Steve Luthaker of Toto on Choosing to Score David Lynch's Dune Over Footloose

Toto is probably best remembered for its string of hits from the late '70s through the mid-80s; songs like “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa” are still staples of classic-rock radio. But beyond being a talented pop and rock band, the members of Toto were some of the most prolific and in-demand session players of the day.

With thousands of recording credits under their collective belts, the guys in Toto never let themselves get stuck in a stylistic rut. This was evident from the diversity of the songwriting on their own albums and also from the sheer range or recording projects to which the musicians contributed. As an active band from 1977 onward (with a hiatus from 2008-2010), Toto's impact on popular music often flies under the radar, as its members were indeed true session musicians. 

The band is now touring in support of its latest album, Toto XIV, an especially worthy entry in the group's lengthy discography. One of the most active members of Toto is guitarist and singer Steve Luthaker. He is currently putting together an as-yet-untitled book of anecdotes from his long career, and we had a chance to talk with him about some of his more high-profile and unusual projects.

Westword: You've done so many things in your career, but I saw you played on “Beat It.”

Steve Luthaker: I played [a lot on] on that song — even the bass part. We were just Quincy [Jones's] go-to guys. I started working with him on blues records [before that]. We [worked with] Stevie Wonder and on many other records. Quincy's still a dear friend to all of us. We spent some time at the Montreux Jazz Festival with him last year. When [Michael Jackson] first called me up on the phone, I hung up on him because I didn't believe it was him. We were working twenty or 25 sessions a week, so it wouldn't be weird for us to work with Quincy during the day and Alice Cooper at night. We did thousands of records during that time between all of us. Michael was a real pro, and we all just happened to be there. Those were live tracking dates, and it was fun that Paul McCartney was there, too, and that's how we got to work with him. I play in Ringo's band now. The Beatles were the close musical connection between all of us.

You wrote most of the soundtrack to David Lynch's Dune.

We did all of the music except for a thirty-second part that Brian Eno did. He got all the press. That was an interesting project, because it was a legitimate score. It wasn't a rock-and-roll band going in to try and write a rock-and-roll album. It was a classical score with a little bit of rhythm section. It was funny, because we had just lost our singer when everything was going really well for us. We had retreated for a bit while we tried to figure out what we were going to do next. We had been fans of David Lynch's early movies and remain fans of his films to this day. The movie ended up being so bad [that] it was funny, but David never got a chance to finish because of all the complications of the production of the film. We got offered Footloose at the same time, and we probably would have made more money with that, but, hey, what can I say? When we got together, we all really got along and became friends. He gave me a copy of the original script for Blue Velvet which has some really weird shit in it that they wouldn't let him do.

You were also involved in the experimental/conceptual rock band the Tubes.

Yeah, I wrote a couple of their biggest singles with Fee Waybill: “She's a Beauty” and “Talk to Ya Later.” He's still a dear friend. David Paich [from Toto] played on a couple of the early Tubes records. All we listened to in school was weird bands; that's all we cared about. At the time, Steely Dan was a weird band, and we all ended up working together at one point or another. When you hang out with musicians, we try to turn each other into new stuff. Steve Porcaro found the coolest shit before anyone did, and we learned a lot following his music.

The members of your band were some of the most active session musicians of your day, and that work has all but disappeared with major record labels basically being either non-existent or not what they once were. Do you get any session work these days?

It doesn't exist like that anymore. We were the last era of the session guy who showed up and didn't know the music and prepared for anything playing live tracking sessions. There was something really magical about creating on the spot under pressure. Now everybody overdubs stuff. It's rare to find a tracking gig today. I got to play with all my favorite legendary musicians, and my name is on the back of their album covers. Now I work with the band of my high-school brothers together again.

Toto, Sunday, September 4, 7:30 p.m., Paramount Theatre, 303-623-0106, $39.50 and up, all ages.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.