Toto: The Tragedies and Triumphs of a Hit ’80s Band

Toto IV
Toto IV.

Whilst watching one of Yoyoka Soma’s drumming videos of late, we came across the song Rosanna by 1970s and 1980s band Toto.

We knew of the song, but not the group. And reading into them further we were really surprised to come across an odd, tragic, and ongoing story.

Toto

Right, the above has 56+ million views on YouTube. So, yes, Toto is still pretty popular. And Rosanna won the Grammy’s song of the year award in 1983.

It’s from the 1982 album Toto IV. Off that, the track Africa was a No. 1 hit and is pretty legendary. That one has over 550 million views! You’ll have heard it at some point or other.

’80s music can be pretty cheesy at times, but this stuff is at least uplifting.

So why are we going on about this? Well, upon a cursory reading over the band’s history we suddenly unearthed a mass of sudden tragedy, critical stagnation, and wasted talent.

And that type of thing always piques our interest. How can a hit band suffer so many issues?

Toto’s Formation

Well, let’s start at the beginning. Keyboardist David Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro formed Toto.

They were established session workers who’d worked with the likes of Steely Dan, Sonny and Cher, plus Boz and Scaggs.

They set everything up in 1977 and rearranged the line-up over the following years.

Now, it’s odd for a drummer to be the figurehead of a group. Levon Helm of The Band springs to mind. Plus, the genius that was Buddy Rich.

But Jeff Porcaro’s reputation is right up there. He was voted the 37th greatest drummer of all time in a Rolling Stone poll.

The swing is there to listen to on the famous Rosanna intro. That’s a shuffle—a propulsive drum groove Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham is famous for.

Porcaro adapted his take from Bonham’s rhythms. The result was the Rosanna shuffle.

It’s always easy seeing a drummer explain something like that. As well as performing it. But have a go—getting your four limbs in time, every time, is tough work.

Porcaro’s reputation as the best session drummer of his era in America was enough to impress Bruce Springsteen.

The drummer was offered a massive pay check to tour with “The Boss”, but turned it down.

His plans were to focus on Toto. And they paid off with massive commercial success and awards gongs from Toto IV.

Critical Consensus & Cocaine

But to the band’s dismay, despite all of that, the press hated them. They were the Nickelback of their era—a band journalists loved to hate.

Nickelback and Toto aren’t typically the type of music we go for, but they’re really not that bad at all. That Africa song is rather inspiring, we think.

How can some people slate them and be A okay with Justin Bieber, rap, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus?

Regardless, various music publications of the time slated their albums.

They claimed the music was phoned in. Hollow and borderline comical.

Toto acknowledged the criticism at the time and chose to ignore it. Even refusing to appear on Rolling Stone’s front cover for a feature article. They predicted a drubbing. Jeff Porcaro noted:

"They [the music press] don't like us, and they probably never will."

So it’s sad, at their peak as young men in a highly successful band, they couldn’t really enjoy the moment.

In response, the solid work ethic continued. Jeff Porcaro added in his brothers Steve and Mike to the line-up in the early to mid-1980s.

Toto even provided the soundtrack to the David Lynch cult classic Dune in 1985.

But drugs were taking their toll on the group.

In a range of pictures and videos, we’ve noted that Jeff Porcaro rarely isn’t smoking. He seemed to be like a chimney. He was also taking a lot of cocaine and partying too much.

Meanwhile, you have the gentleman with the moustache, curly hair, and amazing voice. He’s there on the front of the Rosanna clip. That’s lead singer Bobby Kimball.

Although the band split singing duties between various members, Kimball was the main vocal attraction. He was a bit of a powerhouse.

But cocaine was ruining his voice. As Steve Porcaro said:

"The bottom line was Bobby couldn't sing. I stayed up all night. We all did. The next day my throat would be like ribbons. But I didn't have to sing. Bobby had to, and he just wasn't delivering."

The Who’s Roger Daltrey realised the importance of laying off drugs during the 1960s.

Whilst his band members were often out of it (and Keith Moon seemed to get better when on a mixture of uppers and downers), he chose to lay off drugs so his voice remained fine.

Kimball didn’t do that. He had zero restraint. And he was in regular trouble with the law—and the band.

Throughout 1983 he was in court charged with drugs offences. He was fired by Toto in 1984.

Although he rejoined the group in 1999, as part of Toto’s many and ongoing tours (the last one concluded at the end of 2019), it seems mainly for his nostalgic presence.

His voice is gone, he can’t hold pitch, and his performances appear to be mimed. Worse, his mental health has deteriorated and in early 2020 many nasty rumours are spreading around online about him.

After his firing in 1984, the band continued on—but Toto had underestimated Kimball’s appeal.

He did have a fantastic voice. As you can hear as he takes lead vocals for Hold The Line, another of the band’s big hits.

But suddenly that was gone. The loss of Kimball, a long-term member of the band, affected Toto more than they expected.

The band’s popularity dropped to a core fanbase, with no more massive hits or awards.

Tragedy & Triumph

The first big shock came on August 5th 1992. At the age of just 38, Jeff Porcaro suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. He had been tending to his garden at home.

His death was attributed to his heavy smoking and cocaine use.

Although the chemicals he was using in his garden were possibly a factor. The anti-pesticides may have triggered off a combination of health factors.

Stunned, Toto tried to regroup and focus. But problems wouldn’t go away.

The replacement for Bobby Kimball was Dennis “Fergie” Frederiksen, who didn’t work out. He left the group and died in 2014.

Legal problems also struck the band and Toto got stuck in a counterproductive lawsuit with Sony. It cost a lot of money. And Sony won.

This forced them to head back into touring to make up for lost money.

Another major shock followed when Mike Porcaro was then diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2007. He had to retire and died in 2015.

Despite these tragic setbacks, Toto has enjoyed something of a resurgence of late.

They were featured in the popular Family Guy cartoon series. And their touring efforts have been met with a lot of rapturous support.

Here’s a performance from 2016. Even if Bobby Kimball is miming, he’s at least giving it some welly.

So, there are some happy fans out there. And the band seems to have settled down into enjoyable touring—along with creating new music.

There was Toto XIV (2015) and most recently Old Is New (2018).

Whether the band tours again after its mammoth 2019 campaign, we don’t know. But interest in Toto seems on a massively renewed high.

For All Eternity

On finding out a lot of the above, we were quite shocked. Particularly the sudden death of Jeff Porcaro.

But also with Bobby Kimball, who seems to have wasted (if not destroyed) his talent at the hands of cocaine.

There are, unfortunately, some jaw-dropping clips of him on YouTube over the last few years trying to sing Africa. His voice is gone. The performances quite upsetting in people mocking him and failing to understand what’s going on.

Apparently he’s pretty much deaf, so it’s a bit unclear whether his bizarre performances are due to that—or his declining mental state.

Either way, we do wish Kimball and the rest of band members all the best going forward.

That most rock and roll drug of the 1980s played havoc on them. The effects linger to this day.

We look back at their peak and wonder how it could all go so, simultaneously, right and wrong.

Hmmmm… well, on an interesting and final note here’s a gem.

In 2019, Namibian-German artist Max Siedentopf set up a solar panelled sound installation out in the desert.

He hasn’t told anyone where it is. But it’s got Toto’s soft rock chops Africa on a perpetual loop.

The artist had this to say about his project:

"I … wanted to pay the song the ultimate homage and physically exhibit 'Africa' in Africa ... The Namibian desert (which is, with 55 million years, the oldest desert in the world) seemed to be the perfect spot for this."

So there we go. Africa is playing in a desert in Africa. And will do so for all eternity.

21 comments

  1. I always liked Toto, but I miss the rains down in Africa. Er – I had to say that… Has to be one of my favourite songs. Also ‘Rosanna’, and then ’99’, which I always thought was some kind of reference to Barbara Feldon but turns out to be a riff on THX-1138. I was always impressed with how good they were musically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’m going to out-knowledge you for the first time on something. It’s “I bless the rains down in Africa.” MWahahahaah! That’s British might, that is. Tremble in fear.

      I can imagine Rosanna was one of those songs overplayed on the radio in 1982. To the point you start hating the thing. Like Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al. Which I struggle to listen to now. Thanks to the radio.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I never did know the lyrics to ‘Africa’! Didn’t stop me singing along anyway (whatever words came to mind, and thoroughly out of tune, owing to the fact that there are amoeba on Saturn that can sing, dance and play musical instruments better than me).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll let you off. Strike one, as it were. I play the drums, just pretty badly. Zero time keeping skills. Makes me appreciate musicians a great deal more, though. Except Beethoven. He was rubbish.

          Like

  2. For me, Toto was similar to Yes in that their best known songs were pop hits in the 80’s, but the catchy singles didn’t necessarily represent the impressively talented musicians in the band. Steve Lukather is a great guitarist who I always heard about before learning he was the guitar player in Toto.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! Good point. No one had a cape as dramatic as Rick Wakeman in Toto. I particularly like I’ve Seen All Good People.

      But Toto did experiment around with genres, like Yes. And the former is most famous for Africa now, which still surprises them I believe. They thought it was a passable number and just jammed it on the end of that album.

      Liked by 1 person

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