(Steve Lukather and Joseph Williams. Photo by Alex Solca)
BY JEFF MAISEY
Multi-Grammy Award winning classic rock band Toto, known for its late ‘70s and early ‘80s hit songs like “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna” and “Africa,” will be stopping in Newport News on February 16 for a show at the Ferguson Center.
Toto burst onto the music scene with the 1978 release of its self-titled debut. Four decades and some 13 studio albums later, with numerous ups and downs, hiatuses and reformations, they’re alive and well with founding guitarist Steve Lukather and longtime singer Joe Williams joined with bassist John Pierce (Huey Lewis and The News), drummer Robert “Sput” Searight (Ghost-Note, Snoop Dogg), keyboardist / background vocalist Steve Maggiora, keyboardist Dominique “Xavier” Taplin (Prince, Ghost-Note), and multi-instrumentalist /vocalist Warren Ham (Ringo Starr).
While diehard fans know the individual band members, many familiar with Toto’s music are not in part because the group’s album covers featured artwork of the logo instead of faces. The current lineup is Toto’s fifteenth rendition of the live group.
“That was what the whole thing about the band,” said Joe Williams, the son of composer John Williams who joined Toto in 1986 as vocalist. “This was a group of incredibly talented studio musicians who worked constantly and then started working on their own project (Toto) as opposed to a front-of-stage rock idol personality. The personality of the band was with the six members themselves. The band is about great songs and great musicianship. A lot of reviewers have always been confused as to what the look of the band is.”
The members of Toto were such sought after studio musicians they were individually recruited to play on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album.
“We definitely had our hands in that album, though we don’t get a lot of press over it,” said Steve Lukather. “We were on four or five tracks. I had a great time on those sessions and was glad to be a part of something so big, you know? We knew it was going to be a hit record, but we didn’t know it was going to be the biggest record of all time.”
The band members were also credited on records by Boz Scaggs, Seals & Crofts, Steely Dan, and many more during the glorious 1970s.
Founding member David Paich, who is taking a break from live touring, composed the band’s greatest hits. He’s the guy who pulled the whole “project amongst friends” together.
“We had been playing together since we were 15,” said Lukather. “We went in and made the album before we even played it as a band. We produced the hell out of it, you know? Did the big vocals; did the big guitars; the grandiose production. Then we had to figure out how to play it live. So that was a little daunting.”
Toto’s self-titled debut album was a monstrous success with FM radio stations playing the hell out of “Hold The Line,” “Georgy Porgy,” and “I’ll Supply The Love.”
The supergroup of players rolled forward with two albums — “Hydra” (1979) and “Turn Back” (1981) — though they didn’t have the same commercial success as the debut.
“We were just trying to find ourselves,” said Lukather. “We got labeled as this pussy pop band. We didn’t like that label, so we kept trying to fight against it.
“And we don’t like to repeat ourselves,” he continued. “We were left to produce ourselves in our own hands, and we did what we wanted to do. It was hit and miss.”
Then came Toto’s most successful album of all — “IV.”
“We were trying to find ourselves on those first three albums,” Luather said. “When we did ‘Toto IV’ it was sink or swim so we wrote the best songs and played the best we possibly could and stopped trying to chase the trends.”
In 1982, with its fourth album powered by the hits “Africa” and “Rosanna.,” Toto ruled the charts. The album, “IV,” garnered seven Grammy Awards.
“We were taken by surprise,” Lukather said. “We didn’t think our stuff would stack up against McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagan, people that are our heroes, you know?
“When we did it was terrifying, actually,” he continued. “We didn’t think we were going to win anything. Then a backlash happens and everybody hates you. It was like ‘it’s just because everybody in the music business knows you.’”
Before Joe Williams joined Toto, he was a fan, noting his love for both The Beatles and prog rocker like Yes. To his ears Toto was a mix of pop and more complex musicianship, and that he found appealing.
When thinking back to the appeal of some on Toto’s best known songs, Williams shared his insights.
“Hold The Line” was just perfect for its time,” said Williams. “The barking guitar, which is the signature of that song, and it was just an incredible performance by Bobby Kimball on the vocals. It was a perfectly designed hit rock record.”
Regarding “Georgie Porgy,” Williams said: “Once again we’re talking about David Paich, who is the composer of each of these songs. One of the brilliant things about Dave is if you listen to something like ‘Hold The Line’ and then go to ‘Georgie,’ it sounds like it could have been written by an entirely different person. Dave is eclectic in his writing and that sound comes from him.”
Of all the Toto hits, “Africa” and “Rosanna” seem to stand the test of time.
“I think certain songs just have a longer life and hold up a little more over the years as opposed to others,” said Williams. “‘Africa’ you can still listen to today and it still works on a sonic level and in every way.”
In 2023, Toto will be touring heavily with fellow classic rockers Journey as well as “Evening With” performances on their own, like the Ferguson Center concert.
Steve Lukather, who gets his big signature guitar sound by double-tracking everything he plays in the studio, looks back at an amazing career spanning four decades and fondly of those early recording sessions.
“We’ve grown into ourselves 45 years later. We decided if we could get 10 years out this, like our heroes The Beatles did, then great. We were all doing (studio) sessions, doing as much as we could. We were young, hungry, single, crazy, and had the world by the balls. It was the best time ever. I still have the best memories of that era still etched into my soul. It was really fantastic.
“We had our own band and doing our own music. It was the best of both worlds. We were living the dream.
“Some of the best music was not made by the prettiest people. There’s something about guys sitting in a room and playing music organically that you just can’t copy on a computer, I’m sorry. You can’t. You can’t take a million dollar studio, put million dollar players in there, and not come out with something great. Greatness rises to the top.”
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Ferguson Center for the Arts