Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Very Candid Conversation with Bobby Kimball

Bobby Kimball on the “Rosanna” video (1982)

Bobby Kimball was the original singer(he doesn’t play any instrument)  for Toto. Those familiar with Toto’s hits “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa” will recognize Bobby’s high vocals. Bobby began his career with Toto in 1977. From 1977 to 1984, Bobby recorded four albums with Toto. Toto’s self-titled album (1978) contained the hits “Hold the Line” and “Georgy Porgy” and went double platinum. Their second album Hydra (1979) went gold. The third album Hold Back (1981) didn’t do as well as the previous two albums. However, Toto rebounded with Toto IV (1982), which earned six Grammy awards  and went triple platinum. Toto IV contains Toto’s biggest hits, “Rosanna” and “Africa.” Despite the success of Toto, the original lineup eventually broke up. Bassist  David Hungate left in 1982 and Bobby left in 1984.

After leaving Toto, Bobby  joined the Far Corporation in 1984 (created by German producer Frank Fabian, who was known in later years for creating Milli Vanilli). Far Corporation had a hit of their cover of the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven” which made it to #8 in the UK charts and #85 in the US charts. (Interesting trivia: Far Corporation is the only band that has had a hit single with “Stairway to Heaven,” because Led Zeppelin never released it as a single.)  Bobby kept himself busy with session and solo work until he was asked to come back to Toto in 1998.

Bobby played with Toto for ten years until guitarist Steve Lukather decided to end the band in 2008. During Bobby’s time with Toto, he recorded three studio albums: Mindfields (1998), Through the Looking Glass (2002) and Falling in Between (2006). In addition, Toto released two live albums: Livefields (1999) and Falling in Between Live (2007).  Also, during the time Bobby was back with Toto, he released his first album All I Ever Needed (1999).

After Toto, from 2010–2016, Bobby was constantly on the road, either with a new group or solo. Most recently, in April 2017, he released his second solo  album We’re Not in Kansas Anymore. Not surprisingly, the music is similar to his work with Toto, but what’s more remarkable is that Bobby has still retained his trademark high vocals and shows signs of little wear and tear.

In this candid conversation, we talk about Bobby’s time in Toto and the Far Corporation. In addition, we talk about his new album We’re Not in Kansas Anymore and his secret on how his vocal chords stay in shape. One mystery we clear up is if Toto’s song “Rosanna” is really about the actress Rosanna Arquette. Many people believe that the song is about Arquette, as Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro had dated Arquette in the past.

I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but most of all I want to thank Bobby.

Jeff Cramer:   What got you into singing?

Bobby Kimball:    What got me in singing? When I was just five years old, I started playing the piano, and my mother taught me a lot of chords. And this black guy in this little three-thousand-person town (Note: Bobby grew up in Vinton, Louisiana) that I lived in taught me rhythm. When I played in the piano, I also started singing because my oldest brother was like a white Ray Charles. He was very, very good as a singer and piano player, so I thought it was a good idea to sing, so I did. I was eight years old when I played with my first band.

JC:     How did you come across Toto?

BK:    In 1974, I moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles. I was playing with a great band in 1974 (I started that band when I was eight),  but I got a call from a very good friend of mine—Jon Smith. I played in two bands with him in Louisiana. Jon was from Louisiana in Lafayette, and he was a great saxophone player.

Anyway, when the singers left the band Three Dog Night, the bass player, drummer, and guitar player called Jon to join a new band they were starting. At the first rehearsal, they’d asked Jon if he knew any singers.

So Jon called me and said, “Would you come and sing with some guys from Three Dog Night?” I said, “Try and stop me.” Three Dog Night was my favorite band at the time. So I moved to Los Angeles, we rehearsed, and the band was called S.S. Fools.

When I got here, we rehearsed for about two months in the studio. While  we were rehearsing, David Paich and Jeff Porcaro—the two guys who organized the band Toto—loved those guys from Three Dog Night, and they came to about one-third of our rehearsals. We rehearsed for about two months.

That was how I met those guys. And we became pretty good friends. The manager of S.S. Fools was also the manager of Three Dog Night, and the singers left Three Dog Night because they were losing a lot of money from the manager. Those guys in S. S. Fools hired the same manager.

JC:    The ones that they lost money in?

BK:   Yes, exactly, and the same thing started happening. They were losing money because of that same manager.  Fifteen months later, I left S.S. Fools.  About three months later, I got a phone call from David Paich and Jeff Porcaro, the two guys who put Toto together. They asked me to come and sing with the band.

JC:     Okay.

BK:   I told ’em, “No problem. I love the musicians.” So that’s where I got with it.

Toto 1978 (Bobby far left)

JC:     In the beginning, you’re doing the lead vocals on the single “Hold the Line”(1978). 

BK:    David Paich, the keyboard player, wrote that song. But I sang the lead vocals and most of the background vocals on that. It was the first single. It’s still very fun to do [To hear “Hold the Line,” click here.]

JC:    You played on three more albums after Toto’s debut album, Toto (1978). Now, particularly, we get to the high point  of Toto IV(1982). I guess one question that many people have: Was “Rosanna” really about Rosanna Arquette?

BK:     Well, actually, I don’t think the song was written about her, because she kind of came around and she started living with the second keyboard player, Steve Porcaro, about two weeks after I did the lead vocal on “Rosanna.”

JC:   Oh, then I guess it’s not about her, since the song “Rosanna” was about a breakup. You know, the chorus, “Not quite a year since she went away, Rosanna left!”

BK:    Yes. She would go on television—the Johnny Carson Show  and several other things. She was an actress. The thing is, when she would say that the song was written about her, I never denied that.

I didn’t want to do that because she was a nice person. For the Toto IV tour, we were on the bus for quite a while, and she was on the bus with Steve Porcaro.  

JC:      Okay. So, they were together when the song was written. Interesting.

BK:   It was very great to know her. [To hear “Rosanna,” click here.]

JC:    Toto IV (1982) was the biggest album. It went triple platinum. It even out-sold the debut album, which went double platinum. Even the band’s second album Hydra (1979) went gold. And yet after all this success (three great selling albums out of four albums), the original lineup never continued. Why was it the last for you? Why was the last for David Hungate, the bass player?

Toto winning grammys in 1983 (Bobby 3rd to right)

BK:    Well, Hungate left right after we recorded the Toto IV album. He moved to Nashville. I think his wife is the one who got him to stop touring. However, about the middle of the fifth Toto album, Isolation (1984), I had sung three of the songs and did most of the background vocals.

I wrote one of the songs with David Paich. Anyhow, there was a problem and they asked me to leave the band. They hired a good friend of mine, Fergie Frederiksen, to replace me.

Fergie had played with a band in Louisiana that I had helped originally put together called the Levee Band. That band first broke up when I left that band to come to LA, but they got back together about three months later; they had some new players and Fergie was the new singer.

Toto hired Fergie to sing with Toto for that fifth album, Isolation. He just went into the studio and copied the vocals on the songs that I’d sung. He was great, and he was a really nice guy. But he’s dead.

I did several benefit concerts for his family while he was dying. And that was really, really good because he was there. Before he died, he was at some of those concerts and it was super nice.

But as for me, I moved to Germany after I left Toto in 1984. 

JC:    What did you do in Germany?

BK:   There was a guy named Frank Farian, one of the most famous producers over there. He called me about three days after I left Toto and asked me to come to Germany. I moved to Frankfurt. That was great for me because my mother’s father was born in Frankfurt.

I wanted to go abroad and concentrate on how great Frankfurt was. Anyhow, I did a Self-titled album  with a group called Far Corporation. That was the first time I met one of the drummers who would later be with Toto for a long time, Simon Phillips.

Bobby in Far Corporation (2nd to right)—1985

JC:   Yes.

BK:   Simon was playing drums on Far Corporation’s album. It was fantastic to meet him. [Far Corporation’s first single was a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Click here to watch Bobby deliver an impressive Robert Plant impression. He sings the last quarter of the song starting “As we wind down the road . . .” starting at 4:47.] 

JC:    Okay. You eventually came back and played with Toto. How did that happen?

BK:  In 1998, they called me back after they had hired three other singers. Fergie Frederickson, who replaced me, was only with the band for a little less than a year. Then they hired Joseph Williams. Joseph went to school with some of those guys in Toto, and they hired him.

Joseph was with the band for a couple of years, then they fired him. Then they hired another guy and he was with the band for almost a year. Then they called me in 1998. So, I needed to come back and sing with the band. I sang with them for ten years. So, I was with ’em, altogether for eighteen years: eight years first; ten years second.

JC:           What happened at the end of those ten years? Why did you—?

BK:  When I got back with the band, I wrote the lyrics on eight of the eleven songs on Falling in Between. [To hear “Falling in Between” performed live, click here.] 

Toto 2006 (Bobby, sitting, far left)

We were on a two-and-a-half-year tour. Mike Porcaro, was our second bass player when David Hungate left. He also was (original Toto drummer) Jeff Porcaro’s brother. Mike Porcaro, halfway through the Falling in Between tour, walked into our dressing room and told us that we were going to have to get a substitute bass player, ’cause he couldn’t hardly stand up any more. He couldn’t hold his bass.

He had Gehrig’s disease, ALS. Not long after that—a couple weeks after—David Paich, the main keyboard player, told us we had to get a substitute keyboardist because his sister—his only living relative—needed a double-lung transplant, and he had to come back to LA and get it for her. He couldn’t do it while he was on the road.

JC:    Okay.

BK:   In 2008, at the end of that tour, Steve Lukather decided he wanted to end. By that point, the only original members in the band were me and Steve Lukather.

We had a substitute drummer, Simon Phillips because Jeff Porcaro died. We had a substitute bass player and a substitute keyboard player. In 2008, when we finished the tour, Steve Lukather decided that he wanted to form a solo band. There were only two original members on that stage.

So, Steve quit the band, and the band kind of fell apart. I started touring all over the world. I played with musicians that I met while I was touring all over the world with Toto.

When an agent would call me or email me about doing a tour or concerts, I would contact some of the best musicians I had ever met while I was touring with Toto. I would contact the musicians and tell them, “Put a band together. Here’s the set list.” And they would, and they were always great. I’ve been out of the band since 2008, but it hasn’t been a problem for me.

JC:   I know what you mean about great musicians, ’cause I certainly heard a lot on your recent solo album. Why don’t we talk about your latest album, We’re Not in Kansas Anymore [2017]?

Cover for We’re Not in Kansas Anymore (2017)

BK:     My solo album . . . I really, really love it.

JC:    How did you get started on that?

BK:  John Zaika is the guy who wrote the tracks. He got the tracks recorded and everything, and I was on the road most of the time. He was in Dallas for a while recording with a friend of his, so he went out to LA, and when I got back home, he asked me to come and do the vocals. I changed a lot of the lyrics. On the other solo album I did, All I Ever Needed (1999),  I wrote all of the lyrics, the melody, and John wrote the music. John’s absolutely brilliant and a great friend of mine.

JC:   Well, John captures the classic Toto sound in those album tracks.

BK:  Yeah, he did some brilliant stuff. [Laughs] Well, those songs were super fun. [Click here to hear some official video clips of Bobby singing from his latest album.]

JC:    Mm-hmm. One thing I was mentioning before: your vocals . . . you’re still hitting all the high notes. How did you keep your vocals in great shape? I’ve watched other vocalists go through wear and tear, but you’ve managed to keep yours in great shape. How do you do it?

BK:   Well, I sing a lot. About three years ago, I was having a little bit of a problem with my voice. I am a part-owner of a hearing aid company in this town, Rhina, in Germany. The doctor—the eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor—is super, super doctor.

He checked my ears and my voice and everything, and we drove about thirty minutes to this town called Münster to a hospital. There is a specialist vocal doctor there. Well, I sat on this little thing and he sat right across from me, and there was a machine to the right.

There was a little device that was connected to the machine; it was about the size of a fountain pen. He told me, “Open your mouth as wide as you can. Stick your tongue out as far as you can.”

He put that device around my left vocal cord, moved it up and down, and he put it on my right vocal cord, moved it up and down. When he took it out of my mouth, he said, “Sing a high note.” Oh man. I said [makes high-pitched noise].

JC:   [Laughs] The hair on my neck just stood up from hearing you, Bobby!

BK:    That doctor was fantastic. If I ever have any more problems, I will go back to him.

JC:    Do you have any plans to tour behind your new album?

BK:   Oh yes, actually. This guy from Belgium has booked me a ton of concerts, and I will also be doing some – four or five of the songs – from We’re Not in Kansas Anymore and All I Ever Needed, the first solo CD I did with John.  I’m gonna do some of those songs because I absolutely love ’em, and I wrote the album.

The Belgium guy booked me a ton of tours, and I’m gonna be on the road with an orchestra and this fantastic conductor who is a friend of mine. It is going to be absolutely super fun.

JC:   Since you’ve been a veteran at it for many years and you’re still hitting the high notes, what would be your recommendation for anyone who wants to go out and sing?

BK:   [Laughs] If they want to sing, and they can sing, I would say they absolutely should do it because it is so fun and so fantastic.

Bobby Kimball singing (exact year not known)


Unknown said...

Bobby Kimball, one of the all time greats. Toto wrote two of my, say, top 20 songs (hold the line) and (you supply the love) and Bobby was the main reason for there being timeless songs. I wish Toto had kept the songs along this style/line maybe a few harder songs mixed in but it is easy to sit back and be Monday morning Quarterback but I feel like Bobby should have been the total centerpiece of the band because a voice like his only comes around on rare occasion. If he ever reads this (which I doubt he will) I'd say a job well done my friend. I, like most people, have heard some incredible voices over the decades, Steve Perry, Klaus Mein, Freddie Mercury, Brad Delp, there are so many but Bobby Kimball is right up there in the top 3 to 5 over the past 60 years or so. What an incredible voice, with such precise control. Love hearing it and I can't help but think many generations will discover his music years after we are long gone and be amazed at what he can/could do!!!

Unknown said...

I love Bobby Kimball, but the comments he makes about his “doctor’s” visit in Germany are unclear, misleading, and dangerous. I’m a singer, and have seen many ENTs and studied the anatomical mechanisms of the larynx and vocal folds and I can tell you with absolute certainty that nothing can be put “around” a vocal cord. It’s biologically impossible because the “cords” are folds of tissue that open and close and vibrate when air is pushed through them. They form a v-shape depending on the note you are singing, wide v on low notes and small v on higher notes until they come together on the highest notes and vibrate hundreds of times per second when air from your lungs comes through them. No respectable ENT would ever have a singer open their mouth wide and push their tongue out far and shove some “pen-like” instrument down their throat far enough to reach one of the tiny vocal folds and then move it “up and down”. First, the singer’s gag reflex would kick in. Second, any vocal cord procedure needs to be done under some form of anesthesia with specialized micro instruments and guided imagery. The tissues of the cords are delicate and can be damaged easily. No ENTs even do vocal cord surgery unless there is obvious damage, like a hemorrhage, polyp, nodule, edema. At the very least, bobby would have been scoped first - a procedure for close examination of the vocal cords by threading a small flexible tube with a micro camera on the end of it up through the nose and down the back of the throat. The singer then sings specific notes directed by the doctor (which is hard to do because of the gag reflex), and the vocal cords are literally videotaped. After the tube is removed, the doctor and singer can watch the action of the vocal cords (or folds) to see what the problem is and identify any damage. Then if surgery is warranted, the singer is put under while the vocal surgeon performs precise removal of nodules, polyps or excess fluid from edema, etc.. after any vocal cord surgery, there would also be a period of total vocal rest and no speaking for months. It seems that Bobby may not know anything about his own vocal cord anatomy and other singers reading this should not think that vocal cord “problems”can be fixed by a doctor sticking something down their throat and manipulating their cords. Never allow this! Go see a reputable ENT who specializes in singer’s voices and get a proper examination before you let anyone even touch your vocal cords! Read about Julie Andrews’ story. Cautionary tale.