A&M chapter seventeen

I mentioned prior that there are too many stories here for me to hope to tell.  So far, what I’ve related has been largely personal, as it should be, this is after all, my story.  It’s not lost on me however that I have an obligation to entertain you, the reader.  So many of the stories don’t necessarily warrant an entire chapter but they are important to my narrative in that they provide context for the absolute insanity that was my life.  The the constant and consistent wallpaper to my everyday existence.  Like any good Rock N’ Roll story, or medical drama or cop show, even the wallpaper was alive.

My life crackled and vibrated.

This may not be one of those stories, as it falls between the cracks of a tale about a famous musician most of you may not have heard of,  and my personal story of that musician.  Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about this one man in particular because he inspired me so much.

Sometimes, people come into your life or you accidentally enter their’s and you realize you will never be as good at anything as they are at what they do and despite that, they embolden you, by leaving you breathless and mesmerized.

Magic happens.  I’ve seen it.

There was this guy named Jeff Porcaro.  If you don’t read album credits, you may not know his name.  He was arguably the best studio, or “session”, drummer ever.  Easily one of the most recorded.  He played on some of your favorite records I guarantee, especially if you’re anywhere over thirty and no doubt if you’ve crested forty.  From Steely Dan to Toto, Michael Jackson’s “Beat it”, Don Henley’s  “Dirty Laundry” and “New York Minute” (which I worked on), Paul McCartney, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Madonna, Peter Frampton, Bee Gees, Joe Walsh, Diana Ross, Bonnie Raitt, Dire Straits, David Gilmour and Roger Waters, Clapton, Springsteen, Miles Davis and Elton John to literally name a few.

Jeff’s fame flamed because he could effortlessly cop any groove.

I worked with and got to know him a little, on two or three Richard Marx records and a few other sessions.  Richard always hired the very best musicians and it was always a seamless pleasure.  The best cats in the biz always.  Often a different drummer everyday.  Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffet, Terry Bozzio, Russ Kunkel, Kenny Aronoff………the cream of the crap.  Making slave reels by eight o’clock, while waiting for dinner from any one of the best restaurants in Hollywood, paid for by Mr. Marx.  Make slaves and order whatever you want he’d say on his way out the door.  One of the coolest guys I ever worked with.  Funny, easygoing and knew exactly what he was doing.  Bill Drescher was his tracking engineer and he too was talented, humble and cool as fuck.

Hey Bill, you fucking cunt.

Recording sessions where we actually enjoyed ourselves.  Made music.  With shit hot players.  I can’t tell you what an oasis it was.  We had fun on the records that me & Al made, but this was long before that.  It wasn’t just novel, it was an aberration.

Porcaro was a genius.  Amazing.

Richard Marx, a great guy, and a talent whether you like his music or not, said that Porcaro “was the best drummer he had ever worked with”.  Marx wasn’t splitting the atom, just writing, performing and executing good pop songs.

Jeff literally died in a bizarre gardening accident in 1992 at the age of 38.  It was a sad day around A&M.  We all liked him and we were all aware of his genius.  He was thirty eight years old and an accomplished legend at that age.

My memories of him are fresh.

Jeff’s tech would arrive first thing in the morning with his gear and set it up and tune it with fresh heads.   If I’m not mistaken, it was Ross with Drum Doctors and it was a Gretsch kit.  Every time I worked with Jeff it was in studio A.  The room.  The best tracking room in the world.  One of two custom designed consoles built by Rupert Neve for George Martin of Beatles fame.

I would later have the pleasure of hiring Ross for a few records I was producing.  I was a small fish but he always treated me well.  A total pro.  Much respect.  All the people in this story were cool and professional.  As good as it got on that level.

Jeff didn’t usually arrive until later in the afternoon.  Superstar players like Randy Jackson, Steve Lukather, Lee Sklar, Marcus Miller, Fee Waybill had already been there for hours rehearsing.  He’d already been handed a demo of course.  He knew the tune.  A relatively small guy who carried his cool and legend with quiet grace.  He was barely 36 or 37 years old.  I was in my early to middle twenties.  I just can’t describe my enthusiasm when he walked through that air locked door into the control room of studio A.  I was thirteen again.  I’d been reading about and listening to him since then.  This guy, known only to the musicians and music people that actually mattered, was an absolute legend to me and to them too.  It was palpable.  Whenever I learned that I’d be working with Jeff Porcaro, I lost sleep the night before.

Here I was, surrounded by musical legends, and Porcaro made me into a comic book collecting, album liner note reading, adolescent.  He was there to play and he never disappointed.  Ever.

Recording studio control rooms are heavily air conditioned.  Not just cooled but conditioned and that meant smells and odors had a very short life.  Jeff always smelled clean.  Like lotion and soap and nothing more.  I couldn’t help but notice.  He had a pretty deep voice for a man his size but he spoke softly as he greeted all the people in the control room.  He smiled a lot.  He seemed to be somewhat shy but his demeanor did not at all belie his confidence.  He shook hands and looked everyone in the eye, even me, the second engineer, lowest guy in the room.

He was there to execute.  It’s what he did.  What he was famous for and why he made the big bucks.

In no time at all, he was behind his kit, listening on headphones to the work we had done that day.  He would ask that the lights be adjusted in the live room so that it was fairly dark.  With a joint in one hand and a pencil in the other, he would sketch the song structure on his snare head.  He’d listen once, maybe twice.  If he had any questions, they were few and rare.

Sounds, levels etc. would have already been dialed in with the help of Ross, who could play well himself and was intimate enough with how Jeff hit, to give us the big picture and prepare us for how and what Jeff would do.

Jeff would give a take or two to while he felt out the track and while we dialed him the rest of the way in.  Good drummers sound good and that’s that.  Then, two takes, usually live with the band.  I don’t believe he ever gave more and I don’t remember us ever needing more.  I will tell you that he was never there for longer than an hour or an hour and a half.  Only ten or twenty minutes of it actually playing.  Not on anything I ever worked on anyway.

Then he was gone.  Sometimes someone would say it out loud but as often as not, we all thought it.  Holy Shit.

He truly was the shit.  Formidable.  An expert.  Realistically, a genius at his craft.

He would play these fills that were like falling down stairs until he landed solid on the one and picked up the groove in the greasiest and most fluid of ways.  He never overplayed on anything I worked on or anything I’ve listened to since.  Never stepped on the vocal or got in the way of any other player.

Ever.

He nailed it every time.

He was NASA to me.

I tell you this having worked with many great drummers who’s names I will not mention here out of respect for them.  Many of them just as famous and all of them still alive.  A few I had the pleasure to actually hire.

I will tell you that I have never been so consistently impressed with a musician as I was with Jeff Porcaro.

Thanks Jeff, may you rest in peace.  You inspired, impressed and excited me and working with you will always be one of my fondest memories in a time that my hell had found it’s center.  It was you and people like you, that by example, allowed me to eventually rise above it.

It was the religion of music that got me through.  I worked in a flawed church but the music is what literally saved me.  The deity that we were all there for was the art of music.  In the end, it was the music itself and the rest of us that believed in it that saw me through.

I am lucky.

“All this machinery making modern music
Can still be open hearted
Not so coldly charted
It’s really just a question of your honesty, yeah
Your honesty
One likes to believe in the freedom of music
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity” -Rush

Drinks for my friends.

15 Responses to “A&M chapter seventeen”

  • Hunter:

    that made me really happy.

    HCO

  • admin:

    What is HCO and what is pho?

    I’m happy this made you happy my old friend. Much love 🙂

  • Michael you summed up Jeffs talent and impact in the record business to a ” T ” . Bravo . I worked with Jeff on many many records at The Village Recorder studios in particular and he impacted me in the same way. There is some great players out there but NO ONE is Jeff. Jeff Porcaro made a song truly a song. He was amazing and every session drummer will agree. Jeffs right hand hi hat groove and ” less is more ” approach is easily recognizable .
    You mentioned Bill Drescher. I worked with Bill on many records as his assistant . The studio could be on fire , the artist throwing a hissy fit and everyone threatning to quit and Bill Drescher would continue on as if he was surfing the perfect wave . I think his heart rate is 10 beats per minute. A true pro .
    Keep up the blogs Michael !
    Cheers
    Clif Jones

  • Jonathan:

    Good stuff! RIP Jeff! Hi Cliff those were some good sessions at the Village. As Geitus from A&M would say “PRO”.
    J

  • admin:

    @Clif: Thanks so much Clif, I wasn’t sure how much people would latch on to this chapter but I had to write it. And you’re right about Drescher, among the classiest and coolest. When I do the rewrite I’ll try to remember to talk a little more about him. Thanks for reading.

  • admin:

    @Hunter:
    Duh on the HCO.

  • admin:

    @Jonathan: Thanks so much for reading Jonathan. Yep, total “PRO”. How’d that sauce turn out?

  • Mysty:

    Best chapter so far; Amen brotha, & drinks some Turley on T day.

  • admin:

    Thank you Mysty, very much.

  • Re-Write !? What !
    Don’t touch it Michael ! One of the best studio related articles , blogs , I’ve read .
    Hands off Buddy !

  • admin:

    Everything I post here is pretty much a first draft unless it’s a political or social rant.

    I’m buying you a drink someday.

    But thanks anyway.

  • Hey Michael
    great article. thanks for the kind words. (you too Lyle). lots of great memories from those sessions and many others @ A&M. Jeff was the best! we worked in studio D @ A&M a couple weeks ago. still a really great facility. keep up the blog. all the best.
    Bill Drescher

  • admin:

    Hey Bill!
    Thanks for reading and contributing. You were, a Luke used to say, “a delight”.

  • Porcaro. Simply the best. There I was 16 years old listening to Toto records in awe of him and Luke dreaming of working in music. My first session at A&M was drum overdubs with Jeff. Needless to say I nearly shit! I have my own personal story of that day that I won’t share here. But I can share that it was literally one take, no BS. Walk in, listen to the song once, one take, see ya. Amazing, I cried when he left us. And… I really owe Mark Harvey a lot for having the faith to put a punk like me in the same room with greatness!

  • Oh and I love the Rush quote… Spirit Of The Radio is actually my favorite song of all time. It says it all. I hope we have a drink together soon!

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