Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I’ve been excited at the prospect of revisiting the Toto catalog for a while but it took until last week to finally find enough time to properly devote to their music. They were staples on pop and rock radio stations in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s but, unlike their AOR contemporaries like Journey, Styx and Foreigner, they never had a late-career resurgence (at least not in the U.S., their home country) which would introduce their music to new generations of music lovers. I get the sense that, to most rock fans, Toto is a collection of slick studio musicians who record faceless rockers & sappy ballads, and they’re as far from “cool” as possible. Well, it’s true that they are all studio musicians…among the most in-demand players of the ‘70s, ‘80s & beyond…and they did write some sappy ballads (mostly good ones)…but they’re a hard-rock band at heart, mixing in elements of jazz, soul, funk & progressive rock unlike any other bands with whom they’re usually associated.
The original lineup, which lasted through the first four albums, consisted of keyboardist David Paich, guitarist Steve Lukather, lead vocalist Bobby Kimball, drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboardist Steve Porcaro and bassist David Hungate (all but Jeff & David added lead &/or backing vocals as well). In addition to the hundreds of recording sessions they were part of, most of them were members of Boz Scaggs’ band during his mid-‘70s commercial peak, with Paich co-writing two of Scaggs’ biggest hits, “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.” Paich is the son of renowned jazz musician/arranger Marty Paich, and the Porcaro brothers are the sons of jazz percussion great Joe Porcaro, so there was clearly a lineage of musical giants behind Toto. Kimball possessed the same kind of soaring vocal range as Journey’s Steve Perry, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm and Boston’s Brad Delp but, unlike those singers, I don’t think he’s gotten the recognition he deserves.
Then there’s Mr. Lukather, who is the equal of just about any guitar player you could name over the last 40 years. His combination of killer riffs and tasteful lead guitar work make even their lesser material worth hearing, and he’s a great songwriter & singer as well. Obviously there’s a ton of talent in this band, and they have a discography filled with major & minor hits, so why aren’t they more highly regarded? I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer that since I can’t speak for critics, radio programmers & close-minded fans, but as I revisit their catalog over the coming weeks (and get reacquainted with some albums I haven’t played in a long time) I hope my enthusiasm…and some well-chosen audio samples…will convince you to explore their music beyond the handful of hit singles you already know. Toto isn’t for everyone, but I think you’ll be surprised by the breadth of styles they cover (even veering into heavy metal at times) and the sheer number of melodic hooks throughout their discography. But enough of my preamble, let’s get to their albums.
Toto got off to an auspicious start with the double-platinum Top 10 album, Toto (1978). I didn’t get a copy until a few years later but I knew I would love these guys based on the strength of their debut single, “Hold The Line” (more on that below). They followed up with a couple of less-successful singles but domination of the pop charts was probably not on their list of priorities. Instead, Toto is a showcase for their diversity as musicians, arrangers and vocalists. More than any subsequent album, it was also a platform for Paich’s songwriting, with 8 of the 10 songs credited solely to him. They also included the first in a long line of song titles featuring a woman’s name with the album-closing “Angela,” to be followed by no fewer than 9 other such titles on their next 6 albums.
♪ “I’ll Supply The Love” – A stomping melodic rocker that’s similar to “Do Ya” (The Move, Electric Light Orchestra) during the chorus. The verses are driving & funky, and overall it’s a great ‘70s AOR tune that establishes their unique group harmonies and Kimball as a powerful frontman. I love Lukather’s simple guitar riff as well as the cool, horn-driven instrumental section.
[Toto – “I’ll Supply The Love”]
♪ “Georgy Porgy” – Lukather sings lead on this soul/jazz/pop hybrid, with Cheryl Lynn (who sang my favorite disco-era song, “Got To Be Real”) taking over for the chorus, repeating the nursery rhyme refrain, “Georgy Porgy puddin’ pie, kissed the girls and made them cry.” Sweet strings augment the tasteful and brief guitar solo. Hungate & Jeff Porcaro deserve credit for the subtly funky rhythm track.
♪ “Girl Goodbye”– It may run past the 6-minute mark but there’s not a wasted note, making it a uniquely tight epic. I love the chugging rhythm and Porcaro’s tasteful jazz/prog drumming elevates every section of the song. Kimball sounds a lot like Boz Scaggs here, and Lukather’s blistering solo proves that he was a force to be reckoned with.
♪ “Hold The Line” – The first time I heard this on the radio I was completely floored, and I can honestly say that I’ve been equally thrilled every time I’ve listened to it over the years. From the snare hit and bouncy piano melody in the intro to the combination of guitar riffs, loping-yet-driving drum pattern and Kimball’s crystal clear vocal performance, this is as good as it gets, with Lukather proving once again that he’s a guitar god (and he was only 20 when the album was recorded).
Other Notable Tracks:
Accountants at their record label couldn’t have been thrilled when they delivered sophomore album Hydra (1979), a collection of sometimes challenging and mostly non-commercial songs. With 7 of 8 tracks running 4:45 or longer this was not a mainstream pop album, but it did feature one single that cracked the Top 30. They obviously took advantage of the clout from having a hit record by expanding their sound, especially on the 7-1/2 minute title track. In many ways it’s not a big departure from the previous album, with all the elements of their sound still intact, but only a few songs have the same kind of immediate impact. It’s not quite as consistent as its predecessor but includes the same number of essential songs, and it’s the kind of album that keeps getting better each time you play it.
♪ “Hydra” – The aforementioned opening track, with songwriting credit to all six band members, begins with a quiet 30-second intro followed by a jazzy piano groove with jazzy accents, then an insistent rhythm that’s capped off by a riff-heavy rock section (“Do you want your freedom? Do you want my love?”). It’s an early example of their prog-rock tendencies, with impeccable musicianship, great starts & stops, scat-type vocals and strong harmonies.
♪ “St. George And The Dragon” – Rhythmically this one is similar to Hall & Oates’ “Kiss On My List” (which would be released the following year) with the bouncy electric piano & metronomic groove, but it’s beefed up with more instrumentation than that pop gem. The lyrics are fantasy-based, another nod to prog-rock or even Ronnie James Dio’s work with Rainbow and Dio (“Is it true that he’s a mighty warrior and a viper of the first degree, I’ve been sentenced here to slay the giant, geld this fear I cannot see”). Lukather provides some solid riffs and there are plenty of subtle rhythmic shifts. “I can tell by the look in your eye, you’d better watch yourself, St. George is on his way” is an excellent melodic hook.
♪ “99” – The only minor hit single from Hydra which I always assumed was about Barbara Feldon’s secret agent character on the brilliant ‘60s TV show Get Smart, but I’ve read differing stories about the subject matter. I love Lukather’s smooth vocals (“I never thought it would happen, I feel quite the same”) accompanying the midtempo light-funk groove with jazzy inflections. It would best be described as “soft rock” but don’t let that scare you away. The drumming of Jeff Porcaro & Lenny Castro’s added percussion give it a special vibe, and Lukather’s subdued soloing is another highlight.
♪ “Mama” – This could almost pass for a Steely Dan song, especially when the fast bouncy groove kicks in, and Kimball’s voice is astounding; high & powerful. I love the section with “Girl you’d better take my hand…and say what you mean to say,” and the instrumental break with Paich & Lukather trading off piano & guitar licks is wonderful. Simply an awesome song.
Other Notable Tracks:
Third album Turn Back (1981) has a more commercial sheen and it’s a tighter collection than Hydra, but unfortunately it didn’t reverse the band’s fortunes, not even cracking the Top 100 Albums chart. It’s obvious that they were striving for a radio-friendly sound, or perhaps the label forced that on them but, in spite of the album’s lack of success, they still managed to deliver a number of noteworthy songs, including one should-have-been classic. Three songs were released as singles and all of them sank without a trace. Until this past week I never gave Turn Back more than a handful of listens and only a couple of songs made any lasting impact. I’m happy to report that I finally gained a new appreciation for it and, even though it’s not quite as strong as the two albums that came before it (or its massively successful follow-up), it’s no longer a dark horse in their catalog for me.
♪ “Goodbye Elenore” – Their first truly great song with a female name, featuring an amazing groove, brilliant arrangement, incredible vocals from Kimball & Lukather and a driving groove that could only be the work of Jeff Porcaro. I’m not sure why it wasn’t a big hit…perhaps it came out a year or two too late…but it’s a natural follow-up to “Hold The Line.” I love the progressive middle section, especially the guitar & organ interplay.
Other Notable Tracks:
The dwindling commercial fortunes between albums number 1 & 3 would signal the end of the road for many artists, but Toto’s label (Columbia Records) stood by them and were rewarded with the biggest record of their career a year later. In my next post I’ll discuss that Grammy winning classic along with the rest of their albums from that decade. For now I’ll continue to bask in the glow of the first three records. Spending time with them this past week has been a pleasure, and I’m curious to find out if any of my readers feel the same way about them.