August 5, 2012, was the twentieth anniversary of revered studio and stage drummer Jeff Porcaro’s untimely passing. To mark that anniversary, Jeff’s bass-playing brother, Mike, released the CD Brotherly Love, which comprises a 2002 concert that celebrated the life and music of his fallen sibling. Here Mike reflects on the duo’s tight musical bond in the hugely successful band Toto.
Mike Porcaro was born on May 29, 1955, in South Windsor, Connecticut. Part of a true musical family, Mike is the younger brother of drummer Jeff, the older brother of keyboardist Steve, and the son of famed jazz drummer, percussionist, and teacher Joe. Of his early years as a musician, Mike says, “We each started as a drummer before we went to other instruments.”
In 1976, after playing together on countless sessions in L.A. and touring and recording as Boz Scaggs’ backup band, Jeff and Steve Porcaro, David Paich (keyboards and vocals), Steve Lukather (guitar and vocals), Bobby Kimball (vocals), and David Hungate (bass) formed Toto. The band’s first two albums went gold—the 1978 self-titled debut includes the hits “Hold the Line,” “I’ll Supply the Love,” and “Georgy Porgy,” while ’79’s Hydra features the top-thirty hit “99”—but in 1980 Hungate retired from touring, and Mike Porcaro, already familiar with Toto’s catalog, began filling in on the road.
Shortly after the group scored a handful of Grammys for 1982’s Toto IV (“Rosanna,” “Africa,” “I Won’t Hold You Back”), Hungate officially departed and went on to become one of Nashville’s top session players. Mike Porcaro, who’d already begun building an impressive reputation of his own, working with Seals & Crofts, Lee Ritenour, the Pointer Sisters, Donna Summer, Michael McDonald, Aretha Franklin, and Dionne Warwick, among others, joined the band on a full-time basis. Like the other members of Toto, Porcaro kept racking up freelance credits when not working on band projects, playing with Joe Walsh, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Steve Perry, Barry Manilow, and the Manhattan Transfer.
The bassist continued to tour and record with Toto until 2007, when Leland Sklar was asked to fill in for him. Porcaro had been experiencing unusual numbness in his fingers, and after a battery of tests he was diagnosed with the debilitating motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Early in 2012, keyboardist and close friend David Garfield produced a two-CD set by Porcaro called Brotherly Love, which captures a star-studded concert held in Koblenz, Germany, in 2002. The event marked ten years since Jeff Porcaro’s passing, and it featured Mike grooving with, in various combinations, the drumming giants Steve Gadd, Gregg Bissonette, Robin DiMaggio, John “JR” Robinson, and Bernard Purdie. Maintaining the family vibe, Joe Porcaro guested on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” while the brothers’ nephew Chase Duddy—only seventeen years old at the time—burned on Toto’s “English Eyes.” The list of vocalists on the show was equally impressive: Santana’s Alex Ligertwood, Toto’s Bobby Kimball, and former Deep Purple and current Black Country Communion singer Glenn Hughes.
Sadly, given his condition, Mike Porcaro rarely speaks to the press. MD was therefore honored to have the opportunity to chat briefly with the bassist and ask for his thoughts on his brother Jeff, some of his other favorite drummers, the Brotherly Love CD, and playing in a rhythm section.
“Jeff and I had an intuition with each other that comes from living and growing up together and always playing together since our earliest days. He was a special, singular person and drummer, and I gained so much from having the privilege of playing with him and spending so much time with him. Jeff was also a fun guy and an inspirational person, and every occasion is a memory I cherish.”
TIPS ON RHYTHM SECTION PLAYING
“When working with a drummer live or in the studio, I always defer to him as the timekeeper and the drive behind the music. After all, that’s the drummer’s main function, and if I have to take over that role, then we should be looking for another drummer. I would prefer to follow the drummer as opposed to using a click, but the way recording is these days, the click is often unavoidable because of sequenced parts, vocal fly-ins, etc. But you can never beat the natural time feel you get without a click. I believe that music should breathe a little, and this should be allowed for in the interpretation of the song.”
FAVORITE DRUMMERS TO PLAY WITH
“First of all, my brother Jeff, because we had the chemistry you could only get playing together for as many years as we did. Next, I would say the late Carlos Vega, my good friend, who was special in so many ways. Then there’s the great Steve Gadd, Gregg Bissonette, Bernard Purdie, JR Robinson, and of course Simon Phillips, who’s been my partner in Toto for the last twenty years. All of these drummers are special because of their time feel, interpretation, and incredible chops.”
“Without David ‘Creatchy’ Garfield, none of this would have been possible, and I’m grateful for his assistance on the project. The lineup of drummers was awesome, and I was thrilled and honored to play with such greats as Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, Gregg Bissonette, JR Robinson, Robin DiMaggio, and, most of all, my father, Joe Porcaro, and my nephew Chase Duddy, who did a fantastic job. Each of these drummers brings their own unique personality to their performance, and I was truly blessed to be on the stage with them and to have the chance to play with them again. And let’s not forget the great Lenny Castro on percussion, who was the glue that cemented it all together. I’m also grateful that we were able to record this tribute to my brother Jeff and that the end product sounded so amazingly good for a live performance put together in such a short time. The sound was awesome— kudos to David Garfield and Steve Sykes for the great production and mixes.”
DRUMMER DO’S AND DON’TS
“A drummer should never be late, try to show off, be high, or smell bad. And a drummer should always play in the pocket, have a great attitude, inspire the rest of the band, and have fresh-smelling breath.” Special thanks to David Garfield for assisting in setting up this interview. For more on the Brotherly Love CD, go to creatchy.com.
Jeff and Mike Porcaro had a one-of-a-kind musical relationship. Simon Phillips, Gregg Bissonette, JR Robinson, and David Garfield experienced the makings of that unique chemistry firsthand.
In the summer of 2010, Toto re-formed and went on a short European tour (with Nathan East on bass) to benefit Mike Porcaro. Simon Phillips joined the band after Jeff Porcaro’s passing in 1992 and has effectively driven it ever since. Today Phillips fondly recalls playing with Mike for the first time.
“It was August 31, 1992, at my first rehearsal with Toto,” Simon says. “I had just flown in from London and had been listening to all the songs on the plane. They had decided to tour in Jeff’s absence and had called me to fill the drum seat. Luke [Steve Lukather] asked me what song I would like to play first, and I suggested ‘Hydra.’ I remember how amazingly tight the band sounded and how effortless it was to play with Mike. With any bass player, if they’re great I almost don’t think about it—I just become one with them, and with Mike this was instant. His time was perfect and so consistent.
“We learned about each other’s way of playing,” Phillips continues, “and I’m sure it was quite a difference playing those songs with a drummer other than Jeff. However, it found its own groove and we always hit that pocket together. It was always solid and beautiful. Mike really had a way of sitting in the pocket and could adapt to the wide variety of styles that Toto covered. Also, in the studio Mike was a joy to record from an engineer’s standpoint. It was consistency forever, and he always knew just what to play to suit the song. I’ve had the opportunity to play with some of the world’s greatest bass players, and Mike is definitely part of that exclusive club.”
David Garfield has been close to the Toto camp and the Porcaro family for practically his whole life. “Mike Porcaro is one of the sweetest and most beautiful cats I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Garfield says. “He grew up in such a strong musical environment, and he brought a lot of taste and maturity to any musical situation he was a part of. His time is very steady and his touch is so accurate, with a clarity that’s complemented by his tone and warm sound.
“With his brother Jeff being such a sensation and icon,” Garfield continues, “Mike tended to be a bit more laid back, and he always inspired a sense of calm and well-being on any gig or session. Most of all, he really knew how to lock in with the drummer in a natural way that was very complementary to me as a keyboard player, and he always gave me a firm foundation to build on. Whether with Jeff, Vinnie Colaiuta, Carlos Vega, Steve Gadd, Steve Ferrone, Bernard Purdie, JR Robinson, or Gregg Bissonette, Mike always connected when we were all playing together.”
MD Pro Panelist Gregg Bissonette has considered Porcaro a dear friend for many years. “I did a European Toto tour with Mike in 1995, in support of the album Tambu, because Simon hurt his back,” Bissonette recalls. “What an honor that was—it was several months of groove bliss playing with Mike every night. At every gig I would look over to my right and see Mike, and I would think of him and his brother Jeff. Mike and Jeff look really similar and have the same groove and amazing sense of time. Mike never played out of time and never played a bad note. We also recorded quite a bit together in the Los Angeles studio scene over the years. I love Mike Porcaro; what an amazing friend and musician.”
Session great John “JR” Robinson played many record dates and live shows with Porcaro as well. “I always loved seeing Mike on sessions,” JR says. “His energy, musicality, and sheer coolness made any of those sessions fun and upbeat. I envisioned the bond between Jeff and him as we played. I would pick up certain musical concepts that I knew he had developed with Jeff. Mike and I also played live many times around L.A. His live vibe is where he shines. All of us as drummers have played with bass players who are a bit busy, but Mike has a complete, fat, groove oriented technique. This is what I look for in a bass player. Mike Porcaro is a true genius on bass.”