“Luke’s up at the crack of dawn,” warns Toto’s publicist. “How early can you talk to him?”
The notice/warning would serve as something of a surprise were it not for Steve “Luke” Lukather’s reputation as an in-demand musician who has persevered in the industry for over 40 years. Then again, he also had a reputation as a bit of a party animal, a rocker who worked hard, then enjoyed the fruits of his labor with abandon. The early-riser, hard-worker serves as a good metaphor for a man who became the unintentional leader of his band over the years. In practice, he says, speaking via phone from a Toto tour east of the Mississippi, that notion was far from the truth. “No,” he says with an exaggerated emphasis. “I used to go to bed at the time I get up now.”
It’s not quite nine in the morning when Lukather says this, an hour that’s reasonable for office types and attorneys but perhaps unthinkable for even the most chaste rock musician. Lukather, though, has long ago abandoned drink. Cigarettes and drugs are also off the table. Whether by default or design he’s come to steer the band in recent years, busying himself with various business concerns and fielding questions about Toto’s illustrious past.
“They tell me I had a real good time,” he cracks about the outfit’s wilder days.
Toto’s own past is now 40 years deep: The initial sessions featuring Lukather, keyboardist David Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro were in January 1977, though their first album wouldn’t emerge until October the following year. In that time, there have been incredible commercial highs, including the runaway success of the 1982 album IV, which was accompanied by Grammys and a No. 1 single. The lows were devastating: Jeff Porcaro died unexpectedly in 1992 at the age of 38; his brother, bassist Mike Porcaro, passed in 2015 after a battle with ALS.
There have been battle with record companies, internal friction and the weathering of the various storms that changing styles and trends bring.
“We managed to stay together because there’s a deep love and brotherhood that we have,” Lukather says. Those bonds go back to their teen years, with Jeff Porcaro and Paich having met at 13. “I look at these guys like blood. I would take a bullet for any one of them and I know that they love me too. It’s taking a punch, getting up and saying, ‘Thank you. May I have another?’”
By 1977 Jeff Porcaro was already a seasoned session pro, having played on a run of classic Steely Dan LPs, including Pretzel Logic (1974) and Katy Lied. Paich’s biggest moment came when he collaborated with Boz Scaggs on the 1976 classic Silk Degrees, which featured radio staples such as “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.”
Earliest Toto rehearsals were held at the Porcaro family’s garage: Jeff, Mike and keyboardist Steve were the songs of famed session drummer Joe Porcaro who’d worked with jazz greats such as Stan Getz and Freddie Hubbard and on film scores with Lalo Schifrin among others.
“Joe would come home from playing sessions and practice,” Lukather says. “We thought, ‘This is how good you have to be.’ That made us work twice as hard. You had to be that good just to get in the door. Musicianship really, really counted.”
Inspired by the legendary Los Angeles group studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, Lukather was enamored with becoming a studio musician. “I was intrigued by playing major stars and playing all different kinds of music,” he says. “The odds were incredible but I was lucky: Right place, right time, right geography.”
The Toto’s 1978 self-titled debut featured three hits, including “Hold the Line” and “Georgy Porgy.” The sophomore release featured “99,” which did well in the charts, but the group was determined not to be viewed solely as a Top 40 act. That didn’t set well with the band’s label, which suggested that Toto’s fourth could be its last.
“We didn’t have a formula and that confused some people. Other people came along for the ride,” he says. “But the record company said they’d drop us without a hit. Meanwhile, almost every hit record coming out of L.A. at the time had one of us on it. We said, ‘Really?’ We took that anger and channeled it into something positive. By that point we’d toured and grown into a real band.”
Sessions for IV began in late ’81 with the Paich composition “Rosanna” being the first cut. Lukather and Bobby Kimball shared vocal duties on the track. “It’s probably the most definitive Toto song," Lukather says. "It’s everybody at their best. Jeff’s unbelievable drum parts, the synth parts. It’s a timeless record.”
The song climbed into the upper reaches of Billboard’s Hot 100, arriving at Number Two in early ’82. It was followed that autumn by a Paich and Jeff Porcaro composition, “Africa.” It is the song that Lukather says is the least like Toto in the band’s discography. The group introduced layers of African percussion and Paich crafted an enigmatic set of lyrics.
“It was world music before there was world music,” Lukather says. “But the lyrics? I was looking at Dave, going, ‘Africa? Really? We’re from North Hollywood, man.’ Dave looks at history, poetry and the lyrics were fantasy. I thought the lyrics were ridiculous.”
Ridiculous or not, the song reached the top of the charts and has become one of the group’s most enduring tracks. Lukather admits that he didn’t always have an ear for hits. On call to track guitars for Michael Jackson’s Thriller LP, he balked at one of the album’s biggest hits. Adding rhythm guitars to the song, he chided producer Quincy Jones.
“I said, ‘"Beat It?"Are you serious, dude?’ I did the same thing when I played the solo on Olivia Newton John’s ‘Physical,'" Lukather says. "I was howling, laughing. These were songs that were huge. Massive.”
Toto’s new studio album will arrive in 2018, along with Lukather’s memoir. The stories behind those tracks, he says, are central to his new book, which will come out in early 2018. Writing it, he says, has brought some painful memories to the surface, but, he adds, there will be plenty of laughter involved as well.
“I’ve lost 54 people in two years,” he says. “That’s hard to take. But on the positive side, you get to learn about how my career came together. I talk a lot about the famous sessions, who played what, etc. There’s funny stories about my insane life. It’s not really a sex-drugs tell-all. I do tell a few stories that are just so damn funny they deserve to be in print. But I ask the permission of people that were involved. I’ve got kids that are going to read this stuff someday.”
Toto performs at Salina’s Stiefel Theatre Saturday, July 1.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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