If you've ever turned on a radio, you've heard Steve Lukather. A guitar player and vocalist, he's one of the most prolific session musicians in modern history. His band Toto won eight Grammys. Lukather has won two more outside of Toto, including one with George Benson.
Toto will celebrate its 40th anniversary with the 40 Trips Around the Sun Tour, stopping at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater Sunday, October 28.
You probably know Toto for hits such as "Hold the Line," "Rosanna," "I Won’t Hold You Back," "I’ll Supply the Love," and "Africa." In fact, you couldn't get away from that last song if you tried.
A Spotify channel in Belgium recently played “Africa” on loop for 24 hours; so did a Burger King in London. But the version you hear every half-hour in the States is likely Weezer’s cover. The song, backed by a video starring Weird Al Yankovic that was released last month, has given Weezer its first number one hit.
“We’ve got a lot of 15- to 20-year-old kids showing up at our shows, and this whole ‘Africa’ meme thing has just gotten out of control,” Lukather says of the influence of Weezer’s cover. “We’re shaking our heads, going, Are you fucking kidding me? It’s a great gift, but at the same time, I find it humorous and insane.”
Lukather is not immune to the irony of Weezer’s success with the song. “I think they did it as a gag, and it kind of blew up,” he says. “The irony that a '90s critic-darling band gets their first hit with a Toto song is pretty funny when you think about it.”
He's referring to the fact that while Weezer has been largely lauded by critics, Toto has been viciously berated as a poster band for "corporate rock." The subject is one that Lukather discusses in his new autobiography, The Gospel According to Luke.
“We started out as a high-school band, so that’s lie number one ripped out of the fucking page,” Lukather says. “That we were put together in some room by some record-company guys to be some super studio band is just bullshit.”
But what isn’t bullshit is that the group did become a super studio band. Collectively, Toto members past and present have played on 5,000 albums, sold 500 million records, had a half-billion Spotify downloads, and been nominated for around 225 Grammys. “We are laughing all the way to the bank,” Lukather says.
Lukather has played with the likes of Steely Dan, George Harrison, Elton John, Miles Davis, Don Henley, Lionel Richie, and Aretha Franklin. “There’s a whole Spotify channel dedicated to songs I played on for other people,” he says. “It’s like 1,500 songs, and they haven’t even scratched the surface.”
What few people know is that Toto was “basically the house band” on Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Lukather says Jackson could be eccentric, like the time Paul McCartney and he were at Jackson’s place to record a duet. “Michael waked into the room carrying Emmanuel Lewis like a doll... You know, Webster? I found it terribly amusing,” he says.
But Lukather concedes that Jackson was not the only one who acted oddly. “Michael called me on the phone, and I didn’t believe it was him,” Lukather says. “I thought he was fucking with me. I gave him a fair amount of shit. His brothers too. Fucking Jermaine still owes me money, that prick.”
Lukather began to wind down his session work in the late '80s and went on to sell more than 40 million albums with Toto. He was recently dubbed the “admiral of yacht rock," which is a term for highly polished soft rock. It is also the subject an upcoming Family Guy episode in which Toto will guest-star.
But while yacht rock might conjure images of luxury, Lukather says nothing could be further from the truth. “Today, if you come up with a little part of a song, you get songwriter royalties,” he says. “Well, we didn’t get that back then even though we really should have. So where’s my fucking yacht?”
And though he doesn't have a yacht, he does have something else. “I have a white hat and a solid-gold codpiece that I walk around in my house and stare at myself in the mirror,” he says.
“It covers your privates for going into war,” he explains. “If you’re writing all this shit down, I’m going to look like a douchebag. Make sure you write in parentheses ‘He is laughing hard right now.’”
(He is laughing hard right now.)
In fact, Lukather is jovial and self-deprecating most of the time. But his voice grows softer when he admits to being pained by scathing criticism. “There are 43 years of reviews,” he says. “Which ones do I remember? The ones that tell me how great I am? Of course not. The ones that kill me are the ones that say my parents should have been sterilized so I could never be born to play this shit music I make.”
He says social media enables bullies to take their vitriol to another level. “Because you’re successful and they’re not, they eviscerate you in ways that are personal and strange,” Lukather says. “I get it if you don’t like the music, but you’re stepping over a line now.”
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But for every hater are a thousand fans, and in addition to his current tour with Toto, Lukather has been touring since 2012 as a member of Ringo’s All-Starr Band. “I adore Ringo, like fucking soul brother number one,” he says.
Though Lukather is generally good-natured, there is one mistake he warns anyone not to make. “If you fuck with my family, look the fuck out,” he says. “I’m a sensitive person, but if you whack at me, you’re going to have to have a hundred machine guns and nuclear weapons to keep me from getting even. I will fucking destroy you.”
Then, with a lighthearted grin, he adds, “Otherwise, I am the nicest guy in the world.”