A Father Honors His Son On His Birthday…..Remembering Jeff Porcaro
by KEN “K BO” BIEDZYNSKI Mar 2017
“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 (HERE)
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.”
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”].
Q: Did Jeff talk a lot about all the projects he was involved in?
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.
Q: That’s an incredible sign of admiration and respect.
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.
Q: If he were alive today Jeff would be 63 this April 1. Do you ever wonder what Jeff would be like today?
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.
“Jeff was a great friend and definitely one of my drum heroes … His groove was incredibly deep and he always knew what to play…His body of work is unreal ..I sure do miss him and I miss going to see him play at the Baked Potato…” (Gregg Bissonette)
“It’s been nearly 25 years since we lost Jeff in ’92. I had only met him a couple of times but since joining Toto and spending 21 years with the band I feel I have gotten to know him through Mike, Luke and Paich. When I lived in London I would hear records that Jeff played on and I always felt he played with such maturity – he sounded older than he was. He had a wonderful knack of knowing exactly what to play and when to play it and he always played for the song. Such musicality – and I appreciated that so much!! Happy Birthday Jeff – Simon Phillips”
“No matter what song he was playing, Jeff had that uncanny ability to play exactly what the song called for, no more, no less. He was an incredibly musical drummer whose influence can be heard in an entire generation of drummers. We miss Jeff a ton.” (Bill Gibson)
Q&A page with guitarist/producer Jay Graydon (who worked Porcaro a lot). Check this out! Porcaro didn’t like the click! I mean, the era of his playing makes sense regarding no click, but it makes his consistent time/tempo (displayed on ALL the above-linked tracks) all the more impressive. I underlined the quotes that really stood out to me…
I know that you had a chance to record and play with Jeff Porcaro. What are your comments about Jeff as a musician and person. The music world really misses him!
Love your work! Rod St.Denis
Jeff was a drummers drummer! His “feel” was incredible regarding so many “grooves”. He did not consider himself a good “shuffle player” meaning the groove on “NOTHIN YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT” (AIRPLAY), BREAKIN AWAY or MORNIN (Jarreau albums). There are other “shuffle grooves” but these mentioned song grooves fall into a category called “funk-a-shuffle”. Jeff thought he was not that good in this situation. Man, was he wrong! He plays this groove better than anyone ever!
Jeff did not play with a “click” like most studio drummers. He did not totally respect the click and would “float” around it. This is good and bad depending on the band. If the players are top notch, they listen to the drummer first and the click is subliminal. This is most important to keep the feel happening. Drummers like JR and Mike Baird can lock with the click and still feel great. When playing with Jeff, better not to use a click since he played inside the cracks and his time float is what made him great.
Jeff, as a person, was totally unique. Very unpredictable and almost like he was on another planet most of the time. He had no regard for business in general. He did not go to a record date like most players meaning always a good attitude. If the session was boring musically, Jeff did not have patience and would get bugged if the producer would keep making take after take hour after hour. Jeff’s 2nd or 3rd take was his best. He learned the songs on the first run down and rarely got lost.
Yes, Jeff is missed on the planet earth. The good news is that he was here for best “musical rock/pop era” of all time! The best news is that he played on so many great recordings that will be around as long as the planet survives.