What I’ve Been Listening to: Toto/The Seventh One

I fully expect Toto is going to elicit different reactions from readers, ranging from excellent to rather mediocre. Let there be no doubt where I stand: While like every band some of Toto’s songs were more compelling than others, overall, I really dig these guys for their outstanding musicianship and, yes, many of their catchy and well executed pop-rock tunes. The Seventh One from March 1988 is probably my favorite album.

My initial introduction to Toto was Hold the Line, a track from their eponymous debut album from October 1978. It was included on a compilation titled The Rock Album – The Best of Today’s Rock Music, which came out in 1980. A friend gave it to me as a present on music cassette. Then came Toto IV from April 1982, and songs like Rosanna, Africa and I Won’t Hold You Back, which each received extensive radio play in Germany. I was hooked!

Toto’s next two albums, Isolation and Fahrenheit from October 1984 and August 1986, respectively, didn’t excite me as much. As a result, the band started fading a bit from my radar screen. And then The Seventh One was released. I dug this album right from the get-go.

Since Toto IV, the band’s line-up had changed. Lead vocalist Bobby Kimball and bassist David Hungate, who were both part of Toto’s initial members, had been replaced by Joseph Williams and Mike Porcaro, respectively. But frankly, I don’t feel this impacted the quality of the album at all. Let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the opener Pamela, co-written by David Paich (keyboards, backing vocals) and Joseph Williams. The tune was also released separately as the lead single in February 1988 ahead of the album. Apart from its catchy melody, I dig Jeff Pocaro’s drums part in particular including the cool breaks. To me, Pocaro was one of the best drummers in rock and pop. Of course, the caveat here is I don’t play the drums myself. But I suppose if you were good enough to pass the audition for perfectionists Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, you must have been a bloody good drummer! Not to mention countless other top-notch artists like Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Here’s a tune guitarist Steve Lukather considers to be one of his best compositions: Anna. He co-wrote the ballad with Randy Goodrum, an American songwriter, pianist and producer. In August 1988, it also became the album’s third single.

Stop Loving You with its upbeat groove just is an infectious pop song. Co-written by Lukather and Paich, the track also appeared as the album’s fourth single. While it did well in Europe, hitting no. 2 in each The Netherlands and Belgium and reaching no. 37 in Italy, it didn’t chart in the U.S. Here’s the official video.

Ready for some rock? How about that and with a little help from Linda Ronstadt on vocals and some smoking lap steel guitar by David Lindley? Here’s Stay Away, another Paich-Lukather co-write. Perhaps, they should have released that one as a single!

And since it’s so much fun, how about another pop rocker: Only the Children, co-written by Paich, Lukather and Williams.

Let’s end things on a quieter note with another ballad: A Thousand Years. I actually would have bet that Lukather had a role in writing the tune. But nope, it was co-written by Williams, Paich and Mark Towner Williams.

While Toto and Columbia Records were confident The Seventh One was one of the band’s strongest albums to date, its chart performance remained far below expectations. In part, Wikipedia attributes this to upheaval at the record company with president Al Teller’s departure right in the wake of Pamela’s release. Apparently, this led to waning promotion of the song that ended up stalling at no. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 – not exactly terrible, but certainly a huge difference to Africa and Rosanna, which had peaked at no. 1 and no. 2 in the U.S., respectively. Of course, chart performance is a double-edged indicator to begin with. Just look at today’s charts!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

My Playlist: Toto

Even though their sound is pretty commercial pop, which to many music aficionados are bad words, I’ve always liked Toto for their great sound and outstanding musicianship. Here’s the thing: Yes, there are plenty of examples of terrible commercial pop music – just look at what’s currently dominating the charts. But just because something is selling well doesn’t mean it’s bad. Like it or not, a widely beloved and my all-time favorite band The Beatles made commercial pop music, at least during their earlier years. Or take Michael Jackson’s Thriller album: It probably doesn’t get more commercial than that, yet it’s one of the best records ever released, at least in my humble opinion. And there are countless other examples.

Toto was founded in Los Angeles in 1976 by David Paich (keyboards, vocals) and Jeff Porcaro (drums, percussion), who had known each other from high school and done studio session work together. They recruited four additional members: Jeff’s brother Steve Porcaro (keyboards), Steve Lukather (guitar, lead and backing vocals), David Hungate (bass) and Bobby Kimball (lead and backing vocals). Like Paich and Jeff Porcaro, each of the additional members had worked with other artists. In fact, according to the official Toto website, the band’s members have performed on a total of 5,000 records that together sold half a billion copies. Obviously, this includes both projects that predated Toto and side engagements after the band’s formation – still, these are astonishing numbers!

Toto
Toto in 1978

Paich co-wrote half of the songs for Boz Scaggs’ seventh studio album Silk Degrees from March 1976. Steve Porcaro, Hungate and Lukather also worked with Scaggs. Following the formation of Toto, Lukather became one of the most sought after session guitarists. Perhaps his most famous engagement in this context is his guitar work on Michael Jackson’s Beat It from the Thriller album. Jeff Porcaro, who at the time was a 20-year-old drummer, played on all except one Steely Dan tunes on their fourth studio record Katy Lied from March 1975 – anyone who could live up to the perfectionism of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker must have been top notch! Last but not least, Kimball before joining Toto had been a vocalist in various New Orleans bands and S.S. Fools, an unsuccessful short-lived venture with three former members of Three Dog Night.

After signing with Columbia Records, Toto began work on their eponymous debut album. Paich wrote all except two tracks for the record that appeared in October 1978. Though music critics weren’t impressed with Toto initially, the band soon got a significant following. The record reached the top 10 on the albums charts in various countries, including Australia (no. 2), Sweden (no. 5), Germany (no. 8), Canada and the U.S. ( both no. 9) – not shabby for a debut! Toto have since released 12 additional studio albums, six live records and numerous compilations. Between June 2008 and February 2010, the band was on hiatus. Last June, they announced their latest greatest hits collection 40 Trips Around The Sun and a 2018 tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Let’s get to some music!

The first time I recall hearing the name Toto was in connection with the song Hold The Line. Written by Paich, it was the lead single and most successful tune from their first album and remains one of my favorite Toto songs. In particular, I dig the keyboard part and the guitar riff.

Next up: The title track of Toto’s excellent sophomore album Hydra. Credited to all members of the band, it’s a pretty complex tune with all kinds of breaks and changes in tempo that nicely showcase top notch musicianship. You simply don’t play this stuff without plenty of experience!

Toto IV from April 1982 became the band’s most successful album, topping the charts in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, and reaching the top 10 in many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K. (both no. 4) and Japan (no. 3). It also generated what became the band’s only no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100: Africa. Toto IV turned out to be Kimball’s last record with the band at the time. He was told to leave two years later after drug use had taken a toll on his voice. However, he would be back for Mindfields, the band’s 10th studio album from 1999, and stay on for the two albums thereafter. Toto IV’s lead single Rosanna, written by Paich, is yet another example of musical complexity the band seems to pull off effortlessly.

Since I suppose no Toto playlist would be complete without it, here’s Africa, which was co-written by Paich and Jeff Porcaro. Paich is sharing lead vocals with Kimball. Former Poco and Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit is among the guest musicians on the track, providing backing vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar.

In 1986, Toto released their sixth studio album Fahrenheit, the first with Joseph Williams as lead vocalist. It was also the last to feature three Porcaros: Jeff, Steve and their brother Mike Porcaro, who had replaced Hungate on bass shortly after Toto IV had come out. After Fahrenheit’s release, Steve left to focus on songwriting and music composing. While he continued to work with the band in a supporting capacity, it wouldn’t be until Toto XIV that he would be listed again as a core member. Here’s I’ll Be Over You, co-written by Lukather and American songwriter Randy Goodrum. Sung by Lukather, it’s perhaps Toto’s nicest ballad. The tune also features Michael McDonald on backing vocals. It became Toto’s highest charting single in the U.S. since Kimball’s departure, climbing to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Toto’s seventh study record, ingeniously titled The Seventh One, came out in March 1988. It’s one of my favorite Toto albums and the last to feature Williams until their most recent studio record Toto XIV from 2015. Similar to Kimball, Williams was let go after his voice had been impacted by drug use. One almost wonders whether Toto makes their lead vocalists take drugs, fire them thereafter, and eventually ask them to come back! Here’s a nice rocker, Stay Away, featuring Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals and David Lindley on lap steel guitar.

By September 1992 when Kingdom Of Desire appeared, Toto had become a four-piece band, with Lukather performing all lead vocals. Their eighth studio album was also the last with Jeff Porcaro who passed away shortly after its release. Here’s the opener Gypsy Train, which like the majority of the record’s tracks is credited to the entire band. I hear a bit of an Aerosmith vibe in this one.

Tambu, released in May 1995 in Europe and in the U.S. the following month, is Toto’s ninth studio album and the first without Jeff Porcaro, who had been replaced by English drummer Simon Phillips. Similar to the band’s other members, Phillips had done plenty of session work. He also had been the drummer of The Who during their 1989 reunion tour in the U.S. Here’s The Turning Point, a groovy tune that’s credited to all members of the band plus Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Toto’s 10th studio record Mindfields appeared in Europe and the U.S. in March and November of 1999, respectively. Kimball’s return as a vocalist made Toto a five-piece band again. Here’s the title track, which is credited to all members of the band and features Kimball on lead vocals.

Since I’d like to keep playlists to no more than 10 songs while ideally spanning an artist’s recording career, I’m jumping to Toto’s most recent studio album, the previously noted Toto XIV. Released in March 2015, as mentioned above, the record once again featured Williams on lead vocals and Steve Porcaro as a core member. It also marked the return of original bassist Hungate; Mike Porcaro had been inactive since 2007 due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and sadly succumbed to complications just days before the album came out. Keith Carlock had replaced Phillips on drums, who had decided to leave Toto in January 2014 and focus on his solo career. Here’s the haunting Burn, a Paich/Williams co-write that also became the album’s third single.

Toto’s current official core members include Williams, Paich, Porcaro and Lukather. Three weeks ago, the band announced that Paich won’t be part of the North American leg of their 40th anniversary tour and instead will focus on his health that took a hit during his recent appearances with Toto in Europe. In the statement Paich said: “To say this was a difficult decision would be a complete understatement. I hope you will all be understanding of my need to be home. I look forward to joining the boys again on stage ASAP.” In the meantime, Dominique Xavier Talpin, who among others played with Prince, will sit in on keyboards.

The band’s North American tour kicked off in Vancouver on July 30. Tonight the band is playing in Costa Mesa, Calif. before it’s on to Henderson, NV on Friday. The current schedule lists 32 additional North American dates all the way until mid-November at what mostly look like small and mid-size venues. One, State Theatre of New Jersey in New Brunswick, is right in my neck of the woods. I got two tickets today – if only more top notch bands would be as reasonable when it comes to ticket prices!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toto official website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Jackson Browne/Running On Empty

Jackson Browne has been one of my favorite artists for many years. When I recently learned he is touring, I simply couldn’t resist and got a ticket for a show on May 13 in Bethlehem, Pa. I was lucky, since the concert was almost sold out, though the ticket wasn’t exactly cheap. Still, I’m completely psyched!

Running On Empty was the first song by Browne I ever heard in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The title track of his fifth album from December 1977 immediately grabbed me and still does. The entire record is amazing and is one of the best ’70s albums, in my opinion.

Apparently, the above clip was captured during a gig in Adelaide, Australia in March this year. It shows Browne’s current touring band, which consists of Bob Glaub (bass), Mauricio Lewak (drums), Shane Fontayne (guitar), Alethea Mills (vocals), Chavonne Stewart (vocals), Jeff Young (keyboards) and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz (guitar, lap steel, pedal steel). While it is perhaps impossible to replace the amazing David Lindley, who played lap steel guitar on the original recording, it surely sounds like Leisz is doing a great job.

Browne’s current tour schedule shows some 40 dates across the country between early May and early August.

Sources: Wikipedia, Jackson Browne official website, YouTube