Thirty-five years ago, Steve Lukather’s band Toto ruled the airwaves.
The rock group’s fourth release “Toto IV” spawned the hits “Africa” and “Rosanna,” and took home six Grammys, including Album of the Year.
Shockingly, the act is back on the pop charts … sort of.
“To be 60 years old and have this band blow up again is crazy,” says Lukather, a founding member of Toto and one of the most prolific session musicians of all time.
Lukather (nicknamed Luke) will perform in Kansas City twice in the next three weeks: first with Toto on Aug. 21 at Crossroads KC, then as the guitarist in Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band on Sept. 3 at Starlight Theatre.
“Luke is an animated, colorful, no-filter individual,” says Steve Karas, owner of SKH Music, who works as a management consultant with Toto.
A native New Yorker, Karas relocated to Shawnee four years ago after his daughter began attending the University of Kansas. Karas first did PR for Lukather on his 2010 solo album “All’s Well that Ends Well.”
“If you talk about the sheer contribution to popular culture, his body of work has got to be among the 10 most prolific players when it comes to records that have been released that are of note,” he says. “It’s more than just his guitar playing. It’s how deeply he’s explored trying to find a sound uniquely his.”
Karas adds, “The fact he’s played with artists ranging from Olivia Newton-John to Miles Davis shows how diverse his performances are.”
The resurrection of Toto’s signature single “Africa” came together in a most unlikely fashion.
A 14-year-old Ohio teen named Mary Klym heard the song during a scene in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” So she embarked on a campaign to get her favorite band Weezer to cover it.
After a year of pestering, the quartet surrendered by issuing a surprisingly faithful version of the percussion-heavy, mid-tempo track.
“At first I was like, ‘Weezer. Really? Weezer?’” remembers Lukather, calling from a tour stop in Denver.
“I’ve never met any of those guys. … I knew they were an alt-band with some catchy tunes, but I hadn’t heard a lot of their stuff.”
The members of Toto didn’t initially know what to make of the situation.
“We were first thinking, ‘Are these guys going to take the piss out of us because they’re A and we’re Z? Are they making fun of us?’ Then we listened to it and realized they tried to do a good song, and we were very flattered,” he says.
Lukather hoped this development might bring the music of a band formed in 1976 to a younger audience. But he also wanted to take a more proactive approach.
“I went to the guys (in Toto) and said, ‘We’ve got to do one of Weezer’s songs,’” he says.
“I thought we should do something rockin’ in case, god forbid, we have to play it for the rest of our lives.”
In July, Toto released a cover of Weezer’s 2001 single “Hash Pipe,” a riff-heavy rocker that’s not so much about drugs as it is prostitution.
“I know this song is very dark and understand what it’s about,” Lukather says. “But it’s a really hooky groove and we had fun with it. I made a crack to the press that we were smoking hash before these guys in Weezer were ever alive.”
Although the guitarist can’t fully explain why this odd-couple interaction has caught the public’s attention, he speculates it might be because it was a “total organic accident” that wasn’t cooked up in some record company boardroom.
“There’s no negative for either side. This is one of those rare moments where we both win,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the San Fernando Valley native is also touring the world with Liverpool legend Ringo Starr.
“The Beatles are the ‘on switch’ to my life,” Lukather says.
“When the Beatles were on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ life went from black and white to color like in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — and the irony I’m in the band Toto is not lost on me.”
Since 1989, Starr has gathered a batch of famous musicians and toured as the All Starr Band.
Lukather joined in 2012. The current lineup includes Colin Hay (Men At Work), Gregg Rolie (Santana) and Graham Gouldman (10cc).
Lukather says the band obviously performs a bunch of Beatles and Starr hits, but Ringo “loves to pass the ball around.” So audiences can expect to hear classic hits from each of their respective members — Toto’s “Hold the Line” and “Rosanna” among them. Maybe even “Africa.”
“He’s one of the nicest, kindest gentlemen I know,” Lukather says of the 78-year-old drummer.
“He’s a friend of mine now. I worked with Paul McCartney, and he was lovely. I worked with George Harrison — who was the reason I started playing guitar. George was a friend; Paul was more a friendly acquaintance. Are Paul and I friends? Do we go have dinner? No. But with Ringo, it’s like that. I’ve got seven years being his friend. He’s every bit ‘Hard Day’s Night’ funny. He’s really together. And he’s really passionate about the music.”
In fact, when Lukather taped a video message for the teen who inspired the “Africa” cover, Starr joined him on-screen to thank her.
Starr is one of many uber-famous stars with whom Lukather has collaborated during his decades-long run in the music industry. With so many stories to tell, Lukather will be releasing his memoir, “The Gospel According to Luke,” on Sept. 18.
“I wasn’t looking to write a book,” he says.
The impetus came after he was invited by the Grammy museum to be the subject of a Q&A event.
“People were screaming in the aisles at the stories,” he recalls. “Right after, my agent was there, and he said, ‘You have to write a book!’”
While the book covers the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle that accompanies being in a touring rock band, it also delves into the creative process behind his collaborations with some of the most famous names in music history.
“The most misunderstood thing about (being a session player) is that everything we do is written down in little dots on a piece of paper. Ninety percent of what I did was no demos, no rehearsals.
“You show up not even knowing who you’re going to play with. Then they throw a piece of paper at you with some chord symbols on it. You better play something,” he says.
For example, he cites working with Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones on the “Thriller” album, in which he created many of the renowned guitar parts on the spot. (Yep, that’s his riff on “Beat It.”)
“Compared to how people do songwriter splits now — which is if you’re in the room rolling a joint, you get songwriter credit — if that rule was alive when we were the young session guys, I’d be talking to you from my space shuttle,” he says. “That’s how many hooks we put into the records.”
The space shuttle notwithstanding, Lukather’s band of 40-plus years still resonates with the singles-buying public. His blistering guitar leads are omnipresent on classic rock radio, in which there’s a good chance one of the 1,500 albums he performed on is playing at this instant. And he’s readying to go back on tour with his childhood hero.
“People ask, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Retire and do what? Watch TV and get fat? I love this. There are moments I hate. I hate missing my children. I hate not having a relationship, which is almost impossible for a guy like me who is on the road 230 days a year,” Lukather says.
“Other than that, what’s not to love?”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
With Toto. Tuesday, Aug. 21. 7:30 p.m. Crossroads KC. $30-$81.50. www.crossroadskc.com.
With Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. Monday, Sept. 3. Starlight Theatre. $36-$175. kcstarlight.com.