Sunday Express

‘I started out as a teen and I’ve played with giants’

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STEVE LUKATHER was just drifting off when the phone rang. “It was 8am, I’d just got to bed and I really needed to sleep,” the Toto guitarist recalls. “I answered and a voice said” – he goes up two octaves – “‘Hi, this Michael Jackson…’” Steve’s reply, before he slammed down the receiver, remains entirely unprintabl­e.

It happened twice more, always early in the morning, and both times the caller received the same tetchy, four-letter response. “Yeah, it’s Michael Jackson here… I thought it was friends pulling my leg. Then Quincy Jones called and explained it really was Michael.

“Unlike me, he wasn’t on rock’n’roll hours.” And that’s how Lukather ended up playing on Thriller… and meeting the first of his childhood heroes. “In studio, I was going holy s***, there’s Paul Mccartney! There’s Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones… and me! We cut The Girl Is Mine.”

Five-time Grammy winner Lukather is one of the world’s most successful guitarists. Toto have sold 40 million albums. Their songs, including multi-platinum global hits like Africa and Roseanna, have been streamed more than three billion times.

But Steve, 63, who releases his eighth solo album this week, tells me lockdown has made him reassess his career and count his blessings.

“Nowadays I go to bed at 9pm and I get up at 5am. I’m a different human being. It’s given me chance to evaluate my life,” he says. “I started out as a teenage session musician and I’ve played with giants.

“The Beatles were the reason I got into music. I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show when I was seven and the world went from black and white to colour. George Harrison’s solo on I Saw Her Standing There unlocked something inside me.

“Now I’m in Ringo’s band. I played with George. I’ve had the honour of working with Paul – he’s the most gracious person. Who’d have thought that a boy from San Fernando would do that? It’s like a surreal dream.

“Even to be around that Beatles magic is a huge deal. They are our classical music! I can’t believe they let me get away with it. I still pinch myself. I’ve had the most amazing life.”

Ringo Starr personally delivered a birthday cake to his house in October.

“It made me want to cry. He’s such a beautiful human being. He’s made me a better person.” Ringo plays on one track on Steve’s new solo album, I Found The Sun Again, recorded a month before lockdown. The “sun” is love, in the shape of Steve’s beautiful new girlfriend, Amber – former wife of Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer – who shares his home in the LA hills.

“There’s more love in my house than there’s been for over 10 years,” he says. “My girl is from Texas, she’s an unbelievab­le chef.” And a canny businesswo­man with her own quirky jewellery range.

Lockdown made him take stock, he says. “I was going 1,000 miles an hour and all of a sudden it just stopped, so I’ve been learning how to be me again. It’s been very enlighteni­ng in a positive way. I’ve learned a lot; I’ve let go of a lot of bad stuff.”

Not that he’s stopped planning ahead. He and singer Joseph Williams (son of composer John) have Toto live shows booked in Europe this summer, after settling a lawsuit brought by Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro’s widow.

Successful session men Porcaro and David Paich formed Toto in 1977 with Jeff ’s brother Steve and Lukather, all of them Grant High School alumni.

“Dave said, ‘Come and rehearse. When Jeff plays magic happens’,” he recalls. “Everybody sounded better with Jeff, he was the greatest groove player ever. He was one of a kind, the big brother I never had and I miss him every day.”

Jeff died in 1992 after a heart attack linked to cocaine abuse. By then Toto were a global sensation. Their 1978 debut album went double platinum. “Fame exploded on to us,” says Steve. “We never saw it coming, we were just there. It was an incredible experience.”

But critics were hostile from the off. “We’ve taken more s*** than any band in history,” he says. “They’ve tried to kill us for 40 years and we’re still alive. It’s because we’re not generic, and they didn’t like that we were session players, but we were playing with legends and it all rubbed off.

“Jimmy Page once told me, ‘Look, you’re a session musician. People don’t understand what that is. But you should be very proud. Don’t take any s*** for that’. I almost got tears in my eyes.”

Lockdown has been very enlighteni­ng in a positive way. I’ve learned a lot; let go of a lot of bad stuff

PAGE HAD been a session player himself, as had Elton John, Rick Wakeman and many more. In his teens, Steve had 14 guitar lessons with veteran guitarist Jimmy Wyble to try to convince his father – an marine-turned-film director – that he could make a living from music.

“Jimmy taught me how to read music. I had a really good ear – my mind was ahead of my ability, so I caught up quick. I have an arranger’s ear. I hear other parts and melodies behind melodies. It happened with Beat It. Michael had the riff but I added to it.”

He sneers at disposable modern pop – “cut and paste records, a celebrity and a laptop. I played for 14 years before I was in the studio. Where are the great songs? Put on a Stevie Wonder album now, listen to where he was, listen to Steely Dan. That’s the bar to hit.”

Lukather’s guitar heroes include Jeff Beck – “so soulful, no one is better than him” – Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen “a dear friend for 40 years, a tragic loss. You get old man, s*** happens, the wagons are circling.” Steve isn’t the calmest of men.

“I’m not patient,” he admits. “My family talk loud. And I take things personally when I’m attacked.

“But my sense of humour means I can laugh at anything – my dog, my kids, myself.”

He has no time for America’s tortured politics except to say, “It’s time for the aliens to come, please print that!”

HE’S WORKED hard to get where he is. “I started off at the bottom. I waited tables, washed dishes, cleaned out toxic liquid in launderett­es… every kid should have a s*** job to motivate them into what they want to be. “I’m lucky I’ve got four great kids. My son Trev is a guitarist, I really dig his band Lavara.”

He goes on, “I have regrets but they’re personal. If I ever hurt anybody’s feelings, I hate that, but we all do it.”

Younger generation­s have embraced Toto, with Africa playing on hip TV shows like Stranger Things and the band admitted to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. “The hardest part of Toto was always personal issues behind the scenes. Our strength was we were musicians not rock stars. The songs endure.”

In his incredible career Steve has played with A-list stars including Eric Clapton – “the only guy who ever made me nervous” – Aretha Franklin, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks and Miles Davis. He’s not finished. “I’d love to work with Phil Collins and Steve Winwood – he’s one of the greatest singers. I’m still a fan. I’m not gonna stop. I’d love to go out just playing the last note on stage, and then die.”

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With Ringo in 2015, third from left intoto in 1985 and, left, in lockdown with girlfriend Amber
GUITAR MAN: With Ringo in 2015, third from left intoto in 1985 and, left, in lockdown with girlfriend Amber
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 ??  ?? Steve’s I Found The Sun Again solo album is out on Friday
Steve’s I Found The Sun Again solo album is out on Friday

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