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Like Father Like Son

by Gary Farmer

Surprisingly enough, much of the drumming heard in today’s commercial media is aptly executed by a distinguished pair of performers, both of the same family, but of two different generations. The father, 48 year old Joe Porcaro, is responsible for a lot of the percussion recorded for such TV series’ as, The Bionic Woman, Baretta, The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman, to name a few. He is also involved in starting a west coast school of percussion.His son, 24 year old Jeff Porcaro, is also an active studio drummer with an astounding list of credits, considering his youthful age. Jeff has worked with pop-rock artists Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, Seals and Crofts, Sonny and Cher, and Barbra Streisand. He is also currently co-leading a band with keyboard player David Paich. The group is called Toto, and it’s projected to be one of the hottest recording groups ever.Both interviews were conducted separately in the cozy garage reformed studio of the Porcaro home in Sherman Oaks, California, just north of Hollywood.

Joe PorcaroMD: Where are you originally from?

JOE: I was horn in New Britain, Connecticut, which is about fifteen miles from Hartford.

MD: How did you first get interested in drumming?

JOE: My father was a drummer in an Italian symphonic band, those bands that used to march in the street. My father played the snare drum. I used to go along with him, and learned to read music from a friend who played the clarinet. I hadn’t studied at all at that point because I was playing and marching with my father, learning by ear. I was just playing snare drum, and when I moved to Hartford I joined the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). We wanted to get a jazz group going, but I hadn’t yet played on a drum set. The first time I played on a set was when a friend of my father’s left his set at the house. I set them up one day when my father went to work and started wailing away, but I broke the head. I hid it under the bed, (laughter). I was about 9 years old. Finally, we got the band started and one of the priests played piano. Emil Richards, a well-known percussionist here in L.A. was there and played the xylophone.

MD: What kind of drum equipment were you using back then?

JOE: My first set consisted of a bass drum from the bugle corps, a field drum mounted on the bass drum acting as a tom-tom, and another field drum for a snare. We also used the cymbals from the drum corps. That was my first set of drums. In fact, Louis Bellson played on that set. Our church was next to the State Theatre in Hartford where all the bands came through. There was a playground next to the theatre where all the neighborhood kids would hang out, and when the name bands came in, they would see us playing softball. All the bands had softball teams back in those days and they’d play us on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. The singer in the CYO band went back stage in the theatre one time, and got Louie to go to the rehearsal hall. He was very young, and had just joined the Tommy Dorsey band. That was a wild experience for me, watching Louie play on that funky old drum set.

MD: Speaking of Tommy Dorsey, I see your name here on his album cover.

JOE: The Dorsey band was the very first band I went on the road with. I was only with him a couple of months. From there I joined Bobby Hackett’s quartet. I was also the house drummer in a jazz club in Hartford, so I got a chance to play with a lot of great people. This club would bring in people like Zoot Simms, Freddie Hubbard, and Donald Byrd.

MD: What about formal instruction?

JOE: I was self-taught until I turned sixteen. Then I realized my real ambition was to make it as a drummer, so I took a few lessons. I studied with a guy named Bob Shields, who was the drummer at the State Theatre. We worked strictly on reading, and playing the snare drum. Later, I met Al Lepak, and it was a whole new ball game with him. He had a system of working on rudiments that was very complete. He’s the head of the percussion department at the University of Hartford, and turned out a lot of great players. He’s responsible for me being here, along with Emil Richards, Bob Zimmitti, Rich Lapore, and a lot of others. Al made musicians out of us. I was with the Hartford Symphony, and played almost every opera that had ever been written. But, my major ambition was drum set. Eventually, that CYO thing developed into a sixteen piece big band. We’d play all of the big band charts. When I was sixteen and seventeen, I’d rehearse with a lot of the big bands around town, and jam every Sunday afternoon. There were a couple of black clubs where we’d go to jam and sit in during the week. That’s where I first met Horace Silver.

MD: Of all your early musical experiences, where do you think you gained the most?

JOE: I really think I learned a lot as house drummer in that jazz club, working a whole summer with pianist Jaki Byard. He taught me an awful lot. He moved on to play with Maynard Ferguson, and did some teaching at Berklee.

MD: What brought you out to Los Angeles?

JOE: I wanted to go further musically. I knew Emil Richards was living and working out here. He had come back to Connecticut and rapped to me about L.A. Of course, when you’re a musician and you keep working at it, you try to become the best you can and you want to be where it’s happening musically. The way Emil talked, it just seemed like L.A. was the place to be especially with the demand for studio work. We came here in 1968. The guy upstairs must have really been taking care of me, because when I got here I had no trouble getting work. The first year I was in L.A. I made more money than I’d made in five years back in Connecticut. But it stemmed back to the experience I’d had back there; playing jazz, symphonic, operas, summer music theaters, everything. I wouldn’t have had the chance to develop that much in the big city with all the competition.

MD: Do your current experiences require you to read a lot of music?

JOE: Sure. Having played all sorts of repertoire as a member of the Hartford Symphony for seventeen years I feel confident reading. When I came here I was ready for just about anything. But let’s face it, you never learn everything. I still come across things that are mind boggling. I remember Emil showing me some figures that Frank Zappa layed on them for a record session. Figures I had never seen before. And I thought I had seen it all. We learn every day.

MD: Do you still manage to find time for practice?

JOE: Oh sure. It’s hard to do it every day because of the studio demands, but certainly when I have a day off. I have some hand warm-up exercises that I do, and I try to listen a lot. I try to get to the clubs where my kids are playing, as well as others. I think it’s very important to keep up with what’s happening.

MD: Any preferences in drum equipment?

JOE: No, I just use whatever equipment comes through the house here. I use Ludwig drums in the studios. Of the new equipment I’ve seen, fiberglass is great for live playing. It really projects. I even like the sound it produces in the studios. But, I prefer wood drums. It’s a warmer sound. I don’t really make too much out of drums. I hear of companies making 4-ply shells and 6-ply shells. Truthfully, it doesn’t make that much difference to me. Oh, I suppose the trend toward multiple drum set-ups is OK for the contemporary rock stuff, but for jazz playing, I don’t think it makes any difference.

MD: You use the matched grip?

JOE: Yeah. I started out with the traditional grip, but changed over because I play mallets a lot. Since I hold the sticks matched for mallets, I decided to go all one way. I try to influence my students that way, but I don’t force them. I can teach either way.

MD: Have you gotten into the electronic thing at all?

JOE: No, not at all. Jeff has, but I haven’t. I’m not really that interested, plus it’s much too complicated for me. But I’ll tell you, the more I see it, the more I’m beginning to understand it. Who knows, someday I may give it a try.

MD: How do you view the drummer’s role in any musical setting, solo or ensemble?

JOE: I’m not really wild about solos, but if a drum solo is musical, it can be beautiful. People say a particular solo was, “too technical”, but I like to see the virtuosity of the player. At the same time, I like to hear solos that are musical. One of the best solos I ever heard was by Philly Jo Jones, who is one of my favorite drummers. He did a tune on his own album called Salt Peanuts, which I thought was a gem. Max Roach did a gorgeous solo on the same tune recorded live in Canada with Charlie Parker. I’ve also heard some beautiful solos by Buddy and Louie too. In regards to ensemble playing, I like to feel I’m the backbone of the rhythm section but I don’t want to be a drummer who just keeps time for everybody. It all depends on what the rest of the rhythm section is like. When everybody is playing time the same way, I like to get loose and stretch out a little bit.

MD: Are there any new young drummers you particularly enjoy listening to?

JOE: Harvey Mason, for what’s going on today. And Steve Gadd is really way up there for me. I love what he does. John Guerin. And, my son Jeff. I really like to hear him live. He’s very exciting to watch. He gets into a little show thing sometimes, but he’s got a lot happening for him musically.

MD: Have you been doing any clinics?

JOE: I’ve done a few clinics, but I really don’t like to do them. I try to get into basic things for the kids. So many guys are doing clinics nowadays. I try to show them the things they don’t get from the others. Mostly basic stuff. We have an educational project that might be happening here in correlation with the Guitar Institute of Technology run by Howard Roberts and Pat Hicks. They’ve approached Emil Richards to come up with a staff for a west coast percussion school with the same type of format they have with students going to college. Emil and I are trying to make it happen, and if it does, it will be one of the best schools anywhere. We’re going to go all out. It will be a complete percussion school where a drummer will be able to get the best education possible. It’s essential that young students study with a teacher who will show him the basics. It’s important to be in an environment where you have to play everything.

MD: What else are you involved in musically at the present?

JOE: Mostly TV serials. Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman. Wonder Woman, Baretta. There’s a Movie of the Week with the Fonz coming out that I’m playing on. I also did Hawaii Five-O, and Medical Center last year. I’m very happy with the work in the studios out here. I think I’ve reached the plateau. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing everything I’ve ever wanted to do in music.


Jeff Porcaro

Jeff Porcaro 1Twenty-four year old Jeff Porcaro was born in Hartford, Connecticut and first got interested in drumming due to the influence of his father. He began playing seriously at age seven though he is sure “I was playing even earlier than that. Only my father would actually know when I got started.” Formal lessons initially came from papa Joe, followed by further studies with Bob Zimmitti and Rich Lapore. Jeff clearly remembers his early drumming years.

“I was using my father’s drums, and when I was thirteen I got into a rock band. I remember walking home from school one day and a friend came running down the street and told me I got a new drum set. Some kid had won a Slingerland champagne sparkle set in a poker game and he sold it to my father with cases and cymbals for something like $250. It consisted of an 8″ X 12″ and 16″ X 16″ tom, 22″ bass, a snare, and a couple of cymbals, 20″ and 18″. I was only aware of my father’s work back then. I listened to other drummers, but I wasn’t really aware of them. Eventually I left high school. I didn’t actually graduate, but I did get a diploma. I got this gig with Sonny and Cher and I left a week or two before finals. I never took the finals, but they gave me a diploma anyway. I had to tell them how much I’d be making, and why I wanted to leave and what it meant as far as my future was concerned. They were quite pleased. They let me go without any quarrel.”

Though he left school early in return for a drumming career, he doesn’t necessarily suggest that high school age drummers in search of musical fame and fortune follow the same path. “In general, I wouldn’t recommend that an individual drop out of school at say his junior year for an opportunity like mine. I don’t think my parents would have allowed me to leave if I was any younger. If it was totally up to me I probably would have, because I was a shlock in school.(From my personal experience, going on the road at eighteen did a lot more for me than becoming a school musical genius. They’re schooled, and they’re slick, but there’s no soulful feeling from those guys. The school bit doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s good to look at, and you say, ‘Oh yeah, beautiful, I like that, beautiful touch, you’ve got stick control’…but those guys would fall apart if they had to play with Chuck Raney, or someone like that. If they played anything, they would fall apart.”

Jeffs early dates with the team of Sonny and Cher led to some road work and recording dates with Seals and Crofts, on three of their albums. In 1977, he joined Steely Dan and stayed on about four months. All of that was followed by his work with Boz Scaggs. In between, there were numerous recording sessions with Jackson Browne, Barbara Streisand, Helen Reddy, Leo Sayer and Diana Ross, among others. After several years of backing other people, Jeff’s primary interest now has turned toward the success of his new group.

“David Paich and I started our own group and plan to make our own album. David is the keyboard player who wrote Lowdown, Lido Shuffle, and What Can I Say for Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees album. The group also includes my brother Steve, Dave Hungate, bass, Steve Lukather, guitar, Bobby Kimball, keyboards and lead vocal. At this point we’re calling ourselves Toto. What we’re going after is triple-platinum albums. It looks like it might happen. We have a lot of offers right now, and we’re in negotiation with several record companies. It’ll be a real commercial thing. We have a manager who does Chicago, Rufus, and a couple of other groups. When it comes to equipment, Jeff has a set for practically every musical situation. A real stickler for the precise sound for each situation he runs up against, his assortment of gear is astounding.

“I have three Ludwig drum sets. Two of them consist of 22″ bass drums, 9 X 13, 10 X 14, 16 X 16, and 18 X 18 toms. One set is black and the other is blue. The third set is an older one. It’s made of wood, with a 24″ bass, 8 X 12, 9 X 13, and an 18″ tom. I also carry another 26″ bass drum. I have two Gretsch sets. One has 8 X 12, 9 X 13, and 16 X 16 toms, and the other an 18″ bass drum, 7 X 10, 8 X 12 and 14 X 14 toms. I have a Camco set that they made for me with a 24″ bass, 8 X 12, 9 X 13, 16 X 16, and 18 X 18 toms. I had Steinway Piano Company do the finish on them. They’re wood and the shells are thick. Everything is brass plated, so it’s all black and brass, with a solid brass 6 1/2″ snare drum. And then there’s my Slingerland with the 28” bass drum. That’s my ‘heavy metal’ set with everything in chrome, 20 X 20 floor tom, and an 1 1 X 15. The Ludwig was basically my all around studio set. I got into Gretsch for live performances. I use clear plastic heads on them, all wide open. Fiberglass drums, plexiglass drums and all that is bullshit. There’s something about them I just don’t like. There’s something about the sound. You can blow them all away. I go for the wood sound.

“As of late the recording engineers are getting into putting the drums live out into the open room. The west coast recording techniques were pretty much standardized in the late 60’s and early 70’s to the point where everybody’s snare drum sounded the same. And you had to have them that way because that’s the way the engineers wanted it. But now, peoples’ heads are stretching out. Guys are getting back into putting drums out into the open room with just two overhead mikes, and getting an unbelievable sound. I basically have different set-ups for different recording projects. With Jackson Browne I’d have a more mellow sounding set with huge toms for his kind of music. When I’m doing Boz Scaggs it may be a little crisper, maybe wide open. But if Boz happens to do Lido Shuffle, which is kind of Led Zeppelinish, then out comes the big giant set. The Camco was made especially for live performances. It looks good, and sounds good too. I also have a slew of snare drums, all different sizes, ages and materials. I own four cymbals and one pair of hi-hats. Out of all those sets, just one set of cymbals, and only one of those cymbals is solid, my 22″ ride. All of my cymbals were once my father’s. That’s a standing joke between us. ‘Hey dad, can I borrow one of your cymbals?,’ and he never sees it again.”

Following along the lines of ‘a set for all occasions’, Jeff has distinctive opinions and preferences in head choices and tuning. He puts forth a total effort to achieve the proper balance of sound to complement the styles of different artists.

“For recording, I mainly use Ludwig DB-750 drum heads on all my Ludwig toms. I use bottom heads. It’s a thin head, and the best sounding. I change the heads on all the drums of my recording sets every three days. I tune them low and fat as hell and they sound perfect for recording. They’re thin, but they’re tuned so loose, they get wrinkles. After a few hard takes they get dents and they’re no good anymore. I use Remo Ambassador on the snare drum, and some of the Remo clear plastic on the other sets. No black dots. I don’t like any of that. One set has the Evans heads, tuned real tight.

“As far as snare drums go, I recently hit upon something that’s a little hard to talk about, but you have to hear it on records. A lot of them like that big, fat, meaty snare drum like you hear on Fleetwood Mac. That real thick sound. I use a 6 1/2 metal snare with the bottom head pretty tight and the snares going all the way across. I put the top head on and use a splicing block, like those used for splicing tape, or something about that size. I put it together with some foam, and I wrap a piece of leather around and lay it so the foam is resting against the head. I don’t like any internal muffling, or cloth with tape. A wallet sounds good on top of the snare. The top head is tuned loose, to where each lug is about to fall off. Start hitting it with the snares real loose and raise the pitch of the head from that position, tightening the snares slightly. Within about three rotations, you’ve got yourself a nice sounding snare drum. I keep the top heads loose and the bottom heads tight on my toms to get the pitch to bend a little.”

Coinciding with many of the “new” players, Jeff’s preference in stick grip leans toward the matched. With the standard grip he found blisters developing on the middle finger of his left hand simply because of the power with which he plays. “I don’t have any of the chops I use to have with my left hand, but I feel a lot better using the new grip. It’s the only way there is. My father was a professor of the traditional grip and even he switched to the matched grip.

Jeff also has some strong feelings on matters ranging from drum sticks to drum electronics.

“I hate sticks. They’re not like they used to be. I remember when you could buy a pair of sticks and they would last awhile. They’d feel good. The wood was nice, and you knew it just by the feel of the stick. When you hit the tip on a cymbal, you could feel it in your hand. Now sticks are warped and the wood doesn’t feel right. They don’t last as long. I usually use a stick similar to a 5A in weight, but not as thick, and maybe a little shorter.

As far as electronics go, I just did a bunch of records using the Syndrum. I was one of the first guys to see the prototype of that. Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine and myself were using those in recording when the prototypes came out. Now, everybody is using them. That Carly Simon tune, Nobody Does it Better, was one of the things I did using the Syndrum. The new Hall and Oates, Boz Scaggs and Leo Sayer albums have it all over the place. They’re the best electronic drums I’ve heard or played. You can get them to sound just like a drum.”

Recently a new homeowner, Jeff hopes to fix up his garage for use as a studio, and with the new group, have more time for practice and study.

“I haven’t had much of a chance to do any practicing. It’s really weird because when you start doing lots of sessions and working every day, you have to start meeting up to what people imagine of you as a player. I’m really not into that. I don’t care what people think of me, as opposed to being a really good all-around player. I just enjoy what I’m doing.”

At the ripe age of 24, Jeff has also developed a fine ear for the work of a wide variety of drummers, along with some astute feelings on the importance of a drummer’s concern for musicality, first and foremost.

“One guy that has really impressed me is Steve Gadd. The finest drummer out right now. He’s unbelievably straight and well schooled. He’s getting to be known as one of the most schooled drummers in history. He’s amazing. He can read anything you put in front of him. He blows peoples’ minds. Then there are people like Jim Gordon and Harvey Mason. I wouldn’t put myself up with any of those guys. They’re the guys that are doing it today. Ed Green, Rick Mirada, Bernard Purdie, and Jim Keltner. In the poprock field, Keltner has to be the master. The shame is that he’s done a lot of sessions and is not someone everybody is aware of. He’s done a lot of big records with John Lennon, Joe Cocker, and all the George Harrison things. Those aren’t the real Keltner though. The real Keltner is stuff like the original Delaney and Bonnie album, and the old Leon Russell, and his own group called Altitudes. He’s incredible. Among jazz players, there really aren’t many guys who are playing like Elvin, or Philly, or Art Blakey or any of those guys. When those guys do a solo in the jazz context of soloing, it’s cool because they play a chorus and still play musically. I’m not interested in a guy showing me what he can do rudimentally when it’s not musical. When you don’t hear any nice notes, or phrases, and when there’s no soul to it whatsoever, it’s like saying, ‘Hey, dig what I can do’. No thank you. That’s not for me.”