Remembering Joe Porcaro (November 1994 Feature)

With the passing of studio great Joe Porcaro, we’ve gone back into the vault for his November 1994 Modern Drummer feature, in which we learned about his path to the top of the L.A. studio scene, and got an inside view of what it was like during the heyday of live soundtrack work.

Joe Porcaro can still recall the night before his first big L.A. session, laying in bed, staring at the ceiling the whole night through. It was a record date for Nancy Sinatra. Who knew what would be thrown at him the next morning? It was twenty-six years ago, but Porcaro still remembers the fears he had, such as whether he would be confronted with a tough mallet part. As it happened, he played orchestra bells, tambourine, and timps, and all went fine.

He shouldn’t have been concerned. Porcaro had been preparing since he was six years old, accompanying his dad—a part-time snare drummer in an Italian symphonic band in Connecticut—to gigs. In drum-and-bugle corps, Porcaro played the drum cadence in between the songs during the fiestas for the Saints. At eight, he began to take reading lessons from the conductor of that band, and the clarinet player taught him about time signatures and note values. To pay for lessons, Porcaro shined shoes outside a pool room, zeroing in on the winners he knew would tip him well. Advertisement

Porcaro also had a few lessons with a pit drummer from a local theater, and he participated in a Catholic Youth Organization band with his friend Emil Richards. But all of this was a prelude to the serious studying that followed when he came in contact with Al Lepak and Hartt College.

While learning the nuts and bolts with Lepak, Porcaro and the instructor became very close, with Lepak even inviting Joe to attend rehearsals with him. At seventeen Porcaro was asked to be the third percussionist with the Hartford Symphony. Interestingly enough, Joe, who still feels his mallet playing is inferior to his proficiency on other instruments, ended up taking over the mallet chair in the symphony when Emil Richards was drafted. (Joe then finally bought an old xylophone to woodshed!)

Jazz exploded in Porcaro’s life around this time, and being just two hours from New York, the teenager traveled to Birdland to sit in the bleachers. It wasn’t long before he was packing up quickly at the symphony rehearsals to make it to his gig as house drummer at the local jazz club. Advertisement

Between those two jobs and his weekend stint playing at a Greek restaurant, Joe was becoming an expert at odd meters. “Playing in the symphony orchestra and in chamber groups,” Porcaro recalls, “we did pieces like Stravinsky’s ’Les Noces’ and ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’—which are both in odd times. It’s one of the best challenges for a percussionist. I also performed Bartok’s ‘Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion,’ which also has a lot of odd-time playing. In the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, we did ‘The Rite of Spring’ and I played the second timpani part. And at the Greek restaurant, where they had some great belly dancers, all their music was in seven, nine, eleven, or thirteen. If I was playing in nine and lost it, I would never hear the end of it from those girls.” [laughs]

One summer, percussionist Emil Richards, who was doing well in the L.A. studio scene, returned to Connecticut on vacation. He planted the seed in Porcaro’s mind. Joe visited Emil out in L.A. to see what doing sessions really consisted of, and by the end of the week, Joe told himself that, with the exception of mallets, he could handle the studios. So Porcaro went back to Connecticut and spent a year working on mallets before packing up his wife and four kids—Jeff, Mike, Steve, and Joleen—and moving west.

It was the right decision. Through recommendation and ability, Porcaro’s session work as drummer/percussionist began almost immediately, and it hasn’t slowed much since. In fact, his career in music has been impressive: He has worked with nearly every important composer in Hollywood; he’s written two drum books, Joe Porcaro Drumset Method and Odd Times—A New Approach to Jazz, Latin and Rock; he’s co-director at the Percussion Institute of Technology in Hollywood; and he’s currently involved in a pair of businesses that market drumsticks and instrument covers. Advertisement

Still a first-call percussionist for film and TV, Porcaro knows that his experience and thirst for knowledge is responsible. He still finds time to play in jazz clubs once a month, and he is well-known as a man who loves to improve at his craft.

MD: Do you remember anything about doing your first TV session, Daktari?

Joe: I was very impressed that Shelly Manne, a drummer I had admired all my life, was also the composer.

MD: Were you nervous?

Joe: I was nervous as all hell. When studio players go to work, they’re a bit on edge.

MD: Are you always a little on edge?

Joe: Not always, although I think it’s healthy to have that little edge. It keeps you sharp.

MD: What did you know about click tracks?

Joe: I had never worked with a click track up until then.

MD: So you walked into the first session and were met with a click track?

Joe: Right. [laughs] I got used to it pretty quickly. I had dealt with metronomes before, but this was a little different because you’re listening to a click and following a conductor. Of course, not everything was on click. A lot of studio work is done to timing, so the conductor has a big clock up there. There’s a timing sheet showing how long a cue has to be, and the conductor knows how many beats per minute it should be. Shelly Manne had good time, and he worked very well with a timing clock.

There’s a funny story about Shelly and how we became friends. I had been giving my son Jeff lessons every week when he was young, and before I knew it, he was showing me some hip stuff. I’ll never forget one day I was doing a Mancini date at Universal. I was playing percussion and Shelly was the drummer. I was writing something down when Shelly came over and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m putting together some stuff with rudiments.” And he said, “You don’t need that shit. Who the hell uses rudiments?” I said, “Well, these rock drummers are coming up with some hip stuff, Shelly. My son showed me a thing with paradiddles that’s pretty hip.” He politely said, “Aw, get lost.” Advertisement

Then Mancini said, “Shelly, I want you to get this locomotive thing these drummers are getting into on the hi-hat.” Shelly tried and was scuffling with it, trying to play 16th notes with one hand. Henry was saying, “No, no, that’s not it.” I went over to Shelly and said, “Look, my son showed me this beat with paradiddles and inverted paradiddles. You won’t have to work half as hard as you’re working.” I wrote down the paradiddle hi-hat pattern where the left hand comes back on the backbeat on 2 and 4. It was right, left, right, right. Left, right, right, left, so you would hear the backbeat on 2 and you’d ghost the last left hand. Shelly started messing with it and he picked it up right away.

The next time we did that cue, Shelly played that pattern and Henry said, “That’s it, Shelly. That’s what I wanted.” I don’t think he put down rudiments after that, and from then on I became his best friend. In fact, he wrote the introduction to my drum book.

MD: Were you primarily playing percussion on these dates?

Joe: I played a lot of drums, too. At Universal, after Shelly, I was probably one of the number-one drumset players. It was an interesting time. There was a little era where Jeff met David Hungate and David Paich, and they got hot around town as a rhythm section. They called them the Youngbloods. Jeff had been playing at the Studio City Park with the band he had in high school, Rural Still Life, and Jules Chaikin, this well-known contractor in town, happened to be there. He heard the band and freaked over the drummer. He went over to Jeff and asked him his name. The very next week, Chaiken came over and said, “I heard your son play last week. He knocked me out. He’s a hell of a little drummer.” Before I knew it, the contractors were calling for Jeff. Advertisement

MD: Did you get to work together?

Joe: When Marty Paich took over Ironside at Universal, it required a real funky rhythm section, so they hired Jeff, Paich, and Hungate to be part of the rhythm section. There’s Jeffrey, seventeen years old, playing at Universal with all these heavyweight studio guys.

I remember one day Jeff was in the drum booth and I was playing congas on a session for a TV movie. He looked over at me and shook his head—in other words, saying, “Dad, this isn’t for me.” He was very bored on those dates. After that he wouldn’t take that kind of studio call. He only enjoyed record dates. Contractors would see me on the date and say, “Why isn’t your son taking my dates?” I said, “Hey, he’s his own person now.” He had an incredible opportunity to become the number-one studio drummer if he wanted to. He didn’t want it.

MD: That’s an interesting point of discussion—creativity in the studio. Do you feel stimulated?

Joe: That’s a hard question because there are so many different types of dates. Some of the music wasn’t demanding. It had no groove to it. Here’s a seventeen-year-old kid rolling on a cymbal, hitting a triangle. Advertisement

There’d be maybe four bars of time and that was it. You couldn’t get too raucous and you had to play real simple. For me, it was always a challenge coming up with the right conga beat. With the percussion thing they’d go, “We want some kind of a sound here. The triangle isn’t right. What else can we do there? I need a weird sound.” It was kind of challenging to put a cymbal on a timp and hit the cymbal and push the pedal down. Emil Richards has all these instruments you can rent, but when you’re on a date and they need you to come up with a weird sound on the spur of the moment, you have to get your imagination going.

MD: Can you recall some of the more creative sessions?

Joe: Any time I’ve ever worked with Lalo Schifrin. I played some drums for him on Mission Impossible. That was always a challenge because there was a lot of playing in five, and I had to come up with a beat he would be happy with.

MD: Things weren’t always necessarily written out?

Joe: Oh, no. I’m pretty famous for playing what’s not there. [laughs] And I don’t mean it quite like that. You have to be careful. There was an era when I was playing a lot of drums, and that was because I would come up with things they were pretty happy with. Advertisement

If they wrote in odd times, my experience helped them along. Because of my odd-time experience in drums, if I play congas or any hand percussion, I just transfer my thinking over to that. If I’m playing drums in five and I think of some permutations to embellish what I’m playing, I use those same concepts playing hand percussion. If I’m playing congas in five and I see a pattern, what they write is usually pretty bland, so I’ll see how far I can go with my own concept. Sometimes I might go too far and they’ll say, “Hey, that’s too busy.” You have to be careful. Sometimes it works and you’re a hero, and sometimes it’s too busy. There were times when I worked for Dave Grusin and I had to record a tambourine part in seven. Some guys have trouble just playing in seven. On this particular movie I played mostly percussion and timps, but he needed to overdub some rhythm. It was a cue in seven, and I felt good about the fact that he was happy with what I came up with. I did all his movies after that.

It is also creative when you get on a movie call, and something the composer wrote doesn’t work out. The producer will say to the composer, “What the hell were you thinking of? This isn’t happening for this scene.” So the composer comes out and he’s either going to rewrite it or say, “Guys, help me.” He’s not ashamed to admit it: “I’ve got to do something here; what can you come up with?” So you need to ad-lib. And with the tabla stuff, for instance, they’ll just give you what they call a sketch, a skeleton. Some guys will literally write the part out.

MD: Let’s take it from the beginning. You get a call, and…

Joe: A contractor gets together with the composer and they figure out the budget and what it calls for. How big an orchestra? How many percussionists? Let’s say there are five, which is about average. Sometimes it’s less, but it’s been pretty big lately. Let’s say he or she wants Emil Richards, Bob Zimmitti—who’s a great snare drummer, he and I think the same way—Larry Bunker, myself, and maybe Mike Fisher on electronics. The timpanist is classified by himself because of the way they’re writing for timpani lately. He has so much to think about, so much timing and work, that they leave him alone as far as percussion. Believe me, he’s worth every dime he gets. The timpanist usually gets time and a half, sometimes double, because it’s such a demanding chair. Things are not disorganized, somebody has to be the straw boss in the percussion section—“You play this, you play that, you play that.” Let’s say it’s Emil Richards. He’ll look at the music and say, “Joe, you play snare drum. Bob, you play congas. Larry, you play vibes. Mike, you’re on electronics.” And it goes very smoothly. Whoever is asked to be the straw boss gets time and a half, too. Advertisement

MD: So you get the call and it tells you where to be and when.

Joe: The call might be, “MGM, Monday morning, the 24th, 10:00 a.m., double session,” which is 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. The call may say, “Joe, you are to bring the instruments”—which means I’m the straw boss—and “Call the copyist.” I’ll call the Fox Library and say, “This is Joe Porcaro. I need to know what we need for percussion on James Newton Howard’s date on Monday the 24th for Wyatt Earp,”and they’ll give me a list of all the instruments we need.

On the actual date, I get there an hour ahead of time and get all the instruments out. The guys all get there, the music is passed out, and I open the book and say, “Okay, on this cue, Bob, you play snare drum. Bunk, I want you to play bass drum.” On another call, Larry Bunker will be on timps.

We just did the next Karate Kid movie for Bill Conti. Emil Richards is always first percussionist for him. Usually Larry is on timps, and Bill likes the way I play tabla and snare drum. For that one, it said tabla. On Huckleberry Finn I did snare drum, which was all this intricate, real quiet snare drum playing with the trumpets. Certain composers want you for certain things. Advertisement

MD: How much time do you have to look at your part?

Joe: We arrive at the studio, they pass out the music, I uncover the timps and let the heads get settled into the room temperature. I open up the music and start marking how many notes I need to tune and where I have changes. I look at the music and the conductor runs it down so the engineer can get a balance. We run it down maybe two or three times, and then we start recording.

Movies are a little more relaxed than a television serial. That’s where it can really get hairy. I used to do shows like I Dream of Jeannie, where within three hours you had to record two, sometimes three shows. They came in with pounds of music, but they’re short cues. We’d run it down once and start recording, run down the next cue and record, run down the next cue and record. I remember doing some of those I Dream of Jeannie shows where I had to play pretty difficult xylophone parts.

MD: Have you ever been unable to do your part?

Joe: So far, thank God, I’ve never been hung for playing a mallet part. But if I did, I’d just say, “If this was such a difficult part, you called the wrong guy.” I don’t advertise that I’m a hot mallet player. I can play mallets and I can play some pretty difficult parts, but hopefully I’m not going to get nailed. I do the best I can. But I don’t panic like I used to. When I first started doing this I thought, “When am I going to get nailed?” But I never did. Actually, today it’s a little easier because if I blow a part, I can overdub. There wasn’t as much overdubbing years ago. But I’ve been on some calls where I had to play some xylophone parts and said to myself, “This is it. You’re either going to play this or you’re out of here.” And I did it. Advertisement

I would put the part in my case, go home, and try to play that part, but at home I couldn’t do it. Something happens to you when you’re in the studio with your subconscious—your adrenaline—and you say, “I’ve got to do this.” And you do it. I don’t know how I played some of the parts I’ve had to play.

MD: Do you remember a session where sweat formed on your brow?

Joe: Quite a few. [laughs] There were a couple of sessions where I had to play some pretty tough mallet parts, for instance, for the movie Mame. It wasn’t so much whether it was a xylophone part or a snare drum part that was difficult. What was hairy about it was the music in general was so difficult, with all kinds of changing meters. When we did The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Wild Bunch with Jerry Fielding, there were so many changing meters. I played timps on The Fugitive, a more current movie, and that was a pretty tough part, again with changing meters all over the place.

When I used to do albums with Toto, originally I would go in there and play tambourine, vibes, a little conga…but all of a sudden, the musicians in the rock bands became very sophisticated. People like Lenny Castro, who is a specialist in certain areas, began to come in. If they want a vibe player, they go out and get Larry Bunker or Emil Richards. Advertisement

I think one of the most pressured moments I ever had was overdubbing for Jeff and David Paich. Guys like that and James Newton Howard are so finicky about the time. If you play on top, they notice it in two seconds. I might think I was right with the click, but they could say I’d have to still hold back. Before Jeff passed away, I overdubbed on “Jake to the Bone.” That tune was in seven, and Jeff wanted me to play muffled bell plates. These are steel plates, and I played them with triangle beaters. Then I had to play tabla on a ballad. Everybody would leave the room and it would be just Jeff and me in the studio until things got pretty tight. Then Paich would walk in, which made it more intense. Those were some pretty scary moments.

On the album before that, The Seventh One, we did “Mushanga.” It was rare that they used me on congas, but Jeff wanted me to play congas and squeeze drum on that track. It was a pretty hip rhythm, like an African type of thing. It was just Jeff and me. He wanted to see what it sounded like with congas, so I started playing and he said, “Hey, that’s pretty decent, let’s keep it. I want you to do it.” “You sure you don’t want to wait for Lenny?” “No, no, you do it.”

Then there was the night I was doing Blood In and Blood Out with Bill Conti when Jeff passed away. I was playing tabla when the stagehand came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said I needed to call my daughter immediately. I knew something was seriously wrong because he wouldn’t have come over right in the middle of a take. I thought something had happened to my wife—why would my daughter be calling? I went to the phone and came back and explained they had just rushed Jeff to the hospital. The contractor said, “We need one more take on that.” We were so close and it was just a forty-second cue. It was difficult in the respect that I was playing tabla and I had to play with a click track. There wasn’t anything to read except bar lines; I was ad-libbing what he asked for—a hip rhythmic part. So I did one more take and jumped in the car. That was crazy. To be honest with you, I was probably in shock. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Advertisement

MD: Can you think of any lessons—musically or politically—that you’ve learned along the way?

Joe: If you get along with people and don’t have an attitude, you can make it in the business. But you do have to be a great player. Musicians are a commodity. There are guys who get on the phone and hustle themselves. I couldn’t do that, but there’s nothing wrong with being a good competitor. You don’t have to be malicious or step on anybody’s toes while you’re blowing your own horn. Get seen, get to know people, and be the best at what you do.

Interview by Robyn Flans

Photos by Michael Bloom