How Jeff Porcaro’s Sudden Death Changed Toto Forever
The death of Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was as unexpected as it was devastating. His band took years to find its way again, the hole in the music industry remains, and family and friends are still struggling to come to terms with it.
That this tragedy unfolded in such a mundane manner – Porcaro was stricken on Aug. 5, 1992 while doing yard work at his Hidden Hills., Calif., home – only complicated matters. Rumors of drug use began to filter out, followed by angry denials by his Toto bandmates, even as Porcaro's death was initially attributed to a heart attack brought on by a reaction to insecticide. He was only 38.
Jeff's wife Susan was left to raise their three young boys. Dozens of artists – not least of which was Toto, the band he co-founded with David Paich in the '70s – began the difficult search for a new drummer. (Some ended up using multiple sidemen in an attempt to mimic Porcaro's Swiss Army knife-like range of skills.) For Toto, however, Porcaro was more than a drummer. He was, quite literally, the heartbeat of the band – their unquestioned leader.
Paich and Steve Lukather got together in the awful days following Porcaro's death, and agreed that Toto – only a decade after their multi-platinum, multi-Grammy winning triumph with Toto IV – was over. “Jeff was our figurehead,” Lukather told Team Rock in 2016. “We were torn apart.”
They weren't the only ones. Jeff Porcaro had been playing professionally since he was 17, having left high school to tour with Sonny and Cher. Next, he joined Steely Dan, and his contributions there led to work on literally hundreds of albums. He played drums on Boz Scaggs' "Low Down," Pink Floyd's "Mother" and Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'," and on studio projects by Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Fogerty. All of this happened while the remarkably productive Porcaro helped lead Toto to superstardom, as well.
Paich said he and Jeff began as "the co-leaders of Toto," a group that also included sibling keyboardist Steve Porcaro and – after David Hungate's early '80s exit – bassist Mike Porcaro, as well. The children of famous jazz drummer Joe Porcaro, they seemed destined to success. But Jeff, members of Toto have said, eventually rose to his own level.
Their breakthrough with Toto IV was powered along by Jeff's inventive rhythms, from the shuffle beat on "Rosanna" – inspired, it's said, by Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain" – to the unorthodox, painstakingly constructed drum loop he created for the chart-topping "Africa." By then, Porcaro had become known as one of music's consummate craftsmen. Inside the Toto camp, he was also something more.
"He wasn’t just a drummer; he was an all-around musician," Paich told Modern Drummer in 1992. "I’ve played with a whole lot of drummers, and he’s the best I’ve ever played with. We never had to talk much. Everything was just understood. Our communication was non-verbal. It was mainly just eye contact between him and me. He was the brother I never had.”
Such was their lasting bond that Lukather said the same thing, almost word for word, years later in a 2015 talk with Smashing Interviews: "He was like the brother I never had."
Listen to Jeff Porcaro and Toto Perform 'Africa'
Porcaro's sudden absence sent Toto – already trying to deal with the loss of their third singer in as many albums – into a tailspin. They'd recorded 1992's Kingdom of Desire with Lukather as the main vocalist, and he was making plans to discuss the upcoming tour with Porcaro. Then, disaster struck.
"Jeff calls me on the phone and says, 'Come down to the house this weekend. I’m having a barbecue, fixing up the yard. We’ll figure out the set list for the tour. It’ll be great,'" Lukather told UCR in 2013. "And that night, he died. Nobody saw it coming. He had a bad heart and nobody knew it."
They'd ended the conversation, as always, by saying: "I love you, man." Hours later, Lukather was rushing toward the hospital, so stunned and disoriented that he ended up getting lost. At that point, all he knew was that Porcaro had suffered a seizure. “By the time I got there, Jeff was gone,” Lukather told Team Rock. "A doctor took me to a room, and Jeff was lying there on a fucking slab. They left me in that room alone with him, and I freaked out. I was screaming. They had to give me smelling salts."
Porcaro's Aug. 10 funeral drew more than 1,200 mourners, including everyone from fellow sessions guys to music legends like Eddie Van Halen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley and members of Crosby Stills and Nash. (An all-star tribute show even drew out the typically reclusive George Harrison.)
“For me, like many others, music will never be the same without Jeff around," a still-shaken David Hungate told Modern Drummer in 1992. "If there is any consolation, it is that his life’s work – the thousands of records he made and the songs he wrote – will stand forever as an indelible monument to his genius, and an inspiration to future generations of musicians. Those of us who had the great privilege of knowing Jeff and working with him can know that, for a while, we walked with a giant."
A month later, the more rock-oriented Kingdom of Desire arrived on store shelves boasting a weirdly prophetic cover image, personally chosen by Jeff Porcaro: A skeleton is seen trying to dig its way out of a grave. "It was like a premonition," Lukather told Team Rock. "As if he knew he wasn’t going to be around."
For Steve Porcaro, there was the small comfort of knowing that a relationship often fraught with sibling rivalry – "Jeff and I were always at each other’s throats," he told Team Rock – had evolving into something much more nurturing. "It wasn’t just me losing a brother," Steve said. "You see how it affects everyone – his wife, kids, my parents. Before he died, we’d been getting along fantastically. At least I had that to hang on to, thank God."
Their arguments, perhaps predictably, focused on the work. Steve was the confirmed technophile, while his brother was all about an organic feel. "Jeff was the coolest, hippest older brother I could ever dream for," Steve added. "He could show me such warmth at times, but he was such a musician’s musician. It came so easily for him, and he expected that from everybody he worked with – and I wasn’t that kind of guy. Jeff had this thing about being 'in the pocket.' If not? 'Get the fuck out of here.' There was definitely some brother shit going down, because I’d hear about him singing my praises when I wasn’t around."
Eventually, Toto changed their minds about quitting. They replaced Jeff Porcaro with Simon Phillips and returned to the road – but only because they simply had to. "Losing him threw us right the fuck off the horse," Lukather told UCR. "We had the tour booked, 40 people on the payroll, shows sold out. What are we gonna do? Even thinking about it right now, I feel like someone’s gotta be kidding me. We were in stun mode."
Jeff's family, led by an old pro, also encouraged Lukather and Paich to carry on. "What else could we do?" Lukather told Team Rock. "Sit at home and cry for the rest of our lives?"
Watch Jeff Porcaro and Toto Perform 'Live For Today'
Still, it would be three years before Toto returned to the studio. More albums have followed, even as original lead singer Bobby Kimball reunited with Toto then left again. Lukather eventually became the band's lone remaining founding member; frustrated, he briefly disbanded the group. Predictably, a Porcaro brother led them back together, though this time in awful circumstances: Toto reunited to play benefit shows for Mike Porcaro, whose lengthy battle with ALS was taking a huge financial toll.
Phillips provided a steady beat until 2014, when he left to focus on other projects. By then, Joseph Williams – Toto's singer from 1986-89, a period that included 1986's Fahrenheit and 1988's The Seventh One – had returned to the fold. Refocused, they were joined by drummer Keith Carlock in sessions for 2015's well-received Toto XIV, the band's first album in a decade. Then Mike Porcaro died just days before it arrived, sparking painful memories once more.
"If Jeff were still alive, a lot of things would be different in everybody’s lives," Lukather told Smashing Interviews. "It’s a butterfly effect. You lose somebody like that, and then a lot of lives change. There are big holes in our lives where Jeff used to be, and now Mike."
Lukather, who still has pictures of Jeff throughout his home, became a chief protector of his old friend's legacy – both in terms of guiding Toto through its many variations, but also in pushing back against whispers surrounding the circumstances of this tragedy. A 1992 report by the Los Angeles County coroner's office later linked Porcaro's death with hardening of the arteries caused by prolonged cocaine use. Porcaro's wife publicly disputed those findings, and Lukather never bought it, either.
"This whole drug thing that came out, it’s so insidious and I fucking hate that – because he was never the bad drug guy," Lukather said during a 2013 podcast. "He was the least of all of us back in that era. He was the guy saying: ‘What are you guys doing staying up all night? You idiots.’ In the late '70s, early '80s, it was crazy; I’m not going to deny any of it. People just love to run with the dirty laundry, but does anybody ever do any homework? The internet is full of shit, most of the time.”
Shannon Forrest later manned the drums as Toto prepared for a huge 40th anniversary celebration in 2018. They appeared to have moved on – but, decades after his death, Jeff Porcaro remained a specter over the band. Toto XIV included "Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey)," a song dedicated in his memory; Steve Porcaro's 2016 solo album featured previously lost recordings with Jeff, and a subsequent Toto box set was rounded out with more recently finished tracks with the late drummer.
"When he died, a piece of all of us died with him," Lukather told Team Rock. "I don’t think any of us have ever recovered from that." Thankfully, however, Toto still sense his presence. "Every time we’re on stage," Lukather added, "I feel Jeff is there with us."