Although drummer Jeff Porcaro is best known for his drum work with Toto, he was already a member of Sonny and Cher’s band as a teenager. Porcaro continued to work as a first-call sideman even after achieving chart-topping, Grammy-winning fame with his band.
An unlikely number of superstars sought out Porcaro for his sense of feeling and metronomic timing, which combined to create a foundation that perfectly matched any song he was given. Toto’s 1982 hit “Rosanna” with its classic Porcaro shuffle at half time, may be the drummer’s best five minutes. But his trademark grooves drove a number of records in genres and settings far beyond rock.
Before he died of a heart attack d Aug. 5, 1992, at the age of 38Porcaro had also set the tempo for pop songs (Barbra Streisand, The Bee GeesOlivia Newton-John), R&B Songs (Aretha FranklinLionel Richie, Earth, wind and fire), jazz songs (Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine) and country songs (Dolly Parton, Jimmy Webbthat Gatlin brothers). Elsewhere, Porcaro had a particular affinity for working on solo projects, including LPs by Yes‘ Jon Andersen, Chicago‘s Peter Ceterathat Guess who‘s Burton Cummings and Super tramp‘s Roger Hodgson, among others.
With a resume this deep and wide, we chose to drill into the Top 10 Jeff Porcaro Rock Songs Without Toto. Even then, narrowing it all down was no easy task.
10. “Human Touch” (Bruce Springsteen, 1992)
This for sure is not a celebrated era in Bruce Springsteen‘s long discography, but Porcaro shines nonetheless. Collaborated with occasionally Trip bassist Randy Jackson, Porcaro employs a clever cross-stick approach with the precision of a digital sample. Yet he still swings with an ease that gives life to a glossy production that is otherwise very much of its time. He then switches to toms for the chorus, deepening the groove. “Human Touch” ended up being one of the last sessions Porcaro worked on before his death, prompting a touring Springsteen to dedicate the song to his credit a day later: “His spirit and his playing were unique,” Springsteen told the crowd in East Rutherford, N.J. “He blessed my work and he blessed the work of many, many other people.”
9. “The Pretender” (Jackson Browne, 1976)
Porcaro starts as the narrator’s softly beating heart before gently nudging him forward. The rest is a marvel of detailed musicianship as Porcaro deftly navigates the song’s stops and starts, then its soaring reveries. Jackson Browne wrote “The Pretender” while on the road, scribbling notes in a Los Angeles storefront and a dingy Hawaiian motel, and it retains that episodic feel. The art of Porcaro’s work here is to never lose perspective as this twisted story of shattered dreams unfolds.
8. “IGY (What a Beautiful World)” (Donald Fagen, 1982)
By this time, Porcaro was a known quantity Steely Dan (see #2 in our list of Top 10 Jeff Porcaro rock songs without toto), but sessions for Donald Fagen‘s solo debut was different. Mostly because of its vintage. The night fly arrived in a time of burgeoning technology, and a sense of sleek modernity permeates everything. One thing remained, however: the subject’s inclination to nitpicking a drum track. He ended up using two guys on this album-opening Top 30 hit, bringing in Jeff Porcaro solely for his signature tom fills, according to Brian Sweet’s Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years.
7. “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” (Warren Zevon, 1978)
This will never be confused with Warren Zevon‘s best built grounds. After all, there are only 62 words – and that’s including “doot dat, doot dat, doot duh dot.” (Greil Marcus memorably fooled that “Zevon disguised [“Nighttime in the Switching Yard”] as an actual song by placing it first on a page.”) Is he talking about intravenous drug use? Bisexuality? Just, you know, a real train? Who knows? But there’s a reason this is the only clue from Zevon’s Exciting boy with Jeff Porcaro. He turned a one-off session into an absolute funk clinic.
6. “Calling Elvis” (Dire Straits, 1991)
Porcaro’s performance begins as a murmur, matching Mark Knopfler‘s whispered vocals and distantly heard riffs. Soon “Calling Elvis” is rolling faster and faster, with Porcaro as its piston engine. The song continues to ebb and then flow like this, but never misses a gear thanks to its often underplayed rhythm holder. (Perhaps that subdued presence explains why his marionette-style marionette from the accompanying video—modeled after Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds – looks so much like Jeff Porcaro.) It turns out, though, that Porcaro only made it look easy. Chris Whitten took over drums for Dire Straits trip in support of On every street album and said he was so worn out by the end that he briefly retired.
5. “Dirty Laundry” (Don Henley, 1982)
Don Henley had two goals when he struck out as a solo artist after that one Eagles‘ The death of the 80s: expand his musical palette and widen his musical circle. In line with his solo debut I can’t stand still dipped into the electronics of the day as new main collaborator Danny Kortchmar turned Henley on the latest synth and drum machine gadgetry. They also brought in a small army of sidemen, including—perhaps inevitably—the well-traveled Jeff Porcaro. Few others could do it able to transform the subtle swing of this track’s opening sequence to such a driving conclusion—not even the Eagles, who later performed “Dirty Laundry” post-reunion.
4. “Beat It” (Michael Jackson, 1982)
Despite all the attention on it Eddie Van Halen‘s inserted role in this song, “Beat It” was basically a Michael Jackson duet with Toto. Steve Lukather plays second guitar and bass, Steve Porcaro plays synthesizer, future Toto member Greg Phillinganes is on Rhodes and Jeff Porcaro on drums. The presence of these knowledgeable study vets proved to be a blessing in disguise. Van Halen actually got a stripped-down early version of “Beat It” with Jackson’s master vocals, leaving Lukather and Jeff Porcaro to build a complete musical bed around the solo. Porcaro carefully joined the demo’s existing rhythm, which Jackson had originally created by tapping a drumhead.
3. “Mother” (Pink Floyd, 1979)
Poor Nick Mason faced the impossible with the ever-changing time signatures – waltz time, 5/4 and 9/8? – on “Mother” from Pink Floyd‘s The wall. Roger Waters later said Mason simply replied, “I can’t play that.” Porcaro’s phone was perhaps inevitably the next to ring. “The timing follows the words: “Mom-do-you-think-they-drop-the-bomb?” How many beats is that? Nine,” David Gilmour told Musician in 1992. “It was very, very difficult to make it work. You can’t do that [mimes a standard 4/4]; there is no rhythm that continues like that straight through. You have to find a way to flow through it, which Jeff Porcaro did immediately.”
2. “Bad Sneakers” (Steely Dan, 1975)
Porcaro, only 20, already showed great musical maturity on “Bad Sneakers.” Katy Lied was the drummer’s second album with Steely Dan, having contributed to a few tracks on 1974’s Pretzel logic. This time, his famously picky bosses allowed Porcaro to remain on the drum stool for all but one track, ceding it to legend Hal Blaine. “Bad Sneakers” spends less than 3:30 to show why: Porcaro is, on the other hand, a marvel in every way, a snare genius and a chorus-driving wizard of fills. Then he switches brilliantly in the middle to a vanishingly rare guitar solo from Walter Becker.
1. “Lowdown” (Boz Scaggs, 1976)
“Lowdown” will always be Porcaro’s most sophisticated, time capsule-tight performance. In some cases it’s what he plays that matters most – but in others it’s what he doesn’t do. Porcaro pauses between beats to such effect that you could disco-dance your way through parts of the verse, then simply roar into the instrumental sections. “He was the consummate musician,” Boz Scaggs later told Drum magazine. “He had impeccable taste to match his ability.” Still, you have to wonder how even a master like Porcaro could possibly create two different hi-hat patterns in two different channels – and over his own fills. Turns out, as undeniable as Porcaro was, “Lowdown” was made complete with a little overdub.
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