On 5 August 1992, the drumming - and wider musical - world lost one of its all-time greats. Jeff Porcaro was born into one an incredibly gifted musical family, his father Joe was a hugely successful band leader who guided his sons - bassist Mike, keyboard player, Steve, and Jeff - into the arena of top-flight session work.
Jeff’s career began at 17 years-old, joining Sonny and Cher’s band before rattling up a CV that includes everyone from Steely Dan to Pink Floyd thanks to his metronomic sense of timing, incredible feel and ability to create exactly what was needed for the song at hand. That's before we even bring up his masterful command of shuffles.
Away form his role as a sideman, Jeff had more than a little success with his band of session wizards, Toto, chalking up mammoth hits and creating classic drum parts with the likes of Rosanna, Hold The Line, and Africa.
Despite having the sort of career that most aspiring drummers can only dream of, Jeff remained humble in his outlook, telling Rhythm magazine, “We all have our heroes that we set as our standard of what we strive for and deem as high-level playing. I don’t see myself as anywhere near the people I admire.
When somebody tells me they admire me or I see a kid with a poster of me in their room, I feel like saying, ‘Have you heard Jim Keltner or Bernard Purdie? You should be checking these guys out first.’ But people say, ‘But Jeff, your time feel and the music…’ Well, I’m talking about that stuff too.
“I went through a lot of years of unbelievable guilt as far as how successful I would get in the studio. And I feel I was only successful because of experience, not because I was some drumming phenomenon. How you play with ’phones, with a click, with a rhythm section is all experience. Reading, too. I can’t read s**t. If I scuffle, I say to myself, ‘Okay, just play time through this, listen to what the guitar player or bassist play and nail it the second time.’”
Jeff’s time ended way too soon, passing away aged just 38. He left a prolific body of work spanning genres and eras, and it’s impossible to sum-up his greatness in five songs. However, if you’re un-initiated, (let’s face it, you’ve heard his drumming whether you know it or not), here are five tracks to get you started.
Toto - Rosanna
It’s impossible to mention Jeff Porcaro without mentioning the half-time shuffle from Toto’s Rosanna. Not only is Jeff’s groove one of the greatest drum intros of all time, but it forms the trifecta of examples of this type of beat alongside Bernard Purdie’s ‘Purdie Shuffle’, and Bonham’s take from Zeppelin’s Fool In The Rain. Indeed, Jeff himself credits Purdie’s grooves from Steely Dan’s Home At Last and Babylon Sisters and Bonham’s beat as his inspiration.
However, while Purdie might well have ‘invented’ it, and Bonham made it rock, Jeff’s delivery on Rosanna is a more subtle approach (possibly due in part to the mix), with the ghosted snare notes played at whisper-quiet velocities before the backbeat comes thumping through, while the placement of the bass drum against the shuffled hi-hat and snare pattern presents an additional layer of trickiness .
But, what better way to understand the intricacies of the groove than to have it explained by the man himself? Watch the video below where Jeff breaks it down.
Michael Jackson - Beat It
When the King of Pop comes knocking, you answer the door. Thankfully, Jeff was used to visitations from musical royalty, and the result is a simple yet extremely effective drum beat that forms the backbone of one of Jacko’s biggest hits. However, the session ventured into disastrous waters before he even had the chance to try a take, with the SMPTE timecode on the master reel - containing Jackson’s all-important vocal take - getting lost, meaning there was no way of synchronising the two tape machines being used.
As Jeff’s Toto partner, Steve Lukather explains, It was all on Jeff to rebuild a click track to play to from the remaining takes: Michael Jackson’s vocal, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo and Jacko banging 2 & 4 on a suitcase.
Of course, he did so with the precision of an atomic clock, got the track on the second take and saved the session. Just another day in the life of one of the finest studio drummers of all time.
Steely Dan - Bad Sneakers
Porcaro was just 19 years-old when he first stepped foot in the studio with notorious drummer-scrutinisers, Steely Dan, contributing to two tracks on 1974’s Pretzel Logic. 1975’s Katy Lied saw him behind the kit for all-but-one track, vacating the stool for session legend Hal Blaine on Any World (That I Am Welcome To).
The album displays young Jeff’s incredible musical maturity, with Bad Sneakers incorporating a trademark Porcaro crosstick, quintessentially ‘70s doorknocker-dead snare and over-the-bar fills during the choruses. The guitar solo sees Jeff sit back into a pulsing half-time groove with tons of feel. Settle in, put on some headphones and remind yourself that he was 20 years old when he recorded the track!
Aretha Franklin - What a Fool Believes
The intro will have the untrained ear expecting a ballad with a Porcaro crosstick, but when the band kicks in, what you get is an even more funked-up version of The Doobie Brothers’ original.
Jeff dances around Louis Johnson’s slap bass, jabbing out pushed hi-hat barks, leading into horn stabs with just the right amount of busyness. It’s the thinking man’s approach to disco, straightening up for the choruses. It clearly worked, too, netting Aretha Franklin a Billboard No.1 in 1980.
Bruce Springsteen - Human Touch
After putting the E Street band on hiatus in the late 80s, The Boss turned to Jeff Porcaro to provide drums for his album Human Touch - released on the same day as Springsteen’s album Lucky Town.
The title track smacks of early 90s: pristine production, and incredibly smooth sounding. Jeff’s pinpoint-accurate crosstick is once again delivered with the precision of a marksman, producing an almost sample-like consistency with the reverb blended in.
Get to the chorus and the track is date-stamped with a piccolo snare layered with a tambourine, while Jeff fills the beat out with toms. It’s of its time, but at its core is yet another example of Porcaro’s accuracy and rock-solid timing, while still imparting groove by the bucketload. It was one of the final recordings released prior to Jeff’s untimely death, but it’s fitting that it’s bursting with Porcaro flavour.
Springsteen performed Human Touch the day after Jeff passed (below), dedicating the performance to Jeff saying, "His spirit and his playing was unique. He blessed my work and he blessed the work of many, many other people. Not only was he a great drummer, but he was a really funny and wonderful, soulful man".