Steve Lukather has played on hundreds of records. Besides his recorded output with Toto, he has been a prolific session player. He is a Grammy-winning studio veteran, with a discography that reads longer than the phone book, and he’s got the stories to prove it.
Sitting down at Sunset Sound Recorders, the LA studio where he tracked many a record, Toto’s first two albums among them, Lukather shared some of those stories with producer Drew Dempsey, Sunset Sound’s owner and president Paul Camarata, and legendary producer and recording engineer Niko Bolas. And there were some crackers in there.
There was some wisdom, of course. Technicality? Guitar soloing. That’s brilliant. But you wanna be careful with that; a little goes a long way because “it’s is an exercise in futility at a certain point, because it’s the dumb shit that makes the world go round”. In other words, make sure you’ve got your rhythm guitar game down.
But then there were Lukather’s memories of playing with some of the biggest names in music. He fondly recalls coming through at the same time as Eddie Van Halen, having a WTF moment when he first heard Eruption, and then being one of the few players to have ever jammed with Van Halen live, even joining them in the studio during the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge sessions and lending his pipes to proceedings.
“I think I am one of the few guitar players who ever played with Van Halen live,” he says. “I played with them in Texas. I played with them at the Cabo Wabo opening.”
“I sang background on a couple of records,” he continues. “I just happened to be up and they’re like, ‘Come on!’ If memory serves me right, it would have been the F.U.C.K. album, and what was the one before that. Sammy was in the band. Ted Templeman was the producer when I went out there. I think it was Top Of The World. I just did some ‘oohs’ and sang in the background with them. It as no big deal. But I sang on a couple of tracks.”
Lukather and Eddie Van Halen were close friends. He remembers hearing the name Van Halen and thinking it was one guy, not a band. Eddie played on Lukather’s first solo album, in 1989, playing bass guitar on the opening track, Twist The Knife.
“We did a bunch of stuff over the years,” says Lukather. “We played live at a benefit for Jason Becker, God bless him, for ALS. Before Mike got it, Mike Porcaro [the late Toto bassist, who passed away in 2015]. It was Billy Sheehan, me, Pat Thorpey and Ed, just played some crazy stuff in Chicago.”
If Lukather was always welcome during the Sammy Hagar years, it wasn’t always the case when David Lee Roth was fronting the band. When he popped his head through the door at Sunset during the Fair Warning sessions, there was not much chance of him being invited to lay down some vocals with Diamond Dave.
“I walked in to Studio One looking for Ed once, and Roth was sitting there with Donn Landee [engineer], and I walked in like the ever-jovial self and said, ‘Hey man! Hey, Donn! Where’s Ed?’ And Roth looked at me as if I had just killed his parents or something.’ The look on his face was disgust. Like, ‘How dare you share the same air!’ I got the vibe right away. ‘I’m just looking for Ed, man.’ I got outta there quick!”
Maybe they should have got him in. While a creative success – Mean Street, Unchained, etc – it was the slowest-selling album in the Roth era. That was water off a duck’s back to Lukather. What got to him, or rather who got to him in his time at Sunset, was Prince.
Lukather first encountered Prince circa ’78, when he was hired alongside the likes of Davey Johnstone, Mike Utley, and Toto’s Jeff and Steve Porcaro to play on Valerie Carter’s Wild Child.
Lukather was in Studio Three, tracking under the supervision of producer James Newtown Howard, who told him that there would be some up-and-coming kid from Minnesota sitting in on the record. Don’t worry, he says. Newly discovered by Cavallo-Ruffalo, this kid, he goes by the name of Prince, is just sitting in. The word was, the higher-uppers wanted him to co-produce.
“I didn’t know Prince, so I go in, and the first thing hear is someone’s called Prince. ‘That’s his name!? Did he give that to himself?’ I’m just being a smart-ass,” recalls Lukather. “I didn’t know nothing about this guy! Prince, huh? So, anyway, he’s there, and he’s just this quiet, skinny little dude.”
Lukather lays it out. He was soloing. Prince was on the couch. Lukather could just see his head poking up. “The couch was down there, so I couldn’t really see him,” he says. The day goes on and on and all this time Prince says nothing.
“I said to James, ‘What’s wrong with this cat!? He’s creeping me out!’ He never said a freakin’ word to me,” says Lukather. “That was the first Prince encounter. I’m playing all day long and the cat never said nothing to me. he would just occasionally stare at me in a really odd way. Then he becomes Prince.”
This sets the scene for their second encounter – and the way Lukather tells it, it is a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style rivalry in the making. Prince is mixing Purple Rain in Studio Three. Lukather is in Two.
“It was like 10 in the morning,” he says. “I was here for a tracking session for somebody – I forget who it was – and he was sitting on that purple bike, that was in the movie, in a silver lamé suit, sitting on it! He had this huge bodyguard, with the white hair. The cat was on the bike. I see him and say, ‘Hey, man!’ He goes [nods]. I got a little ‘uhh’. I am a big fan. Let me just say, as a musician… But he wouldn’t talk to me, man, and it lasted a long time!”
Ten years on, Lukather got his revenge.
“We did a show in Curacao, the North Sea Jazz Curacao, and we were headlining one night and Prince was headlining one night,” he says. “We were there the night before. I knew we were going to this island, so six months prior I had booked the biggest suite overlooking the ocean, because it was a vacation I’m going to hang here and I want the nicest room they got. [It's] my dime!
“Well, apparently Prince wanted that room, and I already had it, and he was pissed. I was right above him. I wanted to go see the show and he wouldn’t let us come on the stage and see the show. And our tour manager at the time used to work for Prince. I found it humorous. I was going to drop down a little rubber duck with sign on it saying, ‘Hey, man, are we cool?’”
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