It’s 6:00pm, August 7, 1992 and I’m driving into the car park of Widnes Rugby Union Social Club. My radio is tuned to BBC Radio 1, the news is on and the final item delivers an unexpected blow. In the next few moments, I walk in a semi-state of shock to the gig load-in, fresh with the knowledge that the world has prematurely lost one of the greatest session musicians of the last 20 years, to a freak gardening accident.
Although familiar with the songs of Toto since the 1970’s and recognising they had a great drummer in Jeff Porcaro, it wasn’t until after he died that I learned how often I’d heard him anonymously on the radio. His output of work was to put it mildly, phenomenal. When Toto weren’t out touring, his number must have been the hot speed-dial on the telephones of every Grammy-nominated record producer on the face of the planet. It would be pointless for me to try and list the number of artists he worked for in his lifetime, but there is a comprehensive catalogue of his known credits here which is an education in itself to read.
In 1988, Jeff made what will probably go down as one of the most important and all too brief drum instructional videos ever released. I remember watching it with some interest, but then moving back to the Dave Weckl ‘Back To Basics’ video, with its soundtrack of Fusion music I neither liked nor understood. It wasn’t until I got onto the Purdie video in the mid 90’s that I studiously went back to Jeff’s to learn about the importance of the grooves he had left us with.
The more you study Jeff Porcaro, the more you get sucked into his time and feel, finally realising that all those pointless drum-vid licks you spent hours learning, count for nothing in the real world of bringing songs to life. Then you start wondering, exactly how the hell did he nail that gig with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen at the age of 21, remembering how immature your own playing was at that age? Do a bit more research and you find out that Vinnie Colaiuta, drum God extraordinaire, worshipped the ground Porcaro walked on. Then you start tossing the word ‘genius’ around in your mind, realising it really is the only terminology you can apply to the man. This was a finely honed musician, cut down in his prime, who would still have a full diary, even in an industry where the studio session musician is facing extinction.
From a personal perspective, I’ve tuned into his groove wavelength to such an extent, that it’s possible for me to spot Porcaro drum takes, without knowing the song or artist I’m listening to. Although It happens less often than it used to, a song can be on the radio I’ve never heard before and I’ll think, “that’s got to be Jeff on that track!” A quick bit of research on the internet and 9 times out of 10, my instincts are proved to be correct. It’s usually his one-handed 16th grooves that give him away; or is it that silky, smooth Jeff feel that no one else on the planet can imitate? It must be something in his DNA or planet alignment, but in terms of individual feel, he stands next to Bonham, Purdie, Modeliste and Gadd. During my groove practice sessions, Porcaro tracks probably dominate the iPod playlist. For example, anyone who thinks their pocket is safe, should try my ‘Porcaro challenge’ for developing one-handed 16th grooves:
- Start off with a gentle warm up by playing along to Michael McDonald’s ‘I Keep Forgetting’.
- Now move things up a gear and play along to ‘Georgy Porgy’ by Toto.
- For the finale, try and see if you can keep up with Jeff on the cheesetastic, ‘Lady Love Me One More Time’ by George Benson. It’s a killer.
Like John Bonham, Jeff Porcaro is stuck under my skin forever with my biggest regret being, I only wished I’d locked in on his genius earlier in my life, instead of wasting so many years in the wilderness chasing irrelevant technique I’d never be required to play.
Thankfully, the legacy Jeff Porcaro left the world of music behind is with us every day when we switch on the radio. It doesn’t matter what the station is, but if it plays popular music from the last quarter of the 20th century, you can be certain that on multiple occasions, every single day of the year, you will be able to stop whatever your doing, listen, and think to yourself, “That’s Jeff on the radio…again.”