Even though 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 working as a first-call sideman even after rising to chart-topping, Grammy-winning fame with his band.
An implausible number of superstars sought out Porcaro for his sense of feel and metronomic timing, which combined to create a foundation that perfectly matched any song he was handed. Toto’s 1982 hit “Rosanna,” with its classic Porcaro half-time shuffle, might be the drummer’s best five or so minutes. But his trademark grooves propelled an array of records in genres and settings well outside rock.
Before he died of a heart attack on Aug. 5, 1992, at age 38, Porcaro had also set the pace on pop songs (Barbra Streisand, Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John), R&B songs (Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie, Earth, Wind & Fire), jazz songs (Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine) and country songs (Dolly Parton, Jimmy Webb, the Gatlin Brothers). Elsewhere, Porcaro had a particular affinity for working on solo projects, including LPs by Yes‘ Jon Anderson, Chicago‘s Peter Cetera, the Guess Who‘s Burton Cummings and Supertramp‘s Roger Hodgson, among others.
With a resume that deep and wide, we chose to drill in on 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 certainly isn’t a celebrated era in Bruce Springsteen‘s long discography, but Porcaro nevertheless shines. Partnered with occasional Journey bassist Randy Jackson, Porcaro employs a nifty cross-stick approach with the pinpoint 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 in his honor a day later: “His spirit and his playing was 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 out as the narrator’s softly beating heart, before gently nudging him forward. The rest is a wonder of detailed musicianship as Porcaro smartly navigates the song’s stops and starts, then its soaring reveries. Jackson Browne wrote “The Pretender” while out on the road, scribbling notes in a Los Angeles storefront and a seedy Hawaiian motel, and it retains that episodic feel. The art of Porcaro’s work here is in never losing track as this twisting story of dashed dreams unfolds.
8. “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” (Donald Fagen, 1982)
By this point, Porcaro was a known quantity to Steely Dan (see No. 2 in our list of Top 10 Jeff Porcaro Rock Songs Without Toto), but sessions for Donald Fagen‘s solo debut were different. Mostly that’s because of its vintage. The Nightfly arrived in an age of burgeoning technology, and a sense of sleek modernity permeates everything. One thing remained, though: Fagen’s propensity for 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 is never going to be confused with Warren Zevon‘s best-constructed plots. There are, after all, only 62 words – and that’s including “doot dat, doot dat, doot duh dot.” (Greil Marcus memorably quipped that “Zevon disguised [“Nighttime in the Switching Yard”] as an actual song by placing it first on a side.”) Is he talking about intravenous drug use? Bisexuality? Just, you know, an actual train? Who knows? But there’s a reason this is the only track from Zevon’s Excitable Boy featuring Jeff Porcaro. He turned a one-off session into an absolute clinic of funk.
6. “Calling Elvis” (Dire Straits, 1991)
Porcaro’s performance begins as a murmur, matching Mark Knopfler‘s whispered vocal and distantly heard riffs. Soon, “Calling Elvis” is trundling faster and faster still, with Porcaro as its piston-firing engine. The song continues ebbing and then flowing in this way but never misses a gear thanks to its often-understated rhythm keeper. (Perhaps that low-key presence accounts for why his marionette-style puppet from the accompanying video – modeled after Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds – looks so little like Jeff Porcaro.) Turns out, however, that Porcaro was only making it seem easy. Chris Whitten took over drums for the Dire Straits tour in support of the 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 striking out as a solo artist after the Eagles‘ turn-of-the-’80s demise: expanding his musical palette and expanding his musical circle. In keeping, his solo debut I Can’t Stand Still dabbled in the electronics of the day, as new principal collaborator Danny Kortchmar turned Henley on to 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 so adeptly transform the subtle swing of this track’s opening sequence into such a driving conclusion – not even Eagles, who later performed “Dirty Laundry” after reuniting.
4. “Beat It” (Michael Jackson, 1982)
Despite all of the attention played to Eddie Van Halen‘s pasted-on 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 is at the drums. The presence of these savvy studio vets turned out to be a stroke of good luck. Van Halen was actually given a stripped-down early version of “Beat It” with Jackson’s master vocal, leaving Lukather and Jeff Porcaro to build a completed music bed around the solo. Porcaro meticulously joined the demo’s existing rhythm, which Jackson had initially created by tapping on a drum case.
3. “Mother” (Pink Floyd, 1979)
Poor Nick Mason faced the impossible with the ever-shifting 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: “Mo-ther-do-you-think-they’ll-drop-the-bomb?” How many beats is that? Nine,” David Gilmour told Musician in 1992. “It was very, very difficult to get it to work. You can’t [mimes a standard 4/4]; there’s no rhythm that carries on straight through like that. You’ve got to find a way of floating through it, which Jeff Porcaro did immediately.”
2. “Bad Sneakers” (Steely Dan, 1975)
Only 20, Porcaro already displayed a stunning musical maturity on “Bad Sneakers.” Katy Lied was the drummer’s second album with Steely Dan, after contributing to a couple of tracks on 1974’s Pretzel Logic. This time, his famously fastidious bosses allowed Porcaro to remain on the drum stool for all but one track when he ceded to the legend Hal Blaine. “Bad Sneakers” spends less than 3:30 showing why: Porcaro is by turn a cross-stick wonder, a snare genius and a chorus-driving wizard of fills. Then he brilliantly downshifts into half-time for 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. Porcaro pauses between beats to such great effect that you could disco dance your way through parts of the verse, then simply roars into the instrumental sections. “He was the consummate musician,” Boz Scaggs later told Drum magazine. “He had impeccable taste to go with his abilities.” 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 undeniably great as Porcaro was, “Lowdown” was made complete with a small overdub.
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