Steve Lukather has contributed guitar to over 1,500 albums with a huge range of artists including Michael Jackson and Ringo Starr, but he will forever be associated with Toto’s 1981 hit Africa, which currently has around 600 million views on Youtube alone. And, amazingly, in May 2018 Weezer made the tune popular again and returned the band to the spotlight. Not bad for a track that was almost forgotten about because it sounded too weird… "I thought it was the worst song on the album. It didn't fit, and the lyrics made no sense,” said Lukather.
The lyrics were inspired by David Paich watching a late night documentary on TV about people suffering in Africa. “It both moved and appalled me and the pictures just wouldn't leave my head,” said Paich. “I tried to imagine how I'd feel about if I was there and what I'd do." It was all created in his mind; Paich had never been to Africa when he wrote the song.
Part of the lyrics relate to Paich feeling he was working too much at the time and didn’t have time to see his family and friends, thus the lyric: "I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become"; while the other part of the song loosely relate the story of a guy struggling to decide whether he should leave Africa for a girl or not: “It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you […] I bless the rains down in Africa.”
However Africa was such a huge hit that it overshadowed other great songs Toto put out, something that frustrated Lukather enormously: "A lot of people categorize us as 'that 'Africa' […] band,' and I hate that shit. We have a lot more substance than that. Don't get me wrong – [that song has] been great to us, but you really don't understand the depth of the band if that's all you know.”
Steven Lee Lukather was born on 21 October, 1957 in the San Fernando Valley, California. At seven years old he changed from keyboards and drums to guitar when his Dad one day came home with a Kay acoustic guitar. His father also gifted the young Lukather the Meet the Beatles album, which the guitarist says "changed my life."
Lukather’s first ambition was to become a session musician, because he wanted to play with top musicians, but after meeting David Paich and Jeff, Steve, and Mike Porcaro at school the friends decided to form Toto in 1976. David Hungate, Bobby Kimball, and Steve Porcaro were soon on board as well, but it is Lukather who has remained the bedrock of the group for almost its entire history. They hoped to have a run of a few years: "Never in a billion years did we think we'd still be here 43 years later and enjoying the success that we are,” says the three time Grammy winner. “We're very grateful for it and very surprised."
Toto’s first big hit was Hold the Line, also written by Paich, which was released in 1978. The song title has a double meaning, the first of which is to stay strong in relationships, despite the difficulties. The second meaning is more personal however, as Paich used to live in a house with several phones and was constantly telling other family members to wait. In the lyricist’s case it was more complicated: "When I was in high school, I had a situation where I was at the dinner table and I had three girls all call at the same time, so all the lights were flashing. I was kind of juggling girlfriends, and that's how that came about."
Toto’s next big hit after Hold The Line and Africa was Rosanna, which was released in 1982. The song was named after the actress Rosanna Arquette who was Steve Porcaro’s squeeze at the time. Interestingly, it was again Paich who wrote the lyric, which ‘blends’ two women. "'Rosanna' was about a high school love, one of my first loves,” Paich explains, “but I just tagged another Rosanna's name on there because she was going at the time with Steve, my best friend. So it's got her name on it, but it's really about another high school sweetheart, which is how songs happen sometimes."
Despite the international success of Hold The Line, Africa, and Rosanna, however, the band’s evolution was not all smooth sailing. Tragedy struck in August 1992 when Jeff Porcaro collapsed while working in his back yard work and shortly after died of heart failure. After trying with a number of lead singers, including Bobby Kimball and Joseph Williams, Lukather eventually stepped up to the plate. The guitarist sang lead on 1992's Kingdom of Desire and 1995's Tambu but the arrangement did not really work, and a few years later Kimball and Williams were brought back, and Lukather returned to backing vocals.
In 2008 Lukather, exhausted from touring and recording, and with doubts about Toto’s musical direction, decided to leave the band, which led to its temporary dissolution. Two years later, however, the group announced they would be going back on the road. Following an album release, Toto celebrated their 40th anniversary with more touring from 2016 to 2019, when Lukather announced an indefinite hiatus.
Outside of Toto, Lukather achieved his lifelong ambition to be a successful session musician and was named by Gibson as ‘one of the Top 10 session guitarists of all time’. He is very modest by nature, but has played alongside stars of the calibre of Lionel Richie, Aretha Franklin and Donna Summer and even contributed to virtually all of the tracks on one of the biggest selling albums in history, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“I’d worked with Quincy Jones’ crew when I was 23 or 24 years old when he said he was doing Off The Wall, and he said the first track is with Paul McCartney…” Lukather explains in one interview. “[Three years later Quincy asked me back] to do ‘Beat It’ … [we got the drum beat down] so I played the guitar riff… I gave it a little flavour… Michael gave me a bit of direction and then he started dancing around …and that was it!”
Lukather is sad about the decline in the demand for session musicians: "There is no 'session guy' thing any more—not like it was. It's not like the old days when I was doing 25 sessions a week. All the studios are gone. The budgets are gone. The record companies are all gone."
The guitarist however has not wasted a moment, as beyond his leading role with Toto and his session work, he has found time to release over half a dozen solo albums. The first, Lukather (1989), came about because he had written a number of songs that had not found a place on Toto’s records, and he wanted to collaborate with his close friend Eddie Van Halen on his own record. Others of his solo albums have featured Slash, Steve Vai, and Michael Landau; although looking back, his personal favourite is Candyman.“That's the most perfect representation of who I really am. I was really proud of that record. I think that one really holds up better than all the rest of them”, he has said.
Additionally, Lukather has recorded and toured with his own jazz fusion band, Los Lobotomys, which has featured ‘whatever musician friends of his happen to be around at the time’. He has also toured extensively with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, with whom he regularly plays Toto’s biggest hits:“I’ve been on the road with Ringo for seven years. That’s like the happiest place on earth. This tour, there’s no drama. Everybody is so cool. With the travel and the way he takes care of us, it’s first class,” he says.
Part of what makes Lukather’s guitar playing so distinctive is his intensity and pronounced vibrato. He endorses Music Man guitars and has a signature model named "Luke" (his nickname), which incorporates his signature EMG pickup system. “I don't think I'm the best guitar player, matter of fact, I don't think I'm that good at all,” he says. “I think that my best shit is yet to come; that's what keeps me motivated.”
Like many rockers, Lukather has partied hard, but he recently said “I haven’t had a drink or anything in 10 years. What people do not understand is I’m away from my children 230 days a year, and I got little ones. I’m in an empty hotel room all day, [then I] go out and play my ass off. Everybody’s like, “Hey.” Then I close the door behind me in a hotel room and it all goes away. The highest of highs to the lowest of lows. ‘Daddy, come home. I love you,’ [my kid says] And I go, ‘I can’t baby. I gotta work’ you know?”
Lukather’s commitment to his family, music, and fans is strong. “Yeah, we get paid, [but] when we get on stage, I’m [only] thinking about music and connecting with the audience; we’re playing to the very highest degree.”