Obituary: Jeff Porcaro

Geoff Nicholls
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:54

Jeff Porcaro, drummer, born 1 April 1954, died Los Angeles 5 August 1992.

Jeff Porcaro enjoyed the rare distinction of being a first-call session drummer who was also a long-standing member of a successful rock group, Toto.

The son of the distinguished Hollywood percussionist Joe Porcaro, Jeff left school at 17 to tour with Sonny and Cher. After recording with the infamously exacting Steely Dan (while still only 19), he entered the ranks of the United States' 10 top session drummers. He recorded with everyone - from Michael Jackson and Diana Ross to Boz Scaggs and Etta James, plus many British stars including Elton John and Robert Palmer. At the time of his death he was in great demand and had recently recorded with Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen.

Porcaro was one of the best contemporary American 'groove' players - always able to create excitement and a good feeling while often playing a simple beat. In the hugely demanding field of session music, there are those who are successful through sheer mastery of their instrument - they are able to interpret and play the most difficult charts on the first run- through. But the most successful popular records usually rely on the more mysterious ability of key players to capture the right mood, to deliver scorching performances day in day out, on songs not previously heard, and often for artists who are unable to verbalise the feel they want. Improvising exactly the right, often simple part, honing it to perfection and 'nailing' it 'in the pocket' in a few hours of tense studio time, requires great musicality and infinite adaptability. Porcaro had both.

That he purposely did not develop his natural ability to a higher technical level dismayed his more academic father. But Porcaro recognised his groove was his fortune. He was dismissive of his own drumming ability, frequently deferring to his heroes, among them the fiery Bernard Purdie (famous for his aggresively funky drumming with Aretha Franklin) and Jim Keltner (whose definitive laid-back beat adds so much atmosphere to the work of Ry Cooder). Such names are rarely known to the public, but are revered by musicians. The great session drummers, in particular, are the life blood within the popular songs which lighten all our lives.

Porcaro co-founded Toto in 1976. All the founder members, including his brothers, the keyboardist Steve and the bassist Michael, attended Grant High School in San Fernando. The album Toto IV took seven Grammy awards, dominating the 1983 ceremony, and featured their two greatest hits: 'Africa', which reached No 3 in the British charts, and 'Rosanna', for which Porcaro received his personal Grammy for the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. This rightly became Porcaro's most famous drumming: a half-time shuffle (rare in pop hits) played with an unsurpassed degree of control, subtlety and swing.

Toto had just completed their 10th album, Kingdom of Desire, which is to be released in September, and were due to tour Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments