Jeff Porcaro

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prasa > Modern Drummer, lipec, 1998

Modern Drummer, July, 1998

Artist On Track: Jeff Porcaro

By Mark Griffith

Six years ago, the music world lost a great friend, and three young boys lost a father. The phrase "gone but not forgotten" pertains to a number of history's great drummers--Gene, Buddy, Tony, and Larrie--but within the drumming community, nowhere is it applied with more sincerity and heartfelt respect than to the one and only Jeff Porcaro.
From the second that Jeff hit the scene in 1971, playing double drums with Jim Keltner on Jack Daughterty's The Class Of 1971, it was obvious that he had something special. For a young drummer, playing double drums with anyone is hard. But if the drummer you have to lock in with happens to be your idol, as Jim was to Jeff, you're faced with an entirely different kind of pressure. Then again, Jeff was not just any young drummer. Rising to that challenge in his first recording session launched one of the most celebrated studio drumming careers in recent history.
From there, Jeff played with Sonny & Cher in Las Vegas, on TV, and on their excellent album Live In Las Vegas. This music may not fit today's taste, but if you listen closely, you'll discover some great grooves and a very tight rhythm section that made the music really come alive.
Only five years after Jeff entered the recording business, he played on Boz Scaggs' memorable Silk Degrees. Even at that young age Jeff was able to manipulate the time feel in many ways. On "What Can I Say" he lays back, playing well behind the beat. On "Georgia" he's as "on top" as he could be without actually rushing. And in both cases the groove is amazingly comfortable. On "Jumpstreet" Jeff splits the difference, placing the beat absolutely dead center. His cut-time reggae groove on "Love Me Tomorrow" is almost as great as his "Lido Shuffle" beat, a classic groove that every drummer should learn.
By the time of Boz's 1977 recording Down Two, Then Left, Jeff's drumming had changed. Thought still young, he had already made many recordings, and, like any great musician, he was constantly evolving and improving. I have heard many people refer to Jeff's "silky" hi-hat work. Throughout this article we will chart the evolution of this Porcaro trademark. Isolate Jeff's hi-hat parts on "A Clue" and "Gimme The Goods", focusing not on the pattern he plays, but on how he varies the part of the stick with which he strikes the cymbals. This technique varies the hi-hat's texture, making it sound more like a maraca, and fills the music with forward motion. Compare this to the more static hi-hat sounds on Silk Degrees, made just the previous year. This is only the beginning of Jeff's unique hi-hat style. (And speaking of Jeff's hi-hat, notice the absence of it entirely on the shuffle "1993".)
In 1980, Jeff recorded Boz Scaggs' Middle Man. On "Angel You" and "JoJo", notice how he places the beat exactly and consistently dead- center, and how on the latter he makes the very difficult hits seem effortless. "You Got Some Imagination" shows Jeff playing more aggressively. Pay special attention to how his busy bass drum locks in perfectly with the bassist. "You Can Have Me Anytime" is one of those "not slow but not fast" in-between tempos. Jeff attacks this difficult gray area, and even gets creative with it. And what can you say about the rockin' "Middle Man" except that it's perfect. These three great Boz Scaggs tunes provide an ideal study of the evolution of Jeff's style. Jeff also played on Boz's Other Roads, recorded in 1988.
If you explore Jeff's recording career you will notice some names that appear repeatedly. A couple of the most notable are Larry Carlton and Les Dudek. With Carlton Jeff made three recordings: Larry Carlton (check the outstanding "Point It Up"), Sleepwalk, and Friends. The latter, highly recommended, is a record-long showcase of quintessential Porcaro: wide beat, deep-in-the-pocket drumming. The three early Les Dudek releases sound similar to Carlton's, but possess more of an edge, like early Little Feat. (You can hear some very distinct Richie Hayward influences both in Jeff's sound and style.) Say No More and Ghost Town Parade are good, but Dudek's self-titled recording is excellent. Jeff shifts beats and sounds very funky on "City Magic", the Zappa-ish "Don't Stop Now" lets him display some early Purdie influences, and he gets down and swampy with "Take The Time". The most recent Les Dudek album, Deeper Shades Of Blue, is also outstanding. This recording presents Jeff's many blues shuffle variations and could serve as an encyclopedia of this drumming style.
Steely Dan's entire Katy Lied is a Porcaro masterpiece. His uptempo shuffle on "Black Friday" is notable, and the swinging "Your Gold Teeth II" stands out as a drastic departure from the rest of his career. The slower shuffle of "Chain Lightning" is further proof that Jeff owned this style of groove. You can also hear him moving the time feel around from playing on top in "Rose Darling", to slightly behind on "Daddy Don't Live In New York City", to dead center on "Everyone's Gone To The Movies". Sure, Jeff could have played "more" drums on this recording, but that's not what the music called for, and whenever Jeff played, the music came first.
In 1982 Donald Fagen called Jeff to do some of the drumming on his solo debut, The Nightfly, on which Jeff plays yet another shuffle variation on "Ruby Baby". Compare his shuffle approach to Steve Jordan's feel on "Walk Between The Raindrops" on this same album. Also compare Jeff's dead-center time feel on The Nightfly to his earlier, ultra-laid-back groove on Steely Dan's "Gaucho" from the album of the same name. But regardless of his varied treatment of the time feel, Jeff always had full command of the time.
Toto's collective musicality and their great songwriting skills make it a drummer's dream gig. However, Jeff didn't just play Toto's music; his grooves helped define Toto's sound. In fact, many of Toto's greatest songs were so dependent on Jeff's grooves, it is often very hard to tell which came first, the song or the groove.
On Toto's self-titled album (1978), which features the hits "Child's Anthem" and "Hold The Line", Jeff's hi-hat approach was evolving. On "Georgy Porgy" and "I'll Supply The Love", his hi-hat is static, but he applies his trademark "silky" hi-hat on "You Are The Flower" and "Takin' It Back". Compare the in-the-pocket "Rockmaker" to the similar but edgier "I'll Supply The Love". Even this early it was apparent that Jeff was becoming a master at manipulating beat placement.
Toto's Hydra finds Jeff's hi-hat work getting even smoother. Check out the title tune and "99" for Jeff's subtle hi-hat, and the often overlooked "Mama" for yet another variation of the great "Porcaro shuffle".
Turn Back has many highlights. "English Eyes" features some of Jeff's most aggressive drumming, but he doesn't let that affect the tune's laid-back time feel. It also contains one of the first examples of my favorite Porcaro trademark. In the middle of this song, there is a break that he fills in a signature way: The tune has an 8th-note rock feel, but Jeff shifts gears and plays a half-time 16th-note groove as the fill. He did this much more (with other time feels) later in his career.
Outside of his underlying groove, perhaps the most important aspect of Jeff Porcaro's drumming was his patience. Jeff let songs and grooves evolve, knowing that a groove doesn't just happen; it is created through repetition and sincerity. Jeff was confident enough to be repetitious, and he never played an insincere note. Listen to how he paces himself throughout "I Think I Could Stand You Forever". Jeff contributes to the song's momentum with his "larger than life" tom fills, but he doesn't complicate the groove. Instead, only his bass drum gets busier--but not until the end of the tune.
Toto IV is recognized as a classic, but it's much more than the legendary "Rosanna" and "Africa". Listen to how Jeff incorporates the parts of the song into his "Good For You" groove. This is more than just a beat; it is one of the greatest examples of orchestrating a drum part around the drumset ever recorded. Compare "We Made It" to Toto's earlier "I'll Supply The Love". The main groove is very similar, but notice how Jeff's pocket has developed over time. While closely listening to "We Made It" and "Waiting For Your Love" you'll hear that Jeff by then had mastered his silky hi-hat technique. And upon even closer examination, you'll find that there are many other grace notes (besides his hi-hats) within "Waiting For Your Love". The notes that aren't heard are the ones that can transform a drum beat into a groove.
Notice how Jeff's perfectly orchestrated tom fills (yet another trademark) keep the ballad "I Won't Hold You Back" moving. Jeff knew how to make an entrance. Be it on Boz Scaggs' "Lido Shuffle", Toto's "Africa", "I Think I Could Stand You Forever", and "Could This Be Love", Michael Bolton's "When A Man Loves A Woman", or Robben Ford's "I Got Over It", Jeff's melodic fills were unpredictable yet precise, dramatic yet musical--and always instantly identifiable as Jeff Porcaro.
Isolation was a different type of recording for Toto and Jeff. The rhythmic lilt and the manipulation of the beat were absent. All of Jeff's drumming on this record was exactly in the middle of the beat. If you don't hear it at first, compare it to Larry Carlton's Friends, made just the previous year. However, "Lion" (from Isolation) proves that Jeff could make "dead center" groove more than anybody. Also note the big fills on "How Does It Feel", and the overdubbed hi-hat on "Endless".
On Fahrenheit, Jeff really shines. "Can't Stand It Any Longer" is a perfect Porcaro cut: very aggressive, silky smooth hi-hat, and a deep pocket. The title track is made especially unusual by the second-line idea at the end of the song. "Without Your Love" is another difficult in-between tempo that Jeff holds perfectly. And "Somewhere Tonight" adds one more chapter to the "Porcaro Encyclopedia Of Shuffles", this time with a strong reggae influence.
From The Seventh One, "Mushanga" is a unique and creative groove. "These Chains" is yet another amazing shuffle, and "A Thousand Years" is yet one more difficult tempo made easy by Mr. Porcaro.
Kingdom Of Desire is, simply put, a modern rock drumming masterpiece, and is highly recommended. With his drumming more aggressive than ever, this is the ultimate Jeff Porcaro. There is also a video of Toto live in Paris in 1990 (released in Japan) that is absolutely indispensable. Also see Jeff's own instructional video for more visuals of the master.
So far we have surveyed the gigs and recordings that Jeff Porcaro is immediately associated with. But since Jeff was also a very busy session/studio musician, let's look at some of the older sessions that his playing helped define. Etta James' Deep In The Night was a perfect session for Jeff. The bluesy and soulful James sank into his groove on "Piece Of My Heart" and "Take It To The Limit", as well as the funky "Blind Girl". Porcaro is strong, precise, and dead-center on Hall & Oates' Beauty On A Back Street, and on Jackson Browne's The Pretender. His mastery of ballads is clear on Aretha Franklin's Love All The Hurt Away. Allen Toussaint's Motion delivers the funky "Nightpeople", "Optimism Blues", and "Viva La Money". The title track of Tom Scott's Street Beat features some of the funkiest Jeff Porcaro ever. And although Sarah Vaughan's Songs Of The Beatles has heavy disco overtones, Jeff is very strong throughout.
More recently, David Gilmour's About Face displayed some of Jeff's best all-out rock playing. In the same year Jeff played on the outstanding James Newton Howard and Friends album, featuring multiple synths, drums, and percussion. Warren Zevon's Mr. Bad Example glows from Jeff's presence, as do four tunes on Michael Jackson's landmark Thriller. And if all these credits don't point to Jeff's incredible range and versatility, throw this into the stew: Stan Getz found Jeff to be the perfect drummer for his modern Brazilian-influenced recording Apasionado, as did Bill Meyers for his pop-ish The Color Of The Truth and Greg Mathieson for his outstanding rock-out Baked Potato Super Live, with Jeff and Steve Lukather doing the kickin'.
Jeff was the master of leaving space, making him a favorite among percussionists. This trademark always came to the forefront with Toto. While Los Lobotomys features Jeff playing double drums with either Vinnie Colaiuta or Carlos Vega, all the drummers leave ample space for Lenny Castro's percussion. Brandon Fields' Other Places also features Jeff with Lenny Castro. And Luis Conte's Black Forest is outstanding.
Jeff also did a great deal of film soundtrack work. For Dune, an orchestra was called in to augment Toto for the entire soundtrack. In Dick Tracy (I'm Breathless) Jeff supported Madonna on four very different songs. And Jeff plays quality background music with a small group featuring Wayne Shorter in Glengary Glen Ross.
Because of his gift for playing all kinds of shuffles, Jeff often got called to do just that--and only that. On Lee Ritenour's Captain Fingers he plays on just two selections, one of which is the perfectly executed "Isn't She Lovely?". On Madonna's Like A Prayer, Jeff's shuffle is the lifeblood of "Cherish". Jeff also steps in for Vinnie Colaiuta for one song on Nik Kershaw's The Works, because even Vinnie couldn't have played the shuffling "Walkabout" as well as Jeff.
There's another groove that Jeff was called to play quite often. For examples, check out Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'", Eric Clapton's "See What Love Can Do", and Pages' "You Need A Hero". It doesn't have a name yet, but perhaps we should call the silky-smooth, 16th-note, deep-in-the-pocket groove simply..."JEFF".

Thanks for the grooves, Jeff. You are not forgotten.