By Alan Sculley, Last Word Features
Not long ago – in 2019, to be exact – it looked like Toto’s long and successful run might have really come to an end.
In the time leading up to the split, there were questions about the future involvement of founding member, keyboardist David Paich, and long-time keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Then there was a lawsuit filed by Susan Porcaro-Goings, the widow of drummer and founding member Jeff Porcaro, seeking to recover royalties and other income she believed had not been paid to Porcaro’s estate. The suit created considerable tension between founding guitarist Steve Lukather and Paich and the Porcaro family.
The two sides feuded both publicly and in private, and the anger over the situation was plenty evident in the months leading up to the announcement that Toto was breaking up. The suit was settled in favor of Porcaro-Goings.
Singer Joseph Williams, in a mid-January phone interview, said Toto might have survived without breaking up had the lawsuit not happened, but he suspects the 2019 split was inevitable.
“Aside from the whole legal battle and all of that, Steve Porcaro was inching toward not really wanting to be a touring musician anymore anyway. So that would have come inevitably,” he said. “Also, Dave (Paich) was sort of up and down with his health. Although he’s great now and he’s fine and he still comes out and contributes stuff, touring is not for him anymore, either…But you know, the lawsuit was just sort of salt on a thing that was already happening.”
Williams (who was Toto’s singer from 1986-1989 and 2010 to 2019) and Lukather, meanwhile, saw no reason why they couldn’t form a new lineup and credibly return Toto to active duty.
“Luke (Lukather) and I just looked at each other and said we want to work and we want to play. And the music is still worthy,” Williams said. “We feel we can still do a good job and bring the music out, keep doing it.”
So a reunion was announced in 2020, and after a delay due to the pandemic, Toto returned to touring in 2022, with a mix of headlining dates and a run opening for Journey. The group is continuing down a similar road start 2023, mixing in headlining shows between another run as Journey’s opening act on that band’s winter-spring tour.
The new lineup includes Williams, Lukather (who has also appeared on some 1,500 albums by a who’s who of music artists as one of music’s most in-demand session guitarists), bassist John Pierce, drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, keyboardist/background vocalist Steve Maggiora, keyboardist Dominique “Xavier” Taplin and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Warren Ham.
“You’re going to hear the big hits that everybody knows from Toto and stuff that’s familiar from the more successful albums, that kind of stuff,” Williams said of Toto’s shows. “And it’s very high energy, rock kind of take on it all. So it’s a lot of fun.”
The 2019 split was not the first time Toto had broken up, or at the least, been on uncertain footing.
Toto was formed in 1977 by high school friends Lukather, Jeff Porcaro (already an acclaimed session drummer), Steve Porcaro and Paich, with singer Bobby Kimball and bassist Dave Hungate completing the original lineup.
The group had immediate success, as the 1978 self-titled debut album spawned the hit single, “Hold The Line,” and went on to top two million copies sold in the United States alone.
The string of successful albums extended into the 1980s, with Toto hitting a peak when the 1982 album, “Toto IV,” became a triple platinum smash behind the hits “Rosanna,” “Africa” and “I Won’t Hold You Back.”
It was against the backdrop of that blockbuster success that issues started to blunt the band’s momentum. In 1983, Hungate left Toto (with another Porcaro brother, Mike, taking the bass slot) and the band fired Kimball, who was dealing with drug issues.
The band pressed on, bringing on Fergie Frederiksen as the new singer and making the 1984 album, “Isolation.” The album failed to achieve anything close to the sales of “Toto IV,” and Frederiksen did not work out as the singer.
This is when Williams, who had known the Lukather and the Porcaros going back to his middle school years, auditioned and was chosen as the next singer in Toto. Williams was thrilled to join Toto, although he was aware the group was feeling the weight of expectations at the time.
“There was pressure, but they never applied direct pressure, like if you don’t deliver we’re f***ed; Williams said. “It was never anything like that with them. But looking back on it, I can certainly remember sort of the tension between the other five guys, just having the blockbuster album and losing a singer and then the follow-up (album) not being as big. They wanted to keep it going and do it right. They experienced a whole lot of pressure at that time.”
Williams made two albums with Toto – 1986’s “Fahrenheit” and 1988’s “The Seventh One,” but on tour the following year, vocal issues forced him to part ways with the band.
As the decade ended, Toto’s popularity had faded, particularly in the states. The band soldiered on through the 1990s into the early 2000s, with sustained popularity in Europe helping keep the band’s career viable. But along the way, the group suffered tragedies (in 1992, Jeff Porcaro died of heart failure while doing yard work, while Mike Porcaro was forced out of music in 2007 by ALS disease) and had multiple personnel changes. In early 2008, Lukather disbanded the group, saying it no longer felt like Toto.
Ironically, it was Mike Porcaro’s ALS illness that initially put Toto back together. In 2010, Paich called Lukather about doing a short reunion tour to raise funds for Mike’s medical treatments. Lukather agreed, but only if Williams and Steve Porcaro also rejoined. Everyone signed on and soon things evolved into a full reunion.
Over the next eight years, the band toured extensively, made a well-received studio album, “Toto XIV,” as well as several live releases, and then got an unexpected boost in 2018 when Weezer covered the band’s signature hit, “Africa.”
“When we play that song (now), everybody’s up, like it’s a soccer game,” Williams said. “So that’s our calling card and we’re grateful to Weezer for doing it and putting it in the ears of a younger generation, and also (to) the fans of Toto from when those songs were actually on the air, their kids are fans of it.”
Despite the renewed momentum, tensions over the lawsuit and between band members led to the 2019 breakup.
With Covid sidelining all live music, Lukather, Williams and Paich each made solo albums, before regrouping the current edition of Toto and returning to touring last year.
Williams is hoping for another long run with Toto. Lukather has ruled out making new albums as Toto, but the singer isn’t closing the door on anything going forward.
“We’ll see how it evolves. I understand how Luke feels just because if there were to really be a Toto album, we’d have to have the participation from particular people,” Williams said. “The way we’ve been doing it is Luke’s putting out a new album that we did last year. Dave put out an album. These sort of mini-Toto albums, you have to sort of throw them all together and get the (Toto) experience that way. It’s understandable, but like I say, never say never. We’re not old, old men yet. We’re just sub-elderly, so there’s plenty of time to change minds and do stuff.”