Steve Porcaro interview

Toto's brothers in the studio
Toto's brothers in the studio

As Toto celebrates 35 years, Rhythm looks back on the life and career of Jeff Porcaro, from his early years through high-profile session dates with Sonny & Cher, his success with Toto creating sublime beats such as 'Rosanna', to his contributions to some of the '80s biggest records by Michael Jackson, Madonna and more.

Here, extra to this month's Rhythm cover feature on the drum legend, we speak to his brother and Toto keyboardist Steve to get his memories of living and working with Jeff.

What was Jeff like as a kid? Was he quiet or outgoing? What kind of music did he like when he was young?

"From the perspective of his youngest brother, he was a hero/tormentor/supporter/bully/friend all wrapped up together like most older brothers!"

You grew up in a musical household. What drew each of you to your particular instruments?

"Jeff and Mike had taken drum lessons at a young age. When the Beatles came out in '64, we all wanted to play guitar. I think Mike and Jeff started guitar lessons at that point with Jeff falling away from it back to drums and Mike hanging in there longer with lessons if I remember. Soon after that, I went with my father to some college he was teaching drums at. He was teaching in this room that had several organs in it. I was listening to him teach, and at the end of one of his lessons, he sat down at an organ and played a blues for his student to play to. I had him teach it to me at home that night and played it constantly. The piano was mine. After we moved to California, Mike picked up the string bass in sixth grade and it was settled from there on."

Jeff said in many interviews that he originally wanted to be a painter. What was he interested in as a teenager?

"Art was a huge passion of Jeff's from a very early age. He took a few lessons one summer. He always had a huge passion for art. Loved Dali. Jeff drew and sketched constantly."

As you all started to find work as session players, was the plan always to find a way to keep playing together as much as possible?

"Maybe for me it was, but not always so for Jeff. Not really. I remember for a very long time as I saw Jeff's and David's careers take off, I was very worried that they would never start a band because they were so busy and doing so well. I never assumed at the time, if they did, that I would be in it. They certainly had a lot more at stake than Luke, Bobby and I at the time. We are forever grateful that they went for it."

What do you think made Jeff's playing so appealing to producers and artists?

"What made it so appealing was that the producers and artists would hear their record come together and groove in a way that was probably beyond their expectations. Jeff always had a huge part in making a song a record. You felt like you were capturing lightning in the studio. It was never boring. He always was there to serve the song. He always came up with the best parts instantly, like he'd been playing the song for years. Even looking back, you realize he made all these great choiceswhether he was being implicit or explicit,that have really stood the test of time."

Playing with him over so many years, what changes and developments did you observe in Jeff as a drummer?

"He just always seemed to play with more and more finesse. No huge changes. He just would always experiment in the studio, putting together different hybrids of beats like he did with 'Rosanna'."

Jeff was renowned for his versatility and his ability to play any style of music. Do you think that was one of his greatest assets?

"Of course."

Steve, you and Jeff worked with Michael Jackson. What memories do you have from that experience? Did you and Jeff track together at any point or was it all done separately?

"We worked together on 'Human Nature'. I was in the studio for 'The Girl Is Mine', but didn't play on the tracking date with him. I remember we had been working on 'Beat It', and at the time, it was just a Linn Drum, and they decided to have Jeff overdub drums. A lot of work had been done on the track prior to Jeff putting the drums on. I was there when he walked out of the studio after just overdubbing the drums on 'Beat It', and said, "That was horrible! Different musicians were locking in with other musicians that were not necessarily locking in with the click and it drove him nuts. "Nothing is ever going to happen with that track." That was before Michael put his vocal on it. One place where Jeff and I bumped heads was his inability to see the bigger picture sometimes."

When Toto IV became such a smash, what impact did that have on the members of the band, professionally and personally?

"Oh, all the typical things success brings to young people: confidence in what you're doing; too much confidence in what you're doing; more money, more problems. Huge parties, drug addiction, divorce, egomania, wider recognition, awards. Long, long, long business meetings. Pressure to follow up.And that's just me."

Jeff turned down offers to tour with Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits. Do you think he preferred being in the studio to playing live?

"Yes, very much so. Although he loved performing live, and was great at it - Jeff was as solid on stage, as he was in the studio - performing for two hours at a stretch really took a physical toll. It was very hard on him."

Was it tough to release and promote Kingdom Of Desire after Jeff's passing?

"Yup. A f**king nightmare."

Read more about the life and career of Jeff Porcaro in May's Rhythm, out now, with contributions from Jeff's other brother Mike, plus Toto's David Paich and Steve Lukather and fellow '80s session legend John 'JR' Robinson.