Reflecting back on his life, drummer/percussionist Joe Porcaro knows that one decision above all others was life-changing: he needed to move from Hartford, Connecticut to Los Angeles.
“I got to the point in my life where I knew I couldn’t go any further,” Porcaro explained. “I was doing a lot of symphony work and doing Broadway shows at the Goodspeed Opera House. I was the house drummer at a jazz club and doing casuals, and for a while I went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band after Tommy passed away.”
Porcaro was playing at a jazz club when his lifelong friend Emil Richards came by one night. “Joe and I have been friends since we were seven years old,” Richards recounts. “We first met in the schoolyard. We started a band with the priest at Joe’s church, who played piano with us, and we played for dances. We were eight, nine, ten years old.”
Richards had been living in L.A. for ten years and enjoying a successful career as a percussionist. He was visiting back in Connecticut that night he fortuitously saw Porcaro at the club. He invited Porcaro to visit L.A. and check out the scene. “Joe was a wonderful, wonderful drummer. I knew there would be a great career for him in L.A., and he would be appreciated by most of the guys here, which he was,” Richards says.
The wheels in Porcaro’s mind began to turn, and not long after, in 1965, Porcaro went out to Los Angeles, stayed with Richards, and went on studio calls with his buddy all week long. “That was it for me,” Porcaro says. He went back home, hunkered down on his reading and his mallets, and by August, 1966, the Porcaro family—his wife, Eileen; three boys, Jeff, Mike, and Steve; and daughter Joleen—were packed into the car and driving across country.
Contemplating those breaks that gained him momentum, Porcaro says there were a few. One was just a couple of months after he had been in town when he was recommended by notable blind piano player Dave Mackay to play with Chet Baker for a week at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. “Shelly had his own quintet that played opposite us,” Porcaro recalls. “One night in the green room, he said he heard I was also a percussionist. He was doing a TV show called Daktari. He was the composer. He normally used Larry Bunker and Emil on the show. Larry played drums on it, too, but Shelly liked the way I played drums, and he said I would hear from his contractor. The very next week I got a call to work on Daktari.”
Not long after, Joe got called to play on Mission Impossible with Lalo Schifrin, during which time Porcaro decided to add tabla to his bag of tricks, so he took some lessons with John Bergamo. In no time, word began to spread amongst the contractors of the day, such as Marion Klein and Bobby Helfer.
Porcaro’s special calling card was that he could play drums and percussion. “They liked that because sometimes the budget was low, and they would do the main title to a TV show with a huge orchestra, like 40 or 50 men, and then in the afternoon when they did the segments and lowered the orchestra they only wanted one percussionist who could play drums and all the mallets and timpani, so that’s where I lucked out,” he says. “One cue might have drums and no percussion, so I would play drums, and if it was a very rhythmical thing they’d say, ‘Let’s overdub shakers or tambourine or congas.’ On Hawaii Five-0 I played timpani and percussion on the main title, and John Guerin or Shelly Manne would play the main title on drums, but they would only be hired for half a day, so in the afternoon I played mostly drums and some percussion.”
Joe says he was okay with the fact that he was hired mostly as a percussionist, since the competition on drumset was pretty stiff. “Guys like Shelly, Larry Bunker, John Guerin, and, of course, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer were my competition,” Porcaro says. “My first love is drumset, but I saw the writing on the wall of who I would be up against.”
Porcaro was adept at drumset and percussion because he began playing drums at the age of five in his hometown of New Britain, Connecticut. His father had been a trumpet player in Italy. He came to the United States in 1915. After serving in WWI, he had trouble with his teeth and was no longer able to play the trumpet, so he turned to the drums, as he’d had some experience with snare drum in Italy. “One day, a friend of his who played at a local bar left his drums at our apartment, and my father put them under the bed,” Porcaro recalls. “I was home sick with asthma, and I took the bass drum out of the case, I saw the pedal, and I don’t know how I put two and two together, but I set them up—just snare drum and bass drum. I started beating the foot pedal and playing a 2/4 cadence that I figured out. There are two cadences in marching band—a 2/4 cadence and a 6/8 cadence—and the rhythm was in me after watching my father teach it in the drum corps.”
When Joe was eight, his father bought him a field drum, and they would travel with their snare drums on a bus to Hartford, where his father played in an Italian symphonic band. “I would play the cadences while the band marched,” Porcaro recalls. “When they started playing the songs, my father would play alone because I didn’t know them and I couldn’t read music.”
His first teacher gave him lessons in reading, time signatures, and note values. To pay for the lessons, Porcaro shined shoes outside a poolroom, zeroing in on the winners he knew were the best tippers.
When the Porcaro family moved to Hartford when Joe was around 10, he came in contact with Al Lepak. “I’m not ashamed to admit it; I never graduated high school or went to college or music school,” Porcaro says. “I had an incredible private teacher: Al Lepak, who is in the PAS Hall of Fame.”
In a 1994 interview with this writer for Modern Drummer magazine, Porcaro elaborated on Lepak: “He taught me all the basics and brought me through the Wilcoxin rudimental book. He would write out syncopated rhythms. We studied out of the Buddy Rich book. He taught me all the nuts and bolts—rudiments, reading, note values, press roll notations.”
Porcaro said that Lepak was like a second father to him and allowed him to tag along to his rehearsals. “He taught at Hartt College, which is now part of the University of Harford,” Porcaro said. “It was right after the war, and there weren’t too many percussionists around. The Hartt School had its own symphony orchestra, and he was the timpanist. They were shy a percussion player, so he invited me to sit in and play percussion with them—snare drum, triangle, bass drum, and whatever. I got great experience playing symphonic music.”
When the Hartford Symphony formed around 1936, Porcaro was invited to be third percussionist. When Emil Richards was drafted, Porcaro was asked to take over the mallet chair, an instrument on which he never felt he was as proficient as on other instruments. Joe was playing a variety of music, playing in the house band at the local jazz club, The Heaublein, where he played with such musicians as Mike Mainieri and Donald Byrd, and on the weekends he worked at the Greek restaurant. Playing in 7, 9, 11, and 13 time signatures for the belly dancers helped make him an expert in odd times and provided the foundation for his drum books, Groovin’ With the Rudiments and Groovin’ With the Odd Times, both published by Hal Leonard.
Playing in the symphony, he performed such pieces as Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Noces,” which came in handy for the other big break that occurred when he hit Los Angeles and brought him to the attention of contractors.
One day he got a call to sub a rehearsal at the University of Southern California for vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake. It was for timpanist/composer Bill Kraft, and Porcaro asked to see the music ahead of time. “I walked in, introduced myself to Bill Kraft, and said I was subbing for Charlie Shoemake, and he freaked out,” Porcaro recalls. “He said, ‘Charlie didn’t tell me he wasn’t coming. Did you look at the part?’ I said, ‘No problem.’ After the rehearsal Kraft asked if I could do the concert. I said, ‘I don’t want to take the gig away from somebody else.’ Kraft said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m getting somebody else.’ I said, ‘In that case, I’ll do it.’”
Not only did Porcaro play the composition at the Ojai Music Festival, but he had to play “Les Noces” with Stravinsky in the audience, as well as two pieces with Pierre Boulez, who came from France to conduct them. “I did the concert and Bill was very happy. Afterwards he asked if I would like to do more at the Hollywood Bowl and downtown at the Music Center with the L.A. Philharmonic,” Porcaro says. “At all these concerts, contractors and composers were present, and of course my name was in the program. So bada-boom, my name got out there right away, within the year I was in L.A.”
Porcaro has played on over 1,000 movies and TV sessions. Some of the films include North by Northwest, Dancing With Wolves, Finding Nemo, Ace Ventura, Analyze This, Austin Powers, Beverly Hills Cop II, Coming to America, Congo, Dante’s Peak, Die Hard, Edward Scissorhands, and Empire of the Sun. During the Modern Drummer interview, he mentioned The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Wild Bunch, and The Fugitive, which he said were tougher because they were filled with changing meters.
He also said that television could get a little “hairy.” “I used to do shows like I Dream of Jeannie, where, within three hours, you had to record two, sometimes three shows,” Porcaro recalled. “They came in with pounds of music, but they’re short cues,” he said. “It was, ‘Run it down once and start recording, run down the next cue and record, run down the next cue and record.’ I remember doing some of those shows where I had to play xylophone parts, and it was pretty difficult.”
Other TV work included The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Ironsides, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven, and C.H.I.P.S., to name just a few.
Porcaro has also recorded on albums with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Pink Floyd, Stan Getz, Bonnie Raitt, Madonna, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Natalie Cole, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Connick Jr., Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, and Johnny Mathis. He recalled how nervous he was the night before his very first record date, which was with Nancy Sinatra for arranger Billy Strange.
“I remember staring at the ceiling all night long the night before,” he admitted. “It was my first big studio gig. Hal Blaine was the drummer, and I was just getting into the percussion thing. I wasn’t really trained as a mallet player, so I didn’t know what they were going to confront me with. I ended up playing timps, orchestra bells, and tambourine. The other percussionist was Kenny Watson, and he made me feel very comfortable.”
Peter Erskine recalls his first film date, when Joe Porcaro passed on the favor: “When I walked into United Western Studios back in 1979 for my first film date in L.A., I was overwhelmed by my own excitement and nerves, in contrast to the obvious normalcy of the gig for everyone else in the room. Round peg in a square hole or vice-versa,” Erskine said. “One person came over with a smile as big and beautiful as the whole outdoors, and that was Joe Porcaro, ‘Hey man, WECOME.’ That more or less sums up Joe: warm, gracious, selfless, giving, confident, outgoing, friendly, and strong. He is one of the most gracious human beings I know. He is also one of the closest drummers I’ve heard to Philly Joe Jones in terms of feel and swing. Which reminds me of another famous Jones: Papa Jo. Well Joe Porcaro is our Papa Jo on the West Coast, and I’m so grateful to call him my friend.”
And speaking of being a papa, Porcaro says working for son Jeffrey was interesting. He was quite the little taskmaster when Joe was recording a bass marimba overdub on the hit Toto song “Africa.”
“After 60 seconds or so, Jeff would stop and say, ‘Dad, hold back, you’re rushing,’” he recounts. “Can you imagine? He’s telling his father to lay back. He put me through the grind. I had to be right on.”
And then there was the pressure Joe felt when he recorded Toto’s “Jake to the Bone.” “That tune was in 7, and Jeff wanted me to play muffled bell plates. It’s a steel plate, and I played them with triangle beaters,” he recalled. “Then I had to play tabla on a ballad that Luke [Steve Lukather] sang on the album. Everybody would leave the room and it would be just Jeff and me in the studio until things got pretty tight. Then [David] Paich would walk in, which made it more intense. Those were some pretty scary moments.”
Proud doesn’t even come close to how Porcaro feels about the accomplishments of his sons. One of his greatest highlights involved the overlapping of his career and that of his sons at the 1883 Grammys, where he played in the Grammy orchestra and Toto IV won six Grammy Awards. “They would announce Album of the Year, and the whole orchestra would turn around and say, ‘Joe, yo!’” he recalled in a 2016 interview with me for the Ventura County Star. “Then Record of the Year, and on and on.”
Although Porcaro has formally retired from the recording scene, at 88, he is still very active as a teacher. He has been at the core of establishing two very important drum institutions in Los Angeles. The first occurred when guitarist Tommy Tedesco approached him to get involved with Musicians Institute in 1980. Porcaro enlisted Ralph Humphrey, and they began PIT—Percussion Institute of Technology—in Hollywood.
“Joe Porcaro is one of the finest men one would ever want to know,” Ralph Humphrey said. “He is a world-class drummer/percussionist with whom I have had the privilege of working for 45 years. He is also an outstanding teacher, again with whom I have worked as a partner for over 30 years. In that time, he has taught me a lot about the business, about education, and about myself. Joe’s great advice and encouragement helped me to work my way into the studio scene. As a teacher, Joe helped me to organize my teaching approach as we worked together as partners to producer the drum curriculum at PIT and the Los Angeles College of Music. Through the years, my family has had the privilege of hanging at the Porcaros and being a part of such a warm and loving family. I would also say that the Porcaro boys got their musical talents from their dad, who, by the way, has one of the best swing feels ever. In short, Joe has been a mentor to me as well as being a good friend—someone for whom I have the greatest respect.”
Around 1996, Porcaro and Humphrey cut ties with PIT and helped to begin LAMA—Los Angeles Music Academy—in Pasadena. The school has since become Los Angeles College of Music, an accredited music college, where Humphrey is director of the drum school and Porcaro helped put together the sight-reading program. Currently he teaches jazz drums.
Grace, strength, and inspiration are words often uttered by those in the industry and beyond who have watched Joe and Eileen Porcaro weather the unspeakable untimely loss of sons Jeff and Mike.
Jim Keltner sums it up: “A lot of people know Joe Porcaro as the head of a truly amazing family. All of them are accomplished, talented, and successful people. But most amazing to me is the tremendous strength they’ve shown as a family and how great their bond is to each other. Joe and his lovely wife Eileen have been an inspiration, in so many ways, to me and my wife, for a very long time. On a purely musical level, I can’t think of anyone who has a prettier touch on the cymbals and drums than Joe Porcaro.”
And Porcaro continues to enjoy those drums. Between playing at school and a smattering of local live gigs, Joe says that “keeps him going.”
“Besides my family, drums has been the love of my life,” he says. “Unfortunately, we get old and our muscles fall apart, but the love is still there, and we keep trying.”