In addition to being the drummer in the Grammy winning, platinum-selling rock band Toto, Jeff Porcaro was arguably the most highly regarded studio drummer in rock from the mid-'70s to the early '90s.
His playing was crisp and precise, propulsive without being showy and throughout his career, the most successful musicians in the popular music business lined up to work with him. It is no exaggeration to say that the sound of mainstream pop/rock drumming in the 1980s was, to a large extent, the sound of Jeff Porcaro.
Porcaro was the eldest of three sons of drummer Joe Porcaro, who had an extensive career working with big bands; his younger brothers, Mike and Steve, both became musicians. He showed an early interest in drumming and began playing seriously at the age of seven. His first teacher was his father, naturally, but he also studied with Bob Zimmitti and Rich Lapore. He joined his first band at 13.
In 1968, the Porcaro family moved to Los Angeles, where Joe Porcaro began to work on television shows and to teach. Jeff Porcaro attended Grant High School in Van Nuys, CA, but he dropped out before graduating in order to take a job on the TV series The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. At the end of 1973, he was offered the drum chair in Steely Dan for a four-month tour. Playing with the demanding Steely Dan was considered an extremely prestigious gig and Porcaro later played on the group's albums Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), and Gaucho (1980).
After spending an extended period working with Seals & Crofts, he became a full-time session musician in Los Angeles, working on hundreds of albums and thousands of sessions. A short list of his appearances on major albums includes: Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees (1976); Barbra Streisand's Streisand Superman (1977), Songbird (1978), Wet (1979), and Till I Loved You (1989); Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy (1978), The Envoy (1982), and Mr. Bad Example (1991); Rickie Lee Jones' Rickie Lee Jones (1979); Pink Floyd's The Wall (1979); Crosby, Stills & Nash's Daylight Again (1982); Donald Fagen's The Nightfly (1982); Don Henley's I Can't Stand Still (1982) and End of the Innocence (1989); Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982) (including co-writing the Top Ten hit "Human Nature") and Dangerous (1991); Randy Newman's Trouble in Paradise (1983) and Land of Dreams (1988); Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down (1983); Paul Simon's Hearts and Bones (1983); Eric Clapton's Behind the Sun (1985); Madonna's Like a Prayer (1989); Dire Straits' On Every Street (1991); and Bonnie Raitt's Luck of the Draw (1991).
In 1977, Porcaro joined with singer Bobby Kimball, guitarist Steve Lukather, keyboard players David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and bass player David Hungate to form Toto, which released its self-titled debut album in the fall of 1978. Featuring the gold, Top Ten hit "Hold the Line," the album went double platinum. Hydra (1979) only went gold and Turn Back (1981) didn't even do that, but Toto IV (1982), propelled by the gold-selling Top Five hit "Rosanna" and also featuring the gold, number one hit "Africa" (co-written by Porcaro) and the Top Ten hit "I Won't Hold You Back," went triple platinum and won the 1982 Grammy for Album of the Year. That, however, was the group's commercial apex. Their next two albums, Isolation (1984) and Fahrenheit (1986) (featuring the number one adult contemporary hit "I'll Be Over You"), each went gold, but 1988's The Seventh One was their last regular album release to reach the American charts. Meanwhile, however, they had become enormously popular in Europe and the Far East and toured there frequently.
In the early '90s, Porcaro continued to be an in-demand session musician. After he drummed on Bruce Springsteen's Human Touch album, Springsteen is rumored to have offered him one million dollars to join his upcoming 1992 tour. If so, Porcaro turned the offer down. He had just completed work on the next Toto album, Kingdom of Desire, and was planning to go on tour with the band to promote it, but he died suddenly at the age of 38. Initial reports suggested that the cause of death was cardiac arrest brought on by his having developed an allergic reaction to pesticides as he sprayed his garden. But a coroner's report, issued a month after his death, found no traces of pesticides; instead, the coroner found traces of cocaine in Porcaro's bloodstream and concluded that he had died of a heart attack brought on by hardening of the arteries caused by prolonged use of cocaine.
~ William Ruhlmann on myspace.com
The magazine "Modern Drummer" published an article in 1990 with Jeff Porcaro. In the next section he talks about his very first session, at the early age of 17:
My first session was with Keltner with Jack Dougherty. It was a rehearsal band, and Hal Blaine was the drummer, and then the contractor called to see if I wanted to do the rehearsal band on Saturdays.
I did about five of them. I knew they were planning to do a record, and they stopped calling me for rehearsals, so I figured they were going to use a studio guy for the album. Then Dougherty called me and asked if I had ever heard of a drummer named Keltner. At that time, my biggest heroes were Keltner and Gordon. I said yes, and he said, "He just got off the road with Joe Cocker, and you and he are going to do the rehearsal band for a couple of weeks. So we rehearsed a couple of times before the session.
I was 17 and didn't even have my driver's license, so my mom drove me to the session at A&M. I borrowed my dad's black diamond pearl Ludwig set, which was just like Keltner's, because I wanted to be just like him: I wore a vest like Jim Keltner, I tried to get the heaviest boots I could, because like everyone else has said, you just wanted to emulate your heroes. Just before I got through the door, I was so nervous, I threw up right in the corner.
Thank God the tune was this uptempo samba, because my stick was going so fast. I remember Jim sits down next to me, and he looks over to me and says, "Man, do you read?" I go, "No," and he said, "I don't read that good either, you do the fills and I'll just keep time." I'm going "Right!"
PORCARO'S AND DRUMS
Joe Porcaro, famous percussionist, let all his three sons play the drums when they were young: "My dad was doing the Hartford Symphony and all of us, my other two brothers Mike and Steve, were taking lessons from him at the same time. We would go down with him on the weekends to the drum shop and he would find some free time from his regular students and give us lessons." (Jeff Porcaro, Downbeat 1977)
Since Jeff, Mike and Steve Porcaro had to fight over the drumkit, Mike picked up the bass and Steve switched to playing piano and keyboards.
In an interview with German magazine Sticks (1992), Mike Porcaro tells how his mother gave the Porcaro brothers their feeling for rhythm by patting their backs like a cymbal:
Yes, she did that with all of us, Jeff, Steven and myself. She has a very good ear for music and plays the German flute. She has a great feeling for rhythm. Maybe that's where we got our 'time feel' and no from our father, I don't know where it came from.
After dinner she would pat our backs with "ding daa de-ding daa". Jeff's godfather Enil Richards said that in Billboard. She did that with all of us, even our sister. Why has one person got a good 'time feel' and the other hasn't? Is it decided by the genes or is it a gift of God? I don't know, but it is interesting, you should think about that, drummers with baby's: give them some help! Get 'em started early!"
Jeff Porcaro got interested in drumming due to the influence of his father Joe, a renowned jazz drummer and excellent educator.
Since leaving high school during his senior year to accompany Sonny and Cher in Las Vegas Jeff has toured and recorded with Seals and Crofts, Boz Scaggs, and Steely Dan. From the start of his career, Jeff Porcaro was viewed as one of the music industry's top drummers. Porcaro possessed an impeccable sense of rhythm as well as a versatility that bridged virtually every style. Among the hundreds of albums he played on were Dire Straits" "On Every Street", Michael Jackson's "Thriller", Elton John's "Jump Up", Don Henley's "End Of The Innocence", Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy", Rickie Lee Jones' debut, and Bruce Springsteen's "Human Touch".
However, he is best known as co-founder and drummer of Toto. With the release of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Toto IV (1982), Toto became one of the best-selling music groups of their era.
A partial list of other artists he played with includes Bonnie Raitt, the Bee Gees, Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, Lowell George, Hall & Oates, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Nils Lofgren, Manhattan Transfer, Greg Lake, George Benson, Larry Carlton, Paul McCartney, Pink Flyod, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Peter Frampton, Airplay, Peter Allen, America, and Stanley Clarke.
Jeff Porcaro suffered a heart attack and died on August 5, 1992.