Jeff Porcaro – Session Drummer

Remembering the Great Studio Drummer of Toto

On what would have been his 60th Birthday, I wanted to take a moment to remember one of the greatest studio drummers that ever lived. These words were originally written in the August/September 1997 issue of DRUM! Magazine

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.”

On 1st April 2014, Jeff would have been sixty years old. 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.”

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]Paul Humphrey 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.”[/pullquote]

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.”

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.”