The death of Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro from an apparent heart attack at age 38 was a shock to longtime fans of the Grammy-winning band.
It also touched a nerve among the thirtysomething crowd who attended Grant High School in Van Nuys during the early 1970s, when Porcaro, his brothers and several other graduates made the fairy-tale leap from garage band to the Big Time before they were even old enough to buy beer.
“I remember a high school dance where Jeff’s old band was playing a Steely Dan cover and Jeff sat in with them on drums,” said Grant High grad Steve Siler, now a Los Angeles songwriter. “That was so cool because Jeff was the drummer for Steely Dan.”
The Porcaro garage, which the family had converted to a recording and rehearsal studio, was a place for young players to develop musically and to socialize. Not limited to rock ‘n’ roll, Porcaro and the other top players of that time also were in the school orchestra, jazz band and even the marching band.
“Jeff just loved to play,” recalled Miles Neill, retired Grant High music teacher.
News of Porcaro’s death prompted Grant alumni of that era to pick up the telephone and talk among themselves, remembering what it was like to attend a school bursting at the seams with musical talent.
“A lot of us knew that something special was happening,” said Rich Sperber, a Grant High graduate. “It was like a school with a great basketball team, except we had great musicians.”
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office has conducted an autopsy to determine what caused Porcaro’s Aug. 5 death. He fell ill after spraying an insecticide in the yard of his Hidden Hills home, shared with his wife, Susan, and the couple’s three young boys.
Coroner’s officials said the autopsy results will not be available for several weeks.
More than 1,200 mourners attended Porcaro’s funeral, including many high-profile rock musicians such as Eddie Van Halen, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and Don Henley, as well as a host of session musicians not known by name to many but heard on thousands of popular recordings.
Porcaro played on hundreds of albums for such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and John Fogerty. His band, Toto, sold millions of records in the 1970s and 1980s, earning six Grammy awards and worldwide fame.
But his first break came in his senior year--1972--recalled Mercy Leithem, a former girlfriend, now an archeologist. Her name in high school was Marla Baron.
“Jeff was fully an incredible musician at 16--he had rhythm, timing, charisma,” said Leithem, who lives in Reseda. “He never talked about going to college. Everybody knew he was going to make it. Then he was signed to do the Sonny and Cher show right after graduation.”
Jeff Porcaro and his younger brothers Michael and Steve seemed to form the nucleus of a broad group of musicians who passed through the Porcaro family rehearsal studio, nicknamed Carroting Downs, said Sperber.
Sperber, a 1974 Grant graduate, is one year younger than Mike and one year older than Steve.
“I got a chance to work in that studio after I helped Mike with some arrangements of a piece he wrote for orchestra, rock band and double choir,” said Sperber, now in marketing. “What I noticed was they were a real close-knit family.”
Joe Porcaro supported the family as a session percussionist and fostered an appreciation for music, said friends from high school.
“We played at the Porcaros’ every day after school,” said Steve Lukather, 34, Toto guitarist and a respected studio session veteran. “Jeff’s dad was a top percussionist and his enthusiasm rubbed off on everybody. He was always saying, ‘Come on, guys,’ and making sure the guys were practicing.”
Lukather said he was a sophomore when he met classmate Steve Porcaro, a veteran session musician who played keyboards on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and who is also a member of Toto. The two, along with Mike Porcaro, continued Jeff Porcaro’s high school band, Still Life, after he graduated.
By 1977, that band, along with David Paich, who attended Chaminade Prep in the Valley, evolved into Toto. Mike Porcaro, who played with Seals and Crofts after his graduation from Grant, eventually joined Toto after the original bass player moved on.
“There was never a doubt we would be players,” said Lukather. “It was either that or become a gardener, and the idea of manual labor didn’t appeal to me.”
Lukather said he learned to read music, abandoning his approach of playing by ear, in part to keep up with the Porcaros, who all read music fluently. Still, the seriousness with which they approached music did not necessarily apply to other aspects of campus life.
“We used to ditch to play gigs at other schools at lunch,” Lukather said. “We’d get caught sometimes and the school people would say, ‘You better make it in music.’ ”
Retired music teacher Neill does not recall troubles of that sort.
“I’m the one who really reaped the benefits of all that talent,” he said. “I got to do directing and arranging and got the groups to play difficult material. We didn’t just do movements; we would perform entire symphonies.”
Lonn Friend, 36, executive editor of RIP magazine and the host of a nationally syndicated heavy metal radio show, took geometry with Lukather and a golf class with Steve Porcaro at Grant. He said he was not part of the Grant musicians’ hip social circle but, like other classmates, he did not escape their influence.
“We had a rock ‘n’ roll high school,” said Friend. “It was cool.”