On March 15, 1975, The Doobie Brothers made their way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in their career, with a song that originally wasn’t even intended as a single...or at least not an A-side, anyway.
Before we delve into the success of “Black Water,” however, we should make mention of the fact that it might never have made it beyond Patrick Simmons’ riffing if it hadn’t been for producer Ted Templeman. “Ted Templeman says, ‘What is that?’” recalled Simmons, in an interview with Guitar Player. “I said, ‘It’s just a little riff that I came up with that I’ve been tweaking with.’ He goes, ‘I love that. You should really write a song using that riff.’”
In short order, Simmons came up with the song’s now-famous lyrics, doing so while the Doobies were in New Orleans, and Templeman further added to his contributions to the song by reaching back into his own past - from his days as frontman for Harpers Bizarre - adding an a cappella section to the track, arguably the most instantly-recognizable bit of the song.
Funnily enough, though, “Black Water” wasn’t viewed as a possible first single for the band’s 1974 album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. Instead, that honor went to “Another Park, Another Sunday,” a selection which came back to bite the band in the butt when station programmers reportedly got annoyed by one of the song’s lyrics, “And the radio just seems to bring me down,” resulting in the single stalling at No. 32.
Mind you, that very lyric probably summed up the band’s general mindset when the album’s second single, “Eyes of Silver,” failed to even crack the top half of the Hot 100. Ouch.
As it happens, “Black Water” might never have made its way to release as a single if it hadn’t been for some fine folks in the state of Virginia: first, WROV in Roanoke started playing it and getting listener requests for the song because of its regional ties (one of the tributaries of the Roanoke River is the Blackwater), after which Norfolk station WQRK followed suit. From there, the buzz began to spread, and by early 1975 the song had not only earned release as a single but, indeed, had become a smash hit all over the country, making its way to No. 1.
Sure, it may have taken awhile, but talk about being worth the wait...