“To me, there was no better drummer than Jeff Porcaro.”
Richard Marx (liner notes for “One Man” from Marx’ 1994 album Paid Vacation)
On April 1, 1954, Jeff Porcaro–a legendary drummer whose presence is still felt some 24 years after his passing on August 5, 1992–was born. As part of the Porcaro brothers clan led by patriarch and jazz master Joe Porcaro, Jeff and brothers Mike and Steve would go on to do great things in the music business, collectively and individually. Few musical legacies are as renowned as the Porcaros. As it relates to Jeff Porcaro, he still stands as one of the most revered session players of all time having performed and appeared on literally hundreds of recordings. Furthermore, Jeff was perhaps best known as being the rock solid foundation behind one of rock’s greatest groups; Toto. Indeed, the list of artists whom Jeff either performed with or recorded for is staggering and that does not even include Jeff’s incredible body of work that he amassed with the band that he co-founded with brother Steve and childhood friends Steve Lukather and David Paich; Toto. To give one just a sampling of where you can find Jeff Porcaro’s work away from Toto, check out this list and remember, this is but a small sample at that.
Steely Dan–Jeff played on all tracks on the album Katy Lied with the exception of one and he would also go on play on one track from Gaucho (1980). Jeff also appeared on Pretzel Logic (1974).
Boz Scaggs–Jeff toured with Scaggs prior to helping form Toto and he also played drum on Scaggs’ highly successful album, Silk Degrees (1976).
Leo Sayer–Jeff appeared on a number of albums for Sayer and he played drums on Sayer’s mega hit When I Need You (1977).
Michael Jackson–Jeff played on 4 tracks on Jackson’s Thriller album (The Girl Is Mine, Beat It, Human Nature, and, The Lady In My Life). (Jeff also appeared on one track on Jackson’s 1991 album entitled Dangerous).
Chicago–Jeff played drum on the hit Stay The Night from Chicago 17.
Don Henley–Jeff played on two well known hits by Henley; Dirty Laundry (1982) and New York Minute (1990).
Madonna–Jeff appeared on the album Like A Prayer (1989) as well as I’m Breathless (1990).
Bruce Springsteen–Jeff played drums on the album Human Touch (1992).
Michael McDonald–Jeff played drums on McDonald’s hit I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near) (1982).
Peter Frampton–Jeff played drums on the album Breaking All The Rules (1981).
Jeff Porcaro’s versatility and unique touch did not go unnoticed. In 2013 Jeff’s brother, Steve Porcaro, had this to say about his playing:
“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 choices whether he was being implicit or explicit,that have really stood the test of time.”
To get a further perspective on Jeff’s life and career, we had the opportunity to catch up with Jeff’s father, renowned jazz master and drum instructor, Joe Porcaro.
Q: Joe, in researching all the albums and recordings that Jeff appeared on I wonder if some people realize how many albums and recordings–and well known ones too–that Jeff worked or appeared on in his career away from Toto.
A: [Laughs] I will tell you, sometimes I didn’t even know. I remember being asked to play percussion on a track from Madonna’s successful album Like A Prayer [(1989)]. I played marimba on this song called Spanish Eyes. At the end of my performance I remember Madonna was in the booth at the time and I asked the engineer “who is the drummer on this song, he’s really good.” Madonna laughed and said, “it’s your son.” [Laughs] I had this same experience with Randy Crawford when I was in the studio doing overdubs and I asked about the drummer. It was the same thing. I was told it was Jeffrey. Sometimes I never knew where I would hear Jeff. [Jeff Porcaro appeared on two albums for Randy Crawford from 1981 and 1982; “Secret Combination” and “Windsong”].
A: No, he really didn’t. Jeffrey was always busy but he never bragged. When he did stop home he would sometimes say things like I am working with this artist or that one but he didn’t carry on. But every once in a while he would really surprise me. I remember we used to have brunches at my house on Sundays and one Sunday Jeffrey calls and he asks if he can bring someone by. He didn’t say who but I said “of course.” Anyway, Jeffrey comes over and he brings Don Henley with him because at the time Jeff had done some drum tracks for him. Turns out they were two big hits for Henley. Again, Jeff worked a lot but he was never one to boast about himself or what he was doing.
Q: Now, you had the opportunity to work with Jeff yourself like, for example, you played a percussion part on Toto’s epic hit “Africa.” How was it for a father to work with his son in that context?
A: “Africa” was a special experience for sure and I am very proud of Jeff’s work on that track. I am also very proud of what Jeffrey did with “Rosanna” and his signature shuffle beat. But I had always heard that when Jeffrey would walk into the studio people would perk up because they knew it was time to get to work. I saw that too and I have to tell that I took any recording experience with Jeffrey seriously. Of course, we were father and son but we were buddies too but when it was time to work it was time to work. [Laughs] I even remember when Toto was recording “Jake To The Bone” which appeared on their Kingdom Of Desire album. That was the last Toto record that Jeffrey played on. Anyway, I played percussion on that track and it’s tricky because the whole song is in 7/4 and I remember Jeffrey telling me if I was getting too much on top of the beat. [Laughs] But in the end, it was thrill to work with Jeffrey and all of my sons. Jeff was a pro and he came ready to play and I saw that firsthand.
Q: You know this August it will be 25 years since Jeff has passed. You must be touched at how many people still have Jeff in their hearts as if he was still with us today. In fact, some well known drummers have written in to tell us what they thought of Jeff for this very blog.
A: It is very touching both as Jeffrey’s father and as someone who appreciated Jeff’s contributions to music. I really appreciate some of these great drummers adding their thoughts too. Very kind. And even some of Jeffrey’s fans have been very gracious. I remember after Jeffrey passed that one day this woman came to our door at our home. Neither my wife or I knew who she was. Anyway, she was a little lady and she said she had a package that she wanted us (my wife and I) to have. The woman literally left the package and she vanished. Later on, my wife and I opened the package. It contained 2 notebooks that had all these articles and album reviews relating to Jeffrey. It was arranged so meticulously and there was also a letter with the notebooks. The letter said that the woman was not a musician but that she had heard Jeffrey play and for some reason she focused on the drums in these recordings. After hearing Jeff play more she began to follow him and she assembled this incredible collection of newspaper clippings and reviews about Jeffrey. I have never seen such a thing before. I cannot imagine how long it took to put together all this material. We were very touched. The woman wanted us to have this as Jeffrey’s parents.
A: It was and it was one of many. So many people were very kind and respectful. In fact, I remember after Jeffrey passed I performed on a show with Barbara Streisand. Jeffrey had worked with her too. Anyway, I saw Barbara walking towards me after the show and I thought to myself that maybe I did something wrong during the show, I didn’t know. Instead, Barbara came up to me and gave me this big hug and she said to me, and I will never forget it, that she “loved” Jeffrey and that she is “going to miss him.” That was pretty moving.
A: You know, sometimes I do. I mean who knows what ever happens but I would think that Jeffrey would still be with Toto today. I know at times he had offers to go with other artists but I think he would still be with them. I also think he would have continued to do session work although with all the electronics today I don’t know how that would have gone. I am very proud of Jeffrey. He had lots of opportunities. Dire Straits wanted him and so did Bruce Springsteen. But if I had to guess, I think his heart was with Toto, the band he helped start.
Q: Looking back, Jeff seemed destined to excel as a musician. If he wasn’t a musician what do you think he would have been?
A: Well, early on I had a feeling about Jeffrey as a musician. When he was learning to play he would play Beatles albums all day and night. But even as a little child around the house, when he tapped on things it was in time and it made sense. Then people around me started to talk about his playing as he got better and better. But to answer your question, Jeffrey–if he would not have been a musician–he probably would have been an artist because he could draw. I remember in elementary school if Jeffrey was asked to draw something he could do that effortlessly. So, if the teacher said something like “what is 5 doves plus 5 doves,” he could draw the equation [i.e., the doves] almost immediately. He was also a big Civil War buff. He drew these battle scenes that were striking. I mean, the detail in them was amazing. So one day I took some of Jeff’s drawings to an art teacher that I knew and I asked for her opinion. She stared at some of these drawings and almost immediately said to me that I should get Jeffrey into an art school right away. She saw that he had a gift for art.
Q: Thanks for the time Joe. I am sure you are proud that so many people remember and still honor your son.
A: I am and thank you and thank you to all of Jeffrey’s colleagues and fans for their thoughts and support. It means a lot.
In addition to speaking with Jeff’s father, we also wanted to share some thoughts sent to us by other marque musicians in business who took time out of their busy schedules to reflect on Jeff.
In closing, to celebrate Jeff’s birthday and his contributions to the music industry it is only appropriate that we leave you with Jeff’s signature beat which became the backbone of Toto’s hit Rosanna. Check out the isolated drum track from Rosanna below.
Thanks Jeff Porcaro for your contributions, both musically and personally. It is obvious that you really touched many lives and made an impact while you were with us. You are still very much missed and always will be.