Toto's David Paich talks Quincy Jones sessions and writing Africa

David Paich: "There's something about standing next to a big piece of wood with keys sticking out of it that there's no replacing!"
David Paich: "There's something about standing next to a big piece of wood with keys sticking out of it that there's no replacing!" (Image credit: Luigi Orru/Demotix/Corbis)

He's still renowned as the songwriter and keyboard player behind AOR legends Toto's biggest tunes, but David Paich has played a bigger role in crafting pop music history than you may realise.

Yes, he's a writer of repute, penning or co-writing Toto's '70s and '80s mega-hits Africa, Hold The Line and Rosanna, but he's simultaneously enjoyed a wide-ranging career that's seen him work on Michael Jackson's Thriller and play sessions for the likes of Don Henley, Steely Dan, Elton John, Cher, Aretha Franklin, The Bee Gees and Neil Diamond (to name just a few).

Now working on a new Toto record, Paich kindly took time out of his ever-hectic schedule to talk about recording with Quincy Jones, working with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the story behind Toto's Africa…

When did you first break into proper session playing and how did it come about?

"There was a group called Seals & Crofts - they did Summer Breeze and Hummingbird -and I played a live gig with them, opening for The Carpenters, when I was 16 years old. I got to play piano for their producer/guitarist [Louie Shelton], who had played on all of The Monkees' records, because my father [noted West Coast composer/conductor Marty Paich] used him on some of his TV shows and was with him quite a bit.

"Then I got to play on their album, Diamond Girl, and that [title] cut ended up being a hit record. That's how musicians get their starts: people always want the players who have played on the hits. I started getting a lot of calls for sessions and it was kind of my springboard."

You've played sessions for a ridiculous number of fellow rock and pop greats. What was the most memorable?

"It's funny because some of the sessions that I remember best are not ones that anybody would know about... one time I showed up and Ringo Starr's kit was there. I was like, 'Oh my God, Ringo's in town!' That, to me, when you play with a Beatle, it's just something else. You just get starstruck a little bit.

"It was a session with this folk singer at Capitol Records. I'll never forget, because when most drummers approach stuff, usually they'll hear the song and just start playing a cross-stick and hi-hat. Well, Ringo Starr was there and everybody was just listening to this young artist play the song and Ringo just started tapping, playing this part on the wooden baffle next to him. He wasn't anywhere near his kit, and he just started working his way over to his kit, playing the baffle, just kinda 'Well, this sounds kind of neat!'

"That's how musicians get their starts: people always want the players who have played on the hits."

"And you realised that was The Beatles' whole approach to it - it was just whatever sounded good. There was no 'Oh, I have to play my drums on this'. He kept this open mind about the process."

Do any other notable sessions come to mind?

"Probably the other main one was when I was called by Quincy Jones, alongside the rest of my band, to do the Thriller album and then to do the duet, The Girl Is Mine, with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. The hardest part about that one was walking in and seeing Paul McCartney playing the piano, before Quincy has him get up and let me play his part for him!

"Immediately, you learn to keep focussed. Even while you're sitting there and there's George Martin and Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson and they're all gathered around the piano and I'm playing - I had to mentally pinch myself and say, 'Snap out of it! You're not dreaming here. You're working here!' You need to stay focussed on playing your instrument because that takes almost all of your energy right there."

What was it like working with Quincy Jones outside of that particular session?

"Quincy Jones, along with George Martin, is a producer's producer. He has a plan, but he still always makes sure -Quincy has a saying -to 'leave a little room for God'. That's such a great expression. It means don't try and fill up and plan everything - leave a little room for magic to happen.

"There's George Martin and Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson and they're all gathered around the piano - and I'm playing."

"Quincy always has a little bit of music paper next to him, which no one sees, so any time anybody comes up with an idea, he's kind of laying it down on paper so he can see how the whole thing lays out as an orchestrator. He has such an arsenal of musical devices and knowledge that he draws from. He knows how to cope with any situation, as he did with We Are The World and Thriller and all of that stuff - it's not by chance.

"As he says, 'Music is just choices. We all have the same 12 notes, we all have the same recording gear - it's just the things that you choose to do with it'. He just happens to make some rather spectacular choices, you know?"

You wrote or co-wrote Toto's biggest hits - Hold The Line, Rosanna, Africa. Can you identify a common thread running between the hits?

"I don't think I can really connect Hold The Line and Rosanna and Africa, except for the fact that it's us playing on it. And when you hear us playing together we give it the sound that makes people go 'Oh, it's those guys again'. We play our own kind of music and it wasn't like the normal top 10 of the time. We were trying to do something that would make pop music history, but play it like the musicians in Yes would play it."

Toto - Africa (featuring David on lead vocals)

We have to ask about Africa. Where did that song come from?

"Its first inception came when there used to be UNICEF commercials on TV, showing children and families living in poverty. The first time I saw that it affected me deeply…

"I sat down and started playing and the chorus just came out like magic. I remember after I'd sung 'I bless the rains down in Africa', I just stopped and went, 'Wait a minute. I might be a little talented, but I'm not that talented - God's using me for an instrument here!'

"I realised I had a song in the making, so I started writing on the Yamaha CS-80, which you hear in the intro - that's the keyboard playing - and then you hear the little kalimba sounds [on the Yamaha GS1] in the chorus. It was a fertile time to make music with new sounds, and that kind of defined that song."

How was the song recorded?

"That was a very special song - Toto always used to cut live in the studio with the whole band, but with Africa we pasted it all together one instrument at a time. It was probably one of the first 'loop' songs, although I think maybe Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles had used loops, too."

"We never dreamed in a million years that Africa would become a hit record!"

"The first thing that happened was that Jeff Porcaro and [percussionist] Lenny Castro went into the studio and made the loop you hear in the intro, which is all this African percussion, this pulsating loop. Then it was my CS-80 part and guitars and bass, and we brought Joe Porcaro in playing a bass marimba. This is before samples, so we're actually using bass marimbas and all of those different kinds of great organic instruments. It was just so much fun."

Did you realise you had a hit on your hands?

"No, we never dreamed in a million years that that would become a hit record! They used to make the joke, 'Well, Dave, this is great, but you can save this for your solo album…' But we ended up putting it on thinking, 'It might make a nice little cut for the end of the album - it's a little bit different'. And then it popped off there and everybody's looking around going, 'You have to be kidding! This song came off?' We thought we had an album full of hits and that this was just the obscure one!"

In terms of your gear, has your setup changed much since the early '80s? What do you tour with these days?

"I use a Yamaha Motif XF8 with Apple MainStage, which means all of our sounds are downloaded into a computer, so whatever sounds we need are there. I still have my nine-foot Baldwin SD10 and my Hammond A-100, and I used to take them on the road, but freight is so much and it's hard to keep pianos in tune.

"I miss the real instruments, but they're able to model them so closely and everything is more compact. It's more consistent in the performances - and the sounds are great because you're not dealing with microphones. At the same time, I miss the look, so I had the guy make me a 'Coldplay piano' upright to put my keyboards in, so I can look and feel like I'm playing a piano onstage. There's something about standing next to a big piece of wood with keys sticking out of it that there's no replacing!"

Finally, there's a new Toto album in the works. How's the writing process for that coming along?

"This album will probably be out next December… I've got a couple of songs in my head, but we're going to start co-writing in about a week and start putting some songs together. It's really exciting and fun. Especially when you start collaborating. It's like rock-climbing with a partner: it's great to have someone there to give you a hand when you get stuck and everybody's so accomplished that we don't have to labour over anything.

"We're just going to start the process and see where it leads us - down the yellow brick road, you know?"

Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar,, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.