Jeff Porcaro: Of Timing and Tom-Toms

Jeff Porcaro in the 1982 video for Toto's "Rosanna."
Jeff Porcaro in the 1982 video for Toto's "Rosanna." Screen grab
Jeff Porcaro: It’s About Time – The Man and His Music
By Robyn Flans
241 pp.
Hudson Music

With all due respect to Kevin Bacon, in terms of Classic Rock challenge games, a good one would be “Six Degrees of Jeff Porcaro.”

Just a partial list of the artists he’s played with in the studio or onstage includes Greg Allman, Randy Bachman, Jackson Browne, Eric Carmen, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Dr. John, Peter Frampton, David Gilmour, Don Henley, Rickie Lee Jones, Richard Marks, Paul McCartney, Michael McDonald, Pink Floyd, Leo Sayer, Seals and Crofts, Boz Scaggs (most notably on Silk Degrees), Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan, and Warren Zevon. And while the late Eddie Van Halen memorably did the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” it was Jeff Porcaro actually keeping the beat.

That’s only scratching the surface, since it doesn’t include his deep R&B, soul, pop, and easy listening credits. Not bad for a guy who got a “D” in music in the third grade and who began his career at the advanced age of 17 playing behind Sonny and Cher on tour.

And of course, Porcaro is best known as the co-founder and drummer of Toto, a super group of session musicians who decided to go to work for themselves. And which at one stretch also included his brother Mike and brother Steve, churning out hits like “Rosanna,” “Africa,” “Hold the Line,” "99," "I Won't Hold You Back," and others.

Robyn Flans knows her subject well, having interviewed Jeff Porcaro and kept in contact with him beginning in the early ‘80s while writing for Modern Drummer magazine. And in constructing this book, she’s gotten original interviews with an impressive list of Porcaro’s musical collaborators and some members of his family (though seemingly not Porcaro's widow). She also draws direct quotes from her subject from their many published interview and casual talks.

The chapters of his early life (well, as early as can be gleaned for a guy to who turned pro while still in high school) are interesting. Flans even tracks down a school acquaintance who once jammed with the Porcaro brothers and for a very brief time had thoughts of joining their group—until he realized his skill set was far too limited. That friend would become actor and director Ron Howard.

Readers learn about Porcaro’s formidable skills, especially in the timing that the book’s title indicates, his inventiveness, his generosity to other musicians, love of pranks, and his creative passion (which sometimes came out with a harsh and stubborn temper).

But where it fall short as a bio is that it pretty much strictly confined to the narrative of his musical life, especially in the studio. Flans – to her credit – says up front that there will be almost nothing about Porcaro’s personal life, nor the strange and contested circumstances of death in 1992 at the age of 38. It leaves a narrative hole, and the depth of coverage on the whole of Toto’s career is somewhat wanting.

Likewise, somewhat of a reader fatigue rolls in by the time the 20th musician is quoted praising Porcaro’s skill and musicianship to the skies. Though what’s consistent was his love of steering the course of a song and trying out new things in the studio.

“He wasn’t just the drummer, he was the helmsman. He was kind of the captain of the ship,” producer Niko Bolas says. “You’d get three or four crazy ideas bouncing off the wall—all of them brilliant—and there was this voice of reason that would slow everybody down and take things one at a time.”

It’s About Time will certainly appeal to for fans of Porcaro, drum heads, and liner note readers. And it will certainly make the reader listen to the many, many hit tracks that feature Jeff Porcaro on drum with a keener and closer ear.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero