From ‘Africa’ to Charleston: Toto at Clay Center Sunday

Classic rock band Toto comes to the Clay Center Sunday with Michael McDonald, a longtime friend of the band.
DAREK KAWKA photo When he’s not playing in Toto, guitarist Steve Lukather is also a solo artist,
Turning down the cover of Rolling Stone might not have been the smartest career move, but Toto did and things turned out OK.

It used to be one of the crown jewels of rock ‘n’ roll: getting your band’s picture on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. 

Dr. Hook famously rhapsodized about the mind-blowing pleasure it would bring — and managed to earn a cover in the process.

Making the cover was a big deal.

The classic rock band Toto, which performs Sunday night at the Clay Center, was offered the magazine’s cover during the height of its fame, after “Africa” and “Rosanna” had earned it Grammy Awards and it was filling arenas.

It was a huge honor.

Guitarist Steve “Luke” Lukather said “We did the most punk rock thing anybody had ever done. We turned them down.”

Lukather heard publisher Jann Wenner wasn’t too happy about it, but he said the band didn’t trust the magazine. Rolling Stone didn’t think much of the group to begin with, giving the Grammy-wining album “Toto IV” two stars out of five and writing that it “feels about as real as a Velveeta-orange polyester leisure suit.”

The band members figured if they got the cover, they’d be in for a hatchet job article to go along with it. So, they declined.

“Was it a great career move for us?” Lukather asked. “Probably not, but it happened.”

Not everybody is a fan of Toto, and Lukather said he and his bandmates are totally cool with that. Critics poked fun at them when they were one of the biggest bands in the world. It still happens today.

Toto or one of its hits has been referenced by Jimmy Fallon, “Family Guy” and “South Park,” among others.

“We get all the jokes,” he said. “I think it’s hilarious. People think we’re so serious. Nobody laughs at that stuff as hard as we do.”

Keyboardist David Paich, Lukather said, sometimes uses the name Peter Griffin at hotels.

“We just embrace it,” he said.

And whether it’s intentional or not, there’s something of a compliment in being remembered for your hits decades later.

“It’s part of pop culture now,” Lukather said. “We’re a question on Jeopardy, and I think that’s cool.”

Toto, he said, was never “cool.” The band was never in-style, so it never went out-of-style. Whether you loved Toto or not, what it did has endured.

Lukather said, “Even the old ‘70s rock critics, stuffed into their Sex Pistols T-shirts, they know the words to ‘Africa.’ We’re still here.”

Not that the band feels bitter.

Lukather said Toto is doing well. After about a decade since its last record, the group is scheduled to release a new album in the spring — though it wasn’t the band’s idea.

“It was born out of litigation,” he said. “Someone said we owed them an album. There were lawsuits pending. So, our lawyers and manager just said, ‘Why don’t you guys just make a record?’”

The band members said OK, but they wanted to do it right.

“So, we made a great record that sounds like old Toto, but we’re not trying to write the next three-minute hit single.”

Fans of old Toto will love it, he promised. Critics at Rolling Stone, probably not so much.

“If you never liked us, you’re never going to like us anyway, but for the people who like us, there are high expectations,” he said.

And the band wants to live up to those expectations.

If all goes well, Lukather said a world tour would follow. This year, he said, Toto has sort of been testing the water, playing short tours with Michael McDonald.

“He’s a childhood friend,” Lukather said. “We knew him when Jeff [Porcaro, one of the band’s founders] was playing with Steely Dan, back when most of us were in high school.”

In between those tours, Lukather keeps busy with his solo career, his extensive session work and also as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band.

Ringo is awesome, by the way.

“Ringo has become a really close buddy of mine,” Lukather said. “He just turned 74 years old, and he’s still the same guy you saw in ‘Hard Days Night.’ He’s quick, witty and in incredible shape. He looks like he’s 40.”

The guitarist and the pop music icon even wrote a song together, which should make it on to Starr’s next record.

Lukather doesn’t think too much about the chances of becoming an icon himself — or at least getting his name somewhere inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

“Not as long as Jann Wenner is taking breath into his lungs,” Lukather laughed.

Wenner is co-founder and chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and co-chair of the museum’s board of trustees.

Reach Bill Lynch



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