Toto had lots of reasons to be happy when they hit the road in 2018 for their 40th-anniversary tour. After years of slogging it out on the Eighties nostalgia circuit, playing too many casinos and state fairs to even remember, they were finally in high demand again thanks to a huge resurgence of interest in their 1982 hit “Africa.”
“We started playing theaters in America again,” says Toto guitarist Steve Lukather. “Then we went to Australia and played one of these kids’ festivals where we were the only ones onstage playing live. There were 20,000 kids in the audience, and all they knew was that the ‘Africa’ band was playing. We went out and ripped it old-school.”
But behind the scenes, a legal battle and long-simmering personality conflicts were ripping the band apart. After wrapping up the tour at Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera House on October 20th, 2019, Lukather announced that Toto was over. “We gotta take a break from all this,” Lukather said at the time. “We were beat up really badly, and we gotta heal and figure out what’s going on.”
They kept quiet during much of the next year, but last month the band announced they were returning in 2021 with a new lineup, a couple of solo records, and plans to tour the world once the pandemic clears. Lukather will be joined once again by singer Joseph Williams (who fronted the band from 1986 to 1988 and again from 2010 to 2019), and they’ll welcome a group of newcomers that includes Huey Lewis and the News bassist John Pietce, Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, and keyboardist Steve Maggiora. They’re debuting the new lineup with a special livestream concert on November 21st.
“You can’t do Toto without Lukather,” says Williams. “And at least with me there, you have some continuity with the sound of the voice. We just want to keep playing. That’s really all it is. And the fans will be happy to hear the music played by some of the guys that played on the original stuff.”
By Lukather’s own count, this is the 15th incarnation of Toto. The band came together in 1977 after the various members played on albums by Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, Seals and Crofts, and others. They scored an instant worldwide hit on their first LP with “Hold the Line,” but were never even remotely cool. “We were serious fucking musicians,” says Lukather. “But we came out exactly the same time as the Sex Pistols, and it didn’t go well when we were compared to them. I mean, I think we’re the most critically reviled band of all time.”
Rolling Stone‘s review of their debut LP set the tone for much of what followed. “Toto is the kind of dull debut you’d expect from a bunch of career session players,” wrote RS critic Don Shewey. “Toto lacks at least two elements crucial to good rock: a singer and a writer. Three group members sing passably; a fourth, Bobby Kimball, is terrible — and, unfortunately, the lead vocalist. Paich is chief songwriter, but most of his tunes are merely excuses for back-to-back instrumental solos. Toto is a band of skilled craftsmen without a mesmerizing mastermind: pros, but no poetry.”
The review may have been harsh, but it did touch on a key problem that vexed the band for decades: They were a band without a true frontman. “We were all about the groove and the pocket and cool chord changes and a good melody,” says keyboardist Steve Porcaro, who played with the group from 1977 to 1987 and again from 2010 to 2019. “There was never anybody in the band that carried around their journal. We didn’t have that poet in the band, which we sure could have used.”
Bobby Kimball was ostensibly the lead singer, but vocal duties were split between nearly every member of the band. “All of us were lumped together,” says Porcaro. “There was no Bono. We tried to bring him in with Bobby Kimball [who] was an amazing singer on the original stuff, but we didn’t really know Bobby all that well before the band. That role was always just difficult for us to fill.”
They peaked in popularity in 1982 when their Toto IV LP spawned the hits “Africa” and “Rosanna.” The latter song, written by keyboardist David Paich, was seen as a single from the very beginning. “Everybody shines on that song,” says Lukather. “Everyone got a moment, and there’s two singers. If you want to pick one song to represent the band at this era, it’s ‘Rosanna.’”
“Africa” is a very different story. Drummer Jeff Porcaro created much of the music near the end of the Toto IV sessions, and Paich contributed lyrics, but it was never pegged as anything special. “David came in with ‘I bless the rains down in Africa,’” says Lukather. “I was like, ‘What does that mean? We’re a bunch of white guys from North Hollywood. They’re going to kill us.’ It’s not a racist song or anything like that. It’s just that Paich went to an all-boys Catholic school and was enamored by stories the brothers told about their travels to Africa and all this stuff. He’s also a history buff. We went with it, but we buried the track.”
“I truly didn’t think it should even be on the album,” adds Steve Porcaro. “Look where we put it. It’s the last song on side B. No one in the band, besides maybe David, thought it was a strong song at all. It wound up being our only Number One. That shows how little any of us know!”
The success of “Rosanna” and “Africa” helped Toto win Grammy awards in 1983, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. But they were as uncool in the MTV era as they were in the punk period. “We just hated doing videos,” says Lukather. “And now I look at these fucking videos, and it’s embarrassing. We all have mullets and hair to the sky. We needed a stylist as bad as Stevie Wonder needs eyes. I mean, what was I thinking, man? Someone should have slapped me and said, ‘Just play the fucking guitar.’”
Bad hair wasn’t the only mistake that Toto made at the time. They didn’t launch a proper U.S. tour in support of Toto IV, a horrendous decision that Lukather feels robbed them of the chance to became a major arena-rock act like Journey or Foreigner. And when it came time to cut 1984’s Isolation, they fired Bobby Kimball due to vocal problems and drug issues. He was replaced by former Survivor backing vocalist Dennis Frederiksen, and the band actually scored a mainstream rock hit with “Stranger in Town.” But the album was a commercial disappointment, and the tour played to oceans of empty seats.
For 1986’s Fahrenheit, they fired Frederiksen and brought in Joseph Williams to replace him. Not only is Williams the son of legendary film composer John Williams, but he’d known Lukather since childhood and had an amazing voice. “One of the jobs I had in my early career was in Vegas doing imitations of singers,” says Williams. “When I went in for the audition, I did an imitation of Bobby Kimball. They hired me. That’s pretty much how it happened.”
But Fahrenheit did little to improve their fortunes, and they parted ways with Williams after trying one more time with 1988’s The Seventh One. “On the tour to support the album I lost my voice,” says Williams. “It’s as simple as that. The guys had it up to their eyes with lead singers by that point. There was talk that I left and talk that they fired me. At the end of the day, both things were true.”
Toto limped into the Nineties by hiring yet another lead singer, South Africa’s Jean-Michel Byron, but they were aimless, and the shows were already weighted heavily toward tunes from their late-Seventies/early-Eighties heyday. They were dealt a heinous blow in 1992 when Jeff Porcaro died suddenly from heart disease brought on by cocaine abuse. (Contrary to widespread belief, it was not an allergic reaction to a garden pesticide.) Porcaro had been the foundation of their sound since their earliest days, and even Toto detractors concede that he was one of the greatest drummers of the rock era, working with everyone from Michael Jackson to Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Bruce Springsteen.
They briefly thought about breaking up, but wound up carrying on with Simon Phillips, the same drummer the Who hired in 1989 to replicate Keith Moon’s parts on their reunion tour. It was the start of a long period marked by new albums that didn’t even dent the American charts, tours that focused on remote overseas markets like the Faroe Islands, Serbia, Monaco, and South Korea, and lineups that seemed to shift every single time they hit the road.
“I was always the one willing to go on the road when things got tough,” says Lukather. “I’d travel to Malaysia to get a gig. When we got the resurgence, I wanted to take full advantage of it.”
Pinpointing the exact start date of the Toto resurgence is difficult. Maybe it dates back to May 2012, when “Africa” appeared in the Family Guy episode “Internal Affairs.” Maybe it was July 2016, when “Africa” served as the soundtrack to a make-out scene in the first episode of Stranger Things. It could even be November 2016, when South Park‘s nostalgic Member Berries sang it in the White House to celebrate Trump’s White House victory. For whatever reason, “Africa” became a go-to song for TV shows that wanted to conjure an early-Eighties spirit or simply remind people of a simpler time.
Lukather himself dates the resurgence to December 2017, when 14-year-old Weezer fan Mary Klym launched the @weezerafrica Twitter account and began demanding that her favorite band cover the song. She heard it on Stranger Things and felt that it was perfect for the Weezer treatment. They initially responded by recording “Rosanna” as a joke, but in May 2018 they surrendered and finally cut “Africa.” Much to their shock, it went into heavy rotation on Top 40 radio and became their biggest hit since 2005’s “Perfect Situation.”
Kids who’d never heard of Toto now knew every word to “Africa,” and the band had Weezer to thank. “I tried to reach out to Rivers [Cuomo],” says Lukather. “I said, ‘Hey, man, isn’t this funny? Whether you like us or not, it’s working out good for both of us.’ Silence! The cat refused to talk to me! I’m friends with the biggest rock & roll stars in the world, and this is the only cat that refuses to talk to me! I’m sorry, Rivers. You made a lot of fuckin’ money off this. You should be a little bit more thankful. But I got nothing bad to say about them. Some of them were cool, but Rivers really hurt my feelings.”
Weezer invited Steve Porcaro to play the song with them on Jimmy Kimmel. He was hanging with the band backstage when Weezer’s manager came in to tell them that the song was shaping up to be an enormous radio hit. “I saw Rivers wince,” says Porcaro. “They initially did it as a goof, but now they realized they’d have to play the song for a lot longer than they thought they would. This whole business runs on hit records. If you get one, you better be prepared to play it for the rest of your life.”
Toto made big plans to capitalize on the “Africa” revival by announcing a 40th-anniversary tour in 2018, but things started falling apart almost immediately. First, Paich announced he had to sit out the tour due to health problems. This meant that only Lukather and Steve Porcaro remained from the original Toto, though Williams did return to the fold permanently in 2010. (Steve and Jeff’s brother Mike Porcaro played bass in the group from 1982 until he was sidelined by ALS in 2007. He died in 2015.)
Right as the news of Paich’s departure was sinking in, Jeff Porcaro’s widow, Susan Porcaro-Goings, hit Lukather and Paich with a lawsuit. She claimed they hadn’t been paying money due to her former husband’s estate. (Lukather and Paich are the sole full members of Toto. Everyone else is on salary. This was even the case for Steve Porcaro when he rejoined in 2010.)
“Lukather and Paich, the sole directors of Toto Corporation, have refused to account and pay Plaintiff for Jeff’s interest in the Toto name or even acknowledge that Jeff has any interest in the name of the band he created,” reads the six-part complaint, “and continue to fail to pay Plaintiff her share of earnings from the exploitation of Jeff’s music. Plaintiff brings this lawsuit to preserve her late husband’s legacy and his financial interest in the name of the band that he helped make iconic for the benefit of her and Jeff’s sons.”
The mere mention of this lawsuit, which has since been settled, sends Lukather into a long, angry diatribe. “If I say anything about that woman [Porcaro-Goings], she sues me,” he says, right before saying quite a bit about her. “She now gets five precent of the gross of everything I do for the rest of my life. Her bullshit claim is that we didn’t pay her, but there was a mixup with the [band] name that goes back to our original management. I was victimized by that bullshit too. And then she went public, without any corroboration, to say that David and I were stealing from her family. Like I would do that! As if I suddenly turned into an arch criminal when I was 60!”
He blames the lawsuit for driving a wedge between him and Steve Porcaro. “Steve is pissed off because he was out of the band for 25 years and he didn’t put any money into trying to fight [the lawsuit],” says Lukather. “He wanted a part of the [Toto] name for nothing. He didn’t emotionally support us. He didn’t financially support us. Why should he get it for free? And so now he hates my guts, and that makes this even more ugly.”
Steve Porcaro sees all of this very differently. “I really don’t understand why he’s saying this,” he says. “I haven’t really spoken to Luke in the past year, but I do not hate his guts. Nothing could be further from the truth.… When I rejoined Toto, I planned on staying for one summer, and it was to benefit my brother Mike. [The group was touring to help with his medical bills.] I wound up staying for 10 years, and I told them I was ready for a break. The last tour was pretty rough with all the stress and screaming and 14-paragraph emails.”
The lawsuit put Steve in the middle of a battle between his family and his band. “The band is family too,” he says. “There’s a lot of long friendships there. But the lawsuit had nothing to do with me. When I left the band [in 1987], I signed a piece of paper relinquishing my rights to T-shirt money and anything else associated with the Toto name. I relinquished everything, but I don’t think my brother [Jeff] ever did. He died before that could happen. To be honest with you, I think Lukather and the guys were ill-advised. I don’t blame them. I blame their representation for not telling them how the world works. They a were ill-advised by shysters who didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.”
But he doesn’t deny asking for a piece of the band if he was to keep touring with them. “Maybe they’re upset with me because I wanted a piece of the action after coming back,” Porcaro says. “But that was just if I was going to continue. I signed that sheet of paper, but that was then and this is now. If you still want me to do it, the world has changed.”
What hasn’t changed with time is Lukather’s feelings toward Porcaro-Goings. “This woman hates my guts,” he says. “Her obsession, and I underline obsession, is demented. I don’t get it. We just lost a lawsuit that cost us almost a million dollars to fight it and pay all the fees. And it ripped everything apart. It ripped apart lifelong friendships. And I hope she’s fucking happy now! I mean, she’s married to a semi-billionaire [former Tupperware CEO and Chairman Rick Goings] and has an endless wallet. We don’t. We’re still paying legal fees, and she’s fucking having martinis at Mar-a-Lago with her best pal. If you think I’m fucking lying, look it up.”
Susan Porcaro-Goings has granted almost no interviews since losing her husband 28 years ago, but she agreed to speak for this story so she could respond to Lukather’s statements. She says the terms of the settlement are confidential, but she categorically denies that she receives five percent of what Lukather makes going forward. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” she says. “We only get what is rightfully Jeff’s. And I do not hate Lukather. I feel sorry for Lukather.… I have zero obsession with Steve Lukather. I have done nothing to indicate I am obsessed with him. I find it laughable that he thinks that.”
She also bristles at the idea that the lawsuit cost Lukather nearly a million dollars and split the band apart. “There was nothing in that lawsuit that would have ripped the band apart,” she says. “It’s how he behaved and how he handled it. They would not have had to spend one penny, and quite frankly, neither would we, if they had just agreed to give Jeff what was rightfully his. They were knowingly keeping it without our permission.
“We tried for two-and-a-half years to get them to do the right thing, the moral and legal thing,” she continues. “We gave them every opportunity. We presented them with all of the facts and the evidence. We never even went to court. They didn’t have to spend any money on legal fees. We had a one-day mediation, and ultimately they had to provide exactly what we were asking for during that two-and-a-half years.”
And about the notion that she hangs out at Mar-a-Lago with Trump? “I’ve never been to Mar-a-Lago,” she says. “I don’t know why he says that. Again, he’s delusional. I find it interesting that he is kind of similar to some people who are in power that just make up lies and people believe them. The things he says are just completely untrue.”
Whoever you believe in the Great Toto War, the band was shattered by the end of their 2019 tour. Paich managed to join them for a couple of songs at the last show, but Lukather says his health remains fragile and he’ll likely never tour again.
Lukather and Joseph Williams briefly thought about touring together under their own names to avoid the legal mess over the Toto name. “I’m not going to start over playing in clubs after fucking being on the road for 45 years of my life,” says Lukather. “I earned this. I paid for this. I’m here. I’m going to use the name. But let’s differentiate. This is not like the original band. This is the new version of the two guys that want to go on.”
Steve Porcaro fully supports the band’s decision to go forward despite all the bad blood. “If Luke is putting together something, it’s going to be amazing,” he says. “It’s going to be fantastic. No one plays guitar like Luke. And Joseph is singing better than ever. I wish them all the best.”
There’s no new Toto record in the works, but Lukather and Williams both have new solo albums coming. Lukather’s LP (I Found the Sun Again, due out on February 21st) features guest spots from David Paich, Joseph Williams, and Ringo Starr, who has featured Lukather in his All Starr Band for the past eight years. The frustration and anger he’s felt over the past couple of years is evident in many of the songs, including leadoff song “Along for the Ride.”
“You’ve been riding on my bloody coattails,” he sings at the start of the song. “For far too long/Living high and still you cry/So I’ll been movin’ — movin’ on/You were told what you wanted to hear/But homie, they lied/You might think you got this trip mapped out/But you’re just along for the ride.”
Things get even more bitter on “Serpent Soul.” Like “Along for the Ride,” it was co-written by former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, a guy that knows more than a little about rock-band battles.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Lukather sings. “Won’t take the fall/I won’t be your Judas goat/You think I’m a snake in the grass/But not so fast/Check yourself for a serpent soul.”
Williams’ record, Denizen Tenant (out February 26th), is a mellower affair that mixes originals with covers of songs like Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” and “If I Fell” by the Beatles. “I’ve been chipping away at this record for the past four years,” he says. “This break from the road was a blessing in disguise because it gave me time to finally finish it.”
Lukather and Williams live very near each other in California and hang out all the time. And in late October, Lukather opened up his door on his birthday and saw a masked Ringo Starr standing there with a birthday cake in hand. “My girlfriend set it up,” says Lukather. “I’ve worked with him for years. He’s become one of my most cherished friends. He just means the world to me. I defy anybody to fuck with Ringo. I’ll punch them in the face.”
Whenever Toto tour, they plan on playing selections from their new solo records along with all the classics. “I’m praying to God that things will be cool by midsummer,” says Lukather. “If we have to wait until 2022, so be it. But I’m going to die on the road, man. I love it too much.”