When Toto Stepped Out After Making Their Names as Sessions Aces
On their own, drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboard player David Paich, bassist David Hungate, guitarist Steve Lukather and vocalist Bobby Kimball were some of the most in-demand session players of the '70s and '80s. Together, they formed Toto's original lineup – and starting with the Oct. 15, 1978 release of their debut album, they kicked off a recording career that would soon see them topping the charts and selling millions of records on their own.
Even though Toto were a new band in 1978, most of the group had already been all over the radio thanks to Paich, Hungate and Porcaro's work on Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees, which spent 115 weeks on the album chart between 1976-77 and spawned the huge hits "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle," both co-written by Paich.
In early 1977, Paich and Porcaro started working on the demos for what would become the Toto album, drafting their friend Lukather – who'd performed with them in the band Rural Still Life while they were all still in high school – and then bringing him into Scaggs' touring band as a replacement for guitarist Les Dudek. By the end of the year, the group had a deal with Columbia Records, as well as a new lead singer: former S.S. Fools frontman Bobby Kimball.
With Kimball's high tenor added to a mix that already featured several other singers, including Paich, Lukather, and keyboard player Steve Porcaro, Toto set about working on one of the more eclectic – and musically accomplished – debut records of the decade.
"We saw ourselves as more than a sweet little pop band," Lukather reflected during a conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock. "We can’t help that we like melodies. What set us apart in that area is that we always had a little bit more of an R&B undercurrent to our grooves, and our songs were a little more harmonically challenging – more than just power chords. Big harmonies, jazz-like voicings, and then I brought the harder edge with my guitar. We all had those different styles. You put them in the blender, and that was our sound. It wasn’t anything premeditated."
It may not have been premeditated, but Toto was certainly very well-crafted – and at a time when punk's raw immediacy was being held up as a much-needed antidote to bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Toto's ability to incorporate elements of so many different genres into their sound struck many critics as soulless dilettantism – to the point that some believed the band itself had been put together by executives at Columbia.
"They came up with this bullshit story about how we’d been manufactured by the label, when in fact we were a high-school band that went to Grant High School in the Valley – with the exception of Kimball," Lukather recalls. "But they ran with it, and we became the whipping boy."
Listen to Toto Perform 'Hold the Line'
No amount of critical scorn could stop Toto from grabbing hold of the airwaves, however – especially not once FM stations started spinning the album's lead single, "Hold the Line." An immediate hit, it peaked at No. 5 in the Top 40 and helped send the LP into the Top 10 of Billboard's album chart. The album's other big single, "Georgy Porgy," stalled outside the Top 40 on the pop chart, but it was a Top 20 hit on R&B stations – which no doubt annoyed those who felt like Toto weren't a "real" rock band, but served as a persuasive early demonstration of their ability to blur musical boundaries.
Looking back on the album with decades of hindsight, Lukather admits now that there are minor details he wishes were different, but overall he's proud of Toto. "Sonically, there’s stuff I’d love to change," he says. "Some of the lyrics on there are a little juvenile, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. I’d love to be able to go back and completely remix it, but that requires time and money – even back then, that was a big record, with a lot of stuff going on in there."
More than anything, Lukather seems grateful that the band's legacy lives on. "I look at each one of our albums as like a snapshot of my life," he explains. "Every album cover – boom, I remember where I was. I can smell the room, hear the laughter, remember the tears and the insanity of it all. It seems to have gone by fast, but not really. I go, 'Oh, that was 10 ... no, 20 ... no, wait, 30 years ago.' I’m still 18 years old until I walk past a mirror, you know?"