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In Memoriam: Joe Porcaro

Jul 7, 2020, 12:30 PM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Joe PorcaroDrummer and teacher Joe Porcaro died on July 7, 2020.

Porcaro was born in New Britain, Connecticut. His father had originally been a trumpet player, but due to trouble with his teeth he switched to drums. When Joe was five years old, he found his dad’s drums and figured out how to play the cadences he had heard his father play. By the time Joe was eight, he would accompany his dad to Hartford, where his father played in an Italian symphonic band. Joe would play the cadences while the band marched.

His first teacher gave him lessons in reading, time signatures, and note values. The Porcaro family moved to Hartford when Joe was 10, and he came in contact with Al Lepak. Porcaro said that Lepak was like a second father to him and allowed him to tag along to his rehearsals. Lepak taught at Hartt College and was timpanist in Hartt’s symphony orchestra. Lepak invited Joe to play percussion with them.

When the Hartford Symphony formed in 1936, Porcaro was invited to be third percussionist. Joe was also playing in the house band at a local jazz club, where he played with such musicians as Mike Mainieri and Donald Byrd, and on weekends he worked at a Greek restaurant, playing in odd time signatures for belly dancers. He also did Broadway shows at the Goodspeed Opera House, and for a while he went on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band.

Porcaro was playing at a jazz club when his longtime friend Emil Richards came by one night. Richards had been living in L.A. for ten years and enjoying a successful career as a percussionist. He invited Porcaro to visit L.A. and check out the scene. Soon after, in 1965, Porcaro went to Los Angeles and went on studio calls with Richards for a week. Later that year, the Porcaro family—his wife, Eileen; three boys, Jeff, Mike, and Steve; and daughter Joleen—left Hartford and moved to L.A.

A couple of months after Joe arrived in L.A., he was recommended to play with Chet Baker for a week at Shelly’s Manne-Hole. Manne liked the way Joe played drums, and when he found out that Joe was also a percussionist, Manne recommended Porcaro to his contractor. Joe subsequently I got a call to record music for the TV show Daktari. Not long after, Joe got called to play on Mission Impossible with Lalo Schifrin. Word began to spread about Porcaro amongst other L.A. studio contractors. Porcaro’s was especially valuable because he could play drums and percussion. 

During his career, Porcaro played on over 1,000 movies and TV sessions. Some of the films include North by NorthwestDancing With WolvesFinding NemoAce VenturaAnalyze ThisAustin PowersBeverly Hills Cop IIComing to AmericaCongoDante’s PeakDie HardEdward ScissorhandsEmpire of the Sun, The Outlaw Josey WalesThe Wild Bunch, and The Fugitive. He also recorded for such TV shows as I Dream of JeannieThe Smothers Brothers Comedy HourMurder She WroteColumboIronsidesLittle House on the PrairieHighway to Heaven, and C.H.I.P.S., to name just a few. 

Porcaro recorded on albums with a variety of artists, including Frank Sinatra, 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. 

Joe’s sons Jeff, Mike, and Steve have all had successful careers in music. A highlight was at the 1983 Grammy Awards, where Joe was playing in the Grammy orchestra, and his sons’ band, Toto, won six Grammy Awards.

As a teacher, Porcaro was at the core of establishing two important drum institutions in Los Angeles. In 1980, guitarist Tommy Tedesco invited Joe to get involved with Musicians Institute. Porcaro enlisted Ralph Humphrey, and they began PIT—Percussion Institute of Technology—in Hollywood. 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 and taught jazz drums.

Read Joe Porcaro’s PAS Hall of Fame bio here.

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