of color and white Americans.”

Therefore, Simmons is proud that many white Doobie Brothers fans tuned in to What’s Happening!! for the first time because of the group’s appearance, and that regular What’s Happening!! viewers, most of whom were black, may have been turned on to the Doobies’ music as a result.

“I think our audience broadened and we connected more with the African-American community, having those R&B and blues sounds in our music. I think people were aware of our social viewpoint, that we really value all of a larger, multicultural social audience,” Simmons says. “So, doing that show for me was a joy in that regard — to be building what I thought was a bridge, at a time in television where those situation comedies were bridges between cultures. The music that was happening during that time period was the disco era, and it was a lot of people waking up to the fact that great music didn’t have any color.

“That was a moment in time when we came together, and it was a moment for everyone, reaching out and trying to make a difference.”

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