Jeff Porcaro: The Legend

jeff porcaro

For two-plus magical decades, Jeff Porcaro set the standard. Whatever the session, whatever the stage, when he picked up sticks it was pure magic. Smooth as silk. Deep beyond all comprehension. Taste, impeccable time and attitude for days. He had it all. From his breakthrough sessions with Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan in the mid ’70s to his final notes with Toto on Kingdom of Desire in 1992, the man with the golden groove was consistently brilliant. “He was one of the best drummers in the world,” said Eddie Van Halen at a tribute held for Jeff in late ’92. “Definitely the groove master. He was just so heavy.”

This August marks the fifth anniversary of Porcaro’s death. And though he was only 38 years old when he passed away, he left behind a legacy of masterful musicianship that has yet to be equaled. Those who knew Jeff couldn’t help but be awed by his powerful presence both on and off the instrument. He was a giant. Yet he was as modest as he was mighty. Whether it was a demo date or a megabuck super-session, Porcaro gave each track his all. “He was one of the most generous people I ever met,” said Don Henley at that same tribute. “When he came to a session he would light up the room with his enthusiasm. And he didn’t care if the clock was going late. He wasn’t worried about what he was getting paid, or any of that. He was there for the music, and was there with everything he had. He really made you feel comfortable. Jeff was one of the best drummers in the world.”

Reflecting back on Jeff’s formative years, his father Joe remembers a boy who hit the ground running: “Jeffrey got started so quickly. I’d take him to rehearsals with me sometimes and let him play my drums when we were on breaks. His feet could barely reach the pedals. One time I remember Paul Humphrey heard him, and he said, ’Wow, this kid is going to be a monster.’ Being a father and all that, I thought he was just trying to be nice, but deep down I knew Jeffrey had something.”

“We all started off as drummers,” says Mike Porcaro, referring to himself and his brothers Jeff and Steve. “We used to fight over the drum set. But growing up, musically it was such a wonderful environment. I remember Dad would come home at the end of the day, lay down on the couch, maybe put on a Miles album, and we’d start playing on his practice set. We’d take turns playing the cymbal beat for him: ’Hey dad, dig my groove.’ [Laughs.] But I eventually got into string bass, Steve went on to piano, and Jeff, of course ... ”

It didn’t take long for Porcaro to make a name for himself as a drummer outside the family circle. “Even back in junior high school he had that deep pocket,” Steve Porcaro remembers. “I mean, at one point in the school band they had two drummers. One was the flashy soloist, but Jeff, you know, he was laying it down.”

Joe Porcaro recalls one particular highlight during that period. “One of the proudest moments I had with Jeffrey, and there were so many, was when he was playing in his high school band, Rural Still Life. Back in those days they had the Battle Of The Bands at the Hollywood Bowl, and Jeff’s band went and auditioned. They made it, but beside that, the music director of the show would listen to the guys in the bands and pick out certain ones to audition for the stage band. He picked Jeff. When the whole show was over and they presented the winners with their trophies, they made an announcement that for the first time ever a trophy was going to be given to the most outstanding musician in the stage band. Henry Mancini, Clare Fischer, Lalo Shifrin, all these people on the committee voted Jeff as the outstanding musician of the show. That was a really, really proud moment for all of us. And, you know, right after that he was kind of the talk of the town.”

It was during that period when Jeff made the fateful connection with guitarist Steve Lukather. “I remember the first time I met Jeff,” says Lukather. “He walked in and there was this aura. I mean, I’d heard about him; he was already a legend in high school. He was the cat. He was the guy. He was born the guy. He was the one who everybody wanted to be – who everybody wanted to hang with.”

Soon after, Jeff, Lukather, Steve Porcaro, bassist David Hungate, and keyboardist David Paich would form Toto, one of the most revered pop-rock groups of the era. Toto’s first three releases earned them a faithful following around the world, but it was the fourth record, Toto 4, that made the band a household name. Industry insiders also took note as Toto cleaned up at the Grammy Awards in 1983 – a night when, as fate would have it, Joe Porcaro was playing in the Grammy orchestra. “When they won their first award, the whole orchestra turned around and smiled at me,” says Joe. “And then it kept going and going. Album of the year, and this and that and on and on. I was a basket case by the end of that night, and the orchestra wouldn’t leave me alone. I was so proud of those guys.”

With Toto and countless other artists, when the red light came on in the recording studio, few humans could lay down a keeper track as quickly and as consistently as Jeff Porcaro. “Jeff was everybody’s drummer,” says Steve Lukather. “Everybody wanted him. Everybody. If you hired Jeff, you knew you were going to get a track.”

“When we did a take on a record,” David Paich recalls, “he was usually the first one to get a good take. Having grown up in a time before drum machines, I think he had the best time and groove of any drummer I’ve ever played with, but he also had the kick and power of a big band drummer.”

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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.

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Music is part of the energy, but there is obviously an artist – someone who has something radical to say. Looking back, it was usually the real artists who had something quirky about them, something cool, something different that grabbed your interest. All of a sudden musicianship comes along and that’s not as tangible as somebody saying something radical. Whether it was Dylan or whoever. So, if Toto has a downfall, it’s that we’re mainly a musician’s band. It’s not like we have all these prolific things to say in our songs and those are the first and foremost things in our music. It’s not. And that’s another factor as to why it’s hard for us to stay up in this rock-and-roll/pop commercial realm. I don’t think we’ve been very successful lyrically saying something and, for me, that’s 80 percent of the real deal. Hendrix, Steely, Dylan, or whoever, they were saying something in their music. With us, it’s been more of “dig this cool arrangement, dig this cool production, dig this musicianship.” So that’s why it’s a different kind of band. To me it’s an uncomfortable band in the rock and roll world. Of course critics aren’t going to dig us. I wouldn’t dig the band either. It’s a good musical ensemble, but it’s not the real deal. Then again, it’s not the other end of the spectrum either. [We aren’t] people who look great dancing and have youth appeal and play disco music or whatever. We’re right in the middle of it.

DRUM!: Given your diverse and hectic musical lifestyle, with the constant session work and all, is there anything that would make you drop everything?
Porcaro: That’s a funny thing. My number one commitment used to be anything I was doing at the time because, hey, if I get to play, I’ll commit to it. But then the group thing became a great commitment because it was best friends playing together. But for me personally, my family is my biggest commitment. We were just in Hawaii and there was a guy playing on these log drums and it was grooving. And I thought, “Man, forget it. Quit all this stuff and just move over here with the family and groove on a log.” That would probably be a lot more fun than the crap I’ve been playing in the studio in L.A. So I know I could have fun playing any kind of music. I’ll tell you, though, I really miss playing the r&b stuff. I miss playing that probably more than anything – playing those old Motown hits in the high school band. Basically, I like listening to records. I like all sorts of music. I like keeping time.

DRUM!: Would you ever consider doing road work with anyone other than Toto?
Porcaro: I’ve entertained the thought and I’ve been offered some pretty big tours in recent days. But I just can’t do them like that anymore. It’s just not in my heart. I got offered this Dire Straits tour but it was for almost two years straight. The money would have been unbelievable. I would have been seeing parts of the world that I still haven’t seen to this day. But the bottom line is that I can’t stay on the road that long without wanting to be home and hang with the family. [Ed. Note: Porcaro had also declined an offer to tour with Bruce Springsteen.]

DRUM!: What’s the foreseeable future of the band?
Porcaro: The new record is done and we had a lot of fun making it. So after it comes out we’re planning to tour Europe, Japan, Australia and hopefully there’ll be some shows in the States. We’ve also offered our services to open for some people, so we’ll see what comes of that. And, I think this is the last album, contractually, that we have with Sony. They have an option to pick us up for another one, but it’ll be expensive. [Laughs.] If they don’t, though, we’ll have to look for a new record deal.

Porcaro’s Studio Sound: Memories From The Drum Doctor

Jeff Porcaro became one of the most sought-after session drummers in Los Angeles for a number of substantial reasons, not the least of which was his sound. And during the last eight years of his life, Ross Garfield – L.A.’s infamous Drum Doctor – did most of Porcaro’s studio cartage, drum setup and tuning. He remembers that Porcaro was a creature of habit and tended to use a very similar setup, no matter what kind of session he tackled. Normally, he played a Gretsch kit with 10" x 8", 12" x 8" and 13" x 9" mounted toms and a 14" x 14" floor tom. Porcaro used a 22" x 16" bass drum when Garfield began working with him, but soon switched to a 22" x 18" after hearing a similar one that Garfield had in his collection.

It wasn’t uncommon for Garfield to bring a large selection of snare drums to a session, although there were a few that Porcaro preferred. One of his favorites was an engraved 14" x 5" Ludwig Black Beauty from the early ’70s. For a secondary effects snare, Porcaro often used a 12" x 7" Brady snare drum made of Australian jarrah wood. In addition, he often recorded with two single-ply maple snare drums that Garfield constructed: a 14" x 5-1/2" with die-cast hoops and a 14" x 4" with a die-cast hoop on top and a triple-flanged hoop on the bottom.

Porcaro’s head selection was fairly conventional. For toms he would use Remo coated Ambassador batters with clear Ambassadors on the bottom. In the last several years Porcaro used a Remo Controlled Sound CS-0114-10 head for his snare batter, which is a coated head with a black dot on the underside. Garfield says that he introduced Porcaro to the model: “He was surprised that it had as much crack as it did,” Garfield says. “He always had used white Ambassadors until that point.”

Garfield also recommended Remo’s PowerStroke 3 bass drumhead to Porcaro, who fell in love with its deep sound. “That head really rocks, especially on a 22",” Garfield says. “It did what Jeff wanted it to do, because he usually had a lot of blanket inside of his bass drum. We used to have at least half of a packing blanket folded up inside of his bass drum. And with the PowerStroke 3 he didn’t need as much blanket.”

The only other drumhead muffling that Porcaro used was small rolled-up pieces of duct tape applied to the batter heads. “I would maybe put one piece on the 10", two pieces on the 12", two pieces on the 13" and maybe even three pieces on the 14",” Garfield says. “He would have me tune the toms as low as I could, so they’d be punchy.” Paiste was Porcaro’s cymbal company of choice, and he commonly used 13" Signature Heavy Hi-hats, 16" and 18" Signature Full and Fast Crashes and a 20" Signature Full Ride. In addition, Garfield says that Porcaro would occasionally ask him to set up splash and China cymbals whenever the session called for it.

The Drum Doctor had the unique opportunity to look over Porcaro’s shoulder and watch him work. “He was one of these guys people would wait for to get on their sessions,” Garfield remembers. “If he couldn’t do the gig, they might move the session around to fit his schedule. And as famous and as popular as he was, he really dug the fact that people called him to do the session. No matter what was going on with the rest of his life, when he walked into a session he would go, ’Yeah, let’s rock today!’ He had a really positive attitude, and it rubbed off on everyone around him.”