Pop ’N Hiss: Toto

Fine Line
Pop ’N Hiss: Toto
Steve Lukather, 1979: Marty Temme.

In 1978, disco ruled the charts and airwaves. Rock teetered on wobbly legs and there was nary a crunchy guitar to be heard in the Top 40 – except for Toto’s monster debut single, “Hold the Line,” with its in-your-face power chords and a scorching solo.

Few who heard the track were aware that they’d likely already heard the musicians on “Hold the Line” well before the song and the group’s impeccably crafted debut album were released.

The guys in Toto were wizards on the Los Angeles session scene. Keyboardist/vocalist David Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro (1954-’92) had worked together on countless sessions. While forming Toto they recruited guitarist Steve Lukather, bassist David Hungate, keyboardist/vocalist Steve Porcaro (Jeff’s brother), and vocalist Bobby Kimball. Several of them had been members of high-school bands that knew each other as friends.
“Toto was about all of our individual things,” Lukather said. “Jeff and David had that magical thing when they played together. I brought in the rock-and-roll influence. Hungate was a schooled jazz and R&B player who could play rock, as well. Steve was the synthesizer guy into all the prog stuff in high school. Put it in a blender and that’s what came out!”

Paich, Jeff Porcaro, and Hungate started working with Boz Scaggs on the 1976 hit album Silk Degrees, after which Paich and the Porcaros toured with Scaggs. A 19-year-old Lukather was added to join Les Dudek on guitar for the tour, then became the guy after Dudek quit. The remaining players quickly developed a chemistry they all felt was worthy of pursuing after the tour ended.

“When (Scaggs’ label) Columbia Records found out that David and Jeff were putting a band together, and that we were all in it, they offered us a record deal on the spot,” Lukather recalled. “We’d never played together live without Boz out front, and we weren’t even a real band (laughs)! For our first album, we did this really huge production, then had to figure out how to play it live.

“We didn’t rehearse. Paich wrote most of it. He’d come in and go, ‘I’ve got a song today.’ We approached it almost as if we were doing sessions; ‘We’ve got to come up with parts and cut it.’

“We were inspired by all these big productions like The Dark Side of the Moon, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Sgt. Pepper’s, Close to the Edge, Deep Purple, and a lot of other music. We also had a strong dose of Stevie Wonder and all the R&B we grew up listening to.”

The band instantly knew Paich’s “Hold the Line” was a winner.

“He’s such a great songwriter. He said, ‘I wrote this riff. You’ve got to hear it.’ In his apartment he had a spinet piano. We walked in and he started playing. We said, ‘That’s the s**t right there.’ I said, ‘We’ll crunch that up on the riff. He wanted a rock-and-roll version of ‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ by Sly and the Family Stone. That was the inspiration. I said, ‘That’s a hit, Dave!’”

Sure enough, it climbed to #5 on the Billboard singles chart, went gold, and (including digital downloads) has surpassed two million units in sales. Toto’s second single, the soaring “I’ll Supply the Love,” featured old-school production tricks on Lukather’s guitar.

“David was into triple-tracking guitars, and we used a variable-speed oscillator to give it that chorusing effect. When you were doubling and tripling stuff, you changed the speed a little bit and got a natural chorus,” said Lukather. “That’s how the Beatles did it. The Beatles were another huge influence we shamelessly stole production ideas from. I still do.

The third single was the smooth-jazz-tinged “Georgy Porgy.” Co-written and co-produced by Paich, it featured Lukather on lead vocals and guest vocalist Cheryl Lynn, who had a disco smash with “Got to Be Real.”

“(The music for that song) was cut live,” Lukather said. “It was a very Boz Scaggs-meets-Steely Dan kind of thing. Groove-wise, we were influenced by Steely Dan. David wrote those great chord changes. They were not what you would hear on a regular rock thing. We didn’t care that it didn’t sound like the other songs on the record. We thought diversity was good. They put out ‘Georgy Porgy,’ and all of the sudden rock radio stopped playing us. We took a lot of s**t for it for a lot of years.”

“Girl Goodbye” has arguably the best anecdote of any Toto track.

“Funny story about that one. When David brought that in, I said, ‘This is great. It’s a riff tune. I can get my teeth into this one.’ Right before I did the solo, David walks in the studio and says, ‘I want you to hear something before you do your solo.’ There’s a turntable in the studio and he drops the needle on ‘Eruption’ on the first Van Halen album.

“I’d heard of Van Halen in the Sunset Strip days. We didn’t know each other, but we’d walk past each other. Anyway, David played that for me… and my jaw hit the ground! It was mind-numbingly great. It sounded like impossible guitar. How do you do that? David goes, ‘Are you ready to do the solo now?’ I said, ‘Sure, after I change my underwear!’ (laughs) Years later, Eddie and I became really close friends. Everybody knows that, but I hadn’t really met him yet. It was inspiring and scary at the same time. I’d never heard anything like it. I had no idea how he was doing it.”

On Toto, Lukather played a ’71 Les Paul Deluxe (“My dad bought me that instead of buying himself a new car. It changed my life,” he said), a ’73 ES-335, and a Valley Arts superstrat.
Toto reached #9 on Billboard and has sold more than two million copies. It was an exciting time.

“We were obviously the most successful band that came out of session guys,” Lukather recalled. “And the plan was always to be a band. The fact that we could make records for other people was just a great accident. It was a big bonus.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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