Gimme Five: Toto’s Steve Lukather and David Paich on ‘I Won’t Hold You Back,’ ’99,’ others

Back in the studio for its first new album project since 2006, not to mention on the cusp of a major world tour with Michael McDonald, Toto has made a dramatic return to the spotlight. Steve Lukather and David Paich joined us to discuss some key moments that built their legend.

Key moments that came in the form of a ballad.

Now, guys like Lukather — often the voice of those ballads — might chafe a little at the association. After all, this group was just as adept at crunchy pop, world music, funky shuffles and even free-form prog.

Still, it’s these simmering slow jams — with the notable exception of the ageless 1982 charttopper “Africa” — that seem to have lodged most completely in the public’s consciousness.

“I Won’t Hold You Back” and “I’ll Be Over You” (which reached Nos. 10 and 11, respectively) are the closest Toto has gotten to those lofty Billboard heights again. The sweetly romantic “Without Your Love” remains one of the group’s most recent Top 40 entries.

Meanwhile, their sensitive side has translated into hits for everyone from Boz Scaggs (“Miss Sun”) to Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”), as well. Even Toto’s “99,” which only climbed to No. 26 in 1980, gets played more than, say, the similarly charting, but more uptempo “Make Believe” or “Stranger in Town.”

“We didn’t get credit for anything,” Lukather tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, with a rueful laugh. “We were using strings and horns, doubling the bass. Mixing R&B with harder-edged stuff, I’m not saying we invented any of that. But we always make the worst-band ever lists, and nobody was doing that at the time. We were hated very much by the mainstream, and there are still a few people hanging on to that grudge. But a new generation of people is finding us. Kids are discovering all of this music. We are seeing a resurgence of record sales, and we’re selling out arenas again. It’s amazing that all of it has come full circle — if you hang on long enough.”

As for those ballads? Here are a few of our favorites …

“99,” (HYDRA, 1979): With a lyric composed in tribute to George Lucas’ 1971 film-making debut THX 1138 (set in a totalitarian 25th century where people are simply numbered drones) and a futuristic video fashioned after one of the film’s scenes, the Paich-written “99” became one of Toto’s biggest earliest hits.

Nevertheless, a frustrated Lukather once went on record as saying he hates the song, and it disappeared from the band’s set list for a time: “That’s an example of talking out of the side of your mouth,” he admits now. “People still ask me about it. It’s an example of how the Internet is so viral. At first, I did think it was a cheesy lyric. But we played it on the last tour — just to prove that I was just kidding.”

“I’LL BE OVER YOU,” (FAHRENHEIT, 1986): Featuring 2014 touring partner Michael McDonald on backing vocals, this one is actually more notable for the presence of co-writer Randy Goodrum. He’s contributed to hits from a number of country artists — not to mention Chicago (“If She Would Have Been Faithful”), Journey’s Steve Perry (“Oh Sherrie,” “Foolish Heart”) and a host of others. Goodman has since worked on most of Lukather’s solo albums, beginning with his 1989 self-titled release.

“As a producer, he gets good vocals out of you,” Lukather tells us. “He has a very unique style, something that really brings the best out of you. We’ve had a long, long relationship. He’s really good at what he does. That sounds like a throwaway line, but he’s a brilliant musician. Randy’s sense and knowledge of music, of not doing the cliché thing, is there. When you co-write with people, there is a certain chemistry that has to be there. We finish things; that’s the key. A lot of people write a lot of stuff, but do you finish it? It’s great to have that kind of person.”

“MISS SUN,” (TOTO XX, 1998): Long before members of Toto backed up Scaggs on his Top 20 hit version of this song in 1981, Paich set down a 1977 demo that would become a legendary lost gem in its own right — until it finally saw release as part of a rarities collection more than two decades later. This initial take features David Hungate, Jeff Porcaro, Lukather, Paich and guest vocalist Lisa Dalbello, who would later replicate her scorching performance here during Scaggs’ session.

“I had been a big Al Green fan,” Paich tells us. “When I was growing up, before we started Toto, I had one tape in my car — Al Green’s Greatest Hits. It’s all I listened to for a couple of months. I was a big fan of his, and of Sly Stone. So, that song just came out of me. It was one of the first things Toto cut, when we went into the studio to get our deal. I think it’s even one of the first things we played and wrote. And we didn’t even put it on our first album, to Columbia’s amazement at the time. (Laughs.) I wanted to release that with Toto eventually, but Boz wanted it so badly that I finally gave in.”

“I WON’T HOLD YOU BACK,” (IV, 1982): Written and sung by Lukather, this tune shot up the charts in 1983 after Toto won a stunning six Grammys for IV, including record, album and producer of the year. Timothy B. Schmit, the sweet-voiced member of Poco and the Eagles, is featured on its soaring chorus. But “I Won’t Hold You Back” actually dates back to Toto’s previous album, 1981’s light-selling — and, perhaps notably, harder-edged — Turn Back.

“We were coming to do Toto IV,” Lukather says, “and a lot of people were bringing other types of songs to the party. It became more of a band-written record. That was when the band came into its own. After Turn Back wasn’t much of a hit, everybody jumped on it. We wanted to make something great to prove that we could. That album turned into a centerpiece of our career. We worked very hard on it.”

“WITHOUT YOUR LOVE,” (FAHRENHEIT, 1986): The mention of this song, another in what had become a tradition of big ballads to be released as singles from Toto albums, gets Lukather to thinking about the more guitar-oriented tracks to found elsewhere on the same projects. For instance, “Can’t Stand It Any Longer” — co-written by Lukather, Paich and then-new vocalist Joseph Williams — found a tough rock groove on Fahrenheit, and it proved to be a worthy showcase for Williams’ grittier style. The title track has a crisp, funky groove. But neither became singles.

“The pop hits, if you listen to the whole album, they would take a single off of it — and it would be the ballad, or a softer song,” he tells us. “But there was always rock stuff on all of the albums. If you come see us live, people will say: These guys are a lot tougher live than we would have imagined. That’s just the way we play. We’re not trying to prove anything. We’ll morph from style to style. That was the thing that was confusing about us, and it maybe pissed off the critics. But it gained us a lot of other people who actually buy records.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.