Jeff Porcaro’s Last DRUM! Interview
Jeff Porcaro touched so many lives, and in so many ways. His impact was, and is, incredibly far-reaching. “He was always a good morale booster for me,” says Richie Hayward, “a very constant friend. I loved Jeff, and I miss him.” “He was the consummate musician,” adds Boz Scaggs. “He had impeccable taste to go with his abilities. As I look back and reflect on Jeff, he’s such a mystery to me. I can’t tell you what made him burn. He carried a lot on his shoulders. He cared a lot for other people, and he did it admirably. Jeff and I did a lot of growing up together in very important and formative ways. He was a constant friend. We always connected, deeply.”
“By the time he died, he was influencing people everywhere in the world,” Jim Keltner emphasizes, “including myself. He was a legend, but he never wanted credit for anything. He was so humble, and yet at the same time so confident. I hate the fact that I’m having to talk about him in the past tense like this. It drives me crazy. I loved him dearly. But he’s still alive in my heart. He’ll always be.”
“Not a day goes by where I don’t spend a great deal of it thinking about him,” Lukather says. “Honestly. He was the most important person I ever met in my whole life. And that’s for real. He changed everything for me. He was like the brother I never had. I always wanted to be like him, and I don’t think anybody will ever be like him. Everything he touched turned to gold, and not just his playing, but as a person. His loyalty to his friends and family was unprecedented. There will never be another Jeff. There was only one.”
These are some of the memories of the people who knew, loved and respected Jeff Porcaro. Now here are some of his thoughts, taken from the final interview he conducted with DRUM! magazine in 1992.
DRUM!: When it comes to the business aspect of drumming, how did you learn the ropes? Trial and error?
Porcaro: Yeah, and everyone can do the same. It’s just that I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, and if you do a good job when you get the call, then word of mouth spreads. You learn more with each date, and from that comes the experience. The more experience you gain, the better you get.
DRUM!: How much influence did your father have in helping launch your studio career?
Porcaro: Surprisingly, none whatsoever. And I think he’d be the first to agree because number one, I don’t think he thought I was going to be a drummer. I wasn’t serious. I mean, obviously, if you have an 18-year-old son, and he hasn’t taken a lesson since he was nine ... My whole thing was, I wanted to be an artist. I just wanted to be a freak and paint. Drums were for chicks and making some bread for the car. But see, my dad is mainly into TV and film and I got in through people who didn’t even know my dad, or know me. I’ll tell you how it all started, I was playing in a high school rock band with Paich [called] Rural Still Life. There used to be a jazz club on Lankershim called Dante’s. The guy who owned it invited us to come down and play on Sunday afternoons. It was just for teenagers; they didn’t serve booze. And a contractor, Jules Chaikin from A&M, would bring his kids to see the band. After hearing me, he asked me to join a rehearsal band on Saturdays at A&M. It was Jack Dougherty’s big band; Jack was The Carpenters’ producer. The regular drummer was Hal Blaine, and, if I remember right, Hal was on the road. I didn’t read real well or anything, but I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So I did that for a few months.
DRUM!: How old were you then?
Porcaro: I was 17. I remember that they were going to make a record, but they didn’t call me right away. I thought that they’d probably get a studio guy to do it. But one day he called and said he wanted me to play on two of the songs. Hal was playing on some of the tunes; so was Jim Gordon and Paul Humphrey. And then he said, “There’s going to be another drummer playing with you, Jim Keltner.” He didn’t know it, but Keltner was my idol. So for a month, every Saturday, I rehearsed with Keltner. And that was a great experience because my time ... I used to rush. Nervous energy. I remember looking at him, and I’d go, “Okay, that’s how you have to lay back.” I used to physically emulate what he was doing. That experience started it all. I mean, some of L.A.’s best studio players were on that gig: Tom Scott, Larry Carlton, all these guys. And I was still in high school.
DRUM!: Did you get the Sonny & Cher gig after that?
Porcaro: Well, the record came out and Bobby Torres, the conga player on the record who was also with Joe Cocker, asked Paich and I if we wanted to do a demo up at Leon Russell’s house in North Hollywood. So we did, for no money, and we stayed there for the weekend. The guitarist on the demo was Dean Parks and the bass player was Dave Hungate. No one knew who they were at the time. They were in L.A. visiting, because they were in Sonny & Cher’s band. So one year later – I’m a senior in high school, getting ready to graduate – and Hungate remembers me and recommends me for the job with Sonny & Cher. I went and auditioned, got the gig and from there I started working. That was the start of it, being in the right place at the right time.
DRUM!: Over the past several years, Toto’s popularity seems to have steadily risen in Japan and Europe, but dropped off somewhat in the U.S. Is it true that the band considered calling it quits?
Porcaro: We considered reforming and renaming, yeah, we thought about it. One thing about Toto is that when a band is commercially successful, there’s a whole trip that goes along with it. There’s a lot of really big commercially successful bands that are way into the showbiz part of it. Musically they’re very commercial and they’re able to maintain themselves that way. We never felt comfortable with that part of it. There’s work that goes with maintaining that type of exposure, be it going to parties or going to every media event. And plus, there’s a youth thing that, as we get older, we may not be in touch with. It’s a game if you think you’re going to change your appearance and get hair-extensions or whatever and be true to the music. We don’t do that. We make anti-decisions for our career. When Toto 4 came out and we got all those Grammys and stuff, the obvious thing would have been to book ourselves worldwide because all the gigs were there – incredible gig opportunities. But we said, “No, we don’t want to tour. We’ve just been touring for nine months, that’s too long, we want to go make another album.” Well, we should have toured because there hasn’t been another album like that one and there hasn’t been a financial heyday like those ’82, ’83, ’84 years.
DRUM!: What impact did MTV have on the band throughout the ’80s?
Porcaro: Well, I personally feel we wasted too much money doing conceptual videos. I think the only Toto video worth watching is a live one. And I think we’re one of the bands who’s capable of doing it live. Even if we do a single in the studio, we can go into a soundstage and film it live and make it sound as good as the single – and really get across what it’s all about, because we can play! We can have fun as a unit playing, and enjoy the music, and that reads well through that medium. But not somebody putting makeup on us and saying, “Okay, now lip-synch these lyrics into the camera.” We don’t read well that way. That’s not us. And so you could look at that as a downside of our group, but, whatever. That’s why, looking at the future, it’s hard for us to play the games anymore.
DRUM!: But you still have a strong commitment to the music?
Porcaro: We will always be doing stuff together, always, until we’re old men, or whatever. I mean, just as players, whether it’s playing on individual projects, or meeting together in a studio for somebody else’s session, who knows? The market is there for making music, and having fun doing it. If we wanted to play jazz, we could have a good time playing jazz, and find a market, a niche, to at least be able to get it out there. It might not be a commercial success, but it would be a musical success.