Pat Simmons Goes Rockin' Down the Highway on a Vintage Harley

The Doobie Brothers guitarist and his wife take us along for a cross-country ride on the Motorcycle Cannonball.
By cscapelliti,

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

ROCKIN’ DOWN THE HIGHWAY: When Doobie Brothers guitarist Pat Simmons and his wife, Cris set out to cross the U.S. on antique Harley-Davidsons, they brought Guitar Aficionado along for the ride.

By Richard Bienstock | Photography by Travis Shinn

For more than 40 years, Pat Simmons and the Doobie Brothers have traveled the world to bring their songs to music-loving audiences. The group racked up hit after hit during their mid-Seventies-to–early Eighties heyday, including tracks like “Black Water,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.”

But recently, Simmons was rockin’ down the highway in a different sort of way, piloting a more than 100-year-old Harley Davidson on a cross-country trek known as the Motorcycle Cannonball.

The event saw a select group of enthusiasts (roughly 120 motorcyclists from all over the world) cover more than 3,000 miles—a stretch that began in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and ended in Carlsbad, California—over 16 days in September, riding, per Cannonball tradition, on vintage bikes. But this year, the fourth staging of the Motorcycle Cannonball since its debut run in 2010, organizers added an extra wrinkle to the challenge: In honor of the event’s namesake, Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker, who completed a coast-to-coast journey on an Indian motorcycle just over 100 years ago, participants this year could ride only on pre-1916 antique bikes.

Simmons has ridden motorcycles since the early Seventies, and he has a particular affinity for vintage models. “The mechanical aspect of riding old bikes is the fun part of it to me,” he says, calling into Guitar Aficionado from a Doobies Brothers tour stop in New Jersey a few weeks after the end of the Cannonball. “The hand shifting, the foot clutch…you feel a little more a part of what’s going on with the machine. On a modern bike you’re sort of at the mercy of whatever you’re riding. If something goes wrong you have to stop at the Harley shop and have somebody help you sort it out. But on these old bikes, if there’s something you need to adjust, you can hop off, reach in your saddlebag, grab a wrench, and adjust something. That’s a good feeling to be able to do that.”

Simmons is not alone in his love for old motorcycles—his wife, Cris Sommer-Simmons, who competed in the Cannonball alongside him, shares the same sentiments. A lifelong motorcyclist, Sommer-Simmons is a celebrated rider, journalist, and historian. Her many accomplishments include founding and editing the magazine Harley Women, authoring the 2009 tome The American Motorcycle Girls 1900–1950, and being inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. At this year’s Cannonball, Cris, who rode a 1915 Harley-Davidson Model 11-J she nicknamed Effie (“after Effie Hotchkiss, the first woman to ride a motorcycle across the United States in 1916,” she says), was the only female to complete the entire course. Pat did not fare as well riding a 1914 Harley two-speed nicknamed “Vinnie” (“after a buddy of mine who’s a unique individual,” he says with a laugh).

“We were on our way to Cape Girardeau in Missouri,” he recalls. “It was a rainy day and my bike started giving me a little problem on the road. I rode another 100 miles or so, but then it just came apart. Basically the engine stopped. Parts had come off and lodged in the gear chain, broke a number of my gears, and basically froze the engine. It wouldn’t even turn over at that point. It was nothing I could have predicted. When you’re on a 102-year-old bike, you just never know what can happen.”

According to Cris, riding antique bikes requires a unique skill set. “It’s a totally different way of riding than with the newer bikes,” she says. “It’s a little harder and there’s a lot more to think about. All the parts are old, and they don’t always work. During the Cannonball, you’d see a lot of riders pulled over on the side of the road during the day, working on their bikes.”


Pat and Cris Simmons with “Effie,” a 1915 Harley-Davidson Model 11-J

For those who made it to the checkpoint destination each evening, after a good eight hours or so on the road, it was time for repairs and preventative maintenance. “I’d usually pull in by four or five p.m.,” Cris says, “and we’d be done working on my bike around nine or so. Some people would have to pull their whole motor out every night. These bikes weren’t made to go 200 or 300 miles a day. When they were built 100 years ago there were no highways or paved roads. You weren’t riding very far or that fast.”

How fast were participants moving on those bikes? “I’d cruise at about 48 [mph], comfortably,” Cris continues. But, adds Pat, “As far as stopping, you have limited braking power. So you have to be able to slow down very gradually—you don’t want to have to do any panic stops, so you have to be aware of your surroundings all the time. That’s a fatiguing element of these bikes. There’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge. But I love it.”

For Simmons, motorcycles and music remained twin passions for much of his life. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, he recalls that, “around 1970, I had a friend who rode an older Harley, and he really got me excited about motorcycles. Another friend told me of this guy who had a bike in his garage, and if I went up to his house I could have it. But when I got there, it was all in pieces! I brought it home and got a manual and was able to put it back together. I rode that bike for a couple of years. Later on, I bought myself a more dependable bike—a Harley Super Glide—after I started making a little money with the band.”

“The band,” of course, is the Doobie Brothers, which Simmons helped to launch in 1970. In an interesting parallel to Simmons’ budding motorcycle passion, the hard-rocking unit spent its earliest years in biker bars around Northern California, including at a rough-and-tumble saloon in the Santa Cruz mountains called the Chateau Liberté.

“We really had a following among the bikers, but probably just because many of the places we played happened to be places where motorcyclists—mostly Hells Angels and Gypsy Jokers guys—hung out,” Pat says. “They would also come to the house where we rehearsed [in San Jose], and I used to eat breakfast at this restaurant in Los Gatos with some friends who were Hells Angels. Because most of us in the band rode, we just sort of hit it off with those guys.”

While the Doobie Brothers for the most part never wrote songs about motorcycles specifically, in the Seventies they became known as purveyors of a sort of American “road rock” vibe, typified by upbeat riff-rockers like “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’,” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” Did Simmons see a connection between the open road and his band’s music? “For sure,” he says. “We were aware of that relationship. We came from that Chuck Berry school of songwriting, where you’re celebrating freedom, cars, bikes, girls.” He laughs. “The teenage dream, you know?”


“Vinnie,” Pat’s 1914 Harley two-speed; Pat with various antique Harleys

Throughout the Seventies, the Doobie Brothers’ massive success enabled Simmons to indulge in his passion for motorcycles, providing him funds to buy rare bikes and allowing him to travel the country and seek them out. “I did a lot of purchasing while we were on tour,” he says. “Those were the years before the Internet, so a lot of stuff was still out there in the marketplace. We’d come into a town, and I’d pick up a newspaper and flip to the want ads. Often there would be, say, an old Indian or Matchless for sale. I’d go check it out, and if it looked promising I’d buy it. Then I’d have our semi driver pick it up, we’d throw it in front of all the equipment, and I would take it home. I did that for years, buying all vintage.”

Later on, toward the end of the Seventies, he continues, “one of my friends and I opened up a motorcycle shop for parts and accessories [Classic Motorcycles of Santa Cruz]. That’s when I really got into the old bikes. I bought a couple of really old Harley JDs and put them on the floor of the shop just for people to look at when they came in. I fell in love with the whole historical aspects of motorcycles. Whenever the Doobie Brothers weren’t on tour and I was in town, I’d be at the shop working on bikes, tearing stuff apart and putting it back together.”

Playing music with the Doobies Brothers, as well as his love of motorcycles, eventually led Simmons to Cris. In 1989, he and the band were playing a benefit concert in South Dakota for Harley-Davidson’s Muscular Dystrophy Association charity, and, he recalls, “the night before the show we had a press conference at a hotel, with a lot of writers from different magazines. Cris was there with Harley Women. We were introduced by a mutual friend and hit it off.”

Was Cris also a Doobies fan?

“Kinda,” she says with a laugh. “But it was motorcycles that really brought us together. We were very kindred spirits, and we still are.”

These days, Pat and Cris indulge their passion for vintage motorcycles together. According to Cris, they have a reasonable collection of antique bikes—“some old ones, some rare ones. Pat has a ’28 Harley in addition to his ’14. I have Essie, though she’s going to be retired after this recent Cannonball. And there are some old Indians, like a 1905, a 1911, a ’16. We just love anything to do with old bikes. We collect old motorcycle literature, old motorcycle magazines from the teens—anything historical.”

It is the historical aspect of motorcycles, as well as the opportunity to witness that history come alive, that makes the Cannonball so appealing to them. “Seeing an old motorcycle in a museum or a book is one thing,” Cris says. “But to see it running, to hear the engine, is pretty amazing. It’s such a different niche in the motorcycle community.”

“It’s a cross-section of Americana that few people get to experience,” Pat adds. “A very unique blend of individuals are into it. There’s a kinship among the vintage biker people, and there’s this mythology around these old bikes that is kind of surreal. It’s such an esoteric part of our American heritage and history. It’s something that deserves to be celebrated.”

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the making of Martin’s one-of-a-kind two-millionth guitar, Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

Loading ...
Join the Conversation