Toto transcends name on 35th anniversary and tour with Michael McDonald

What’s in a name?

For Toto, co-headlining a tour Wednesday with former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald at Hard Rock Live, it has been more than 35 years of critical scorn even after the pop/rock group scored several ’70s and ’80s staples such as Rosanna, Africa and Hold the Line.

And yet, the members of Toto, a group of California high school buddies who worked as session players on thousands of albums for other artists since forming in 1977, are some of the most respected musicians in pop history.

Pick up a pop, rock, R&B or country album, practically any album made in the last 40 years, and chances are you’ll see Jeff or Steve Porcaro, David Paich, David Hungate or Steve Lukather listed among the musician credits. The guys have played on albums for stars including Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Boz Scaggs, Elton John, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Donna Summer and Dire Straits.

So why the ridicule?

“I think the name set everyone off,” Lukather surmises. “I fought everyone on that name, but now it’s part of the DNA.”

Toto didn’t do itself any favors when band members declined Rolling Stone’s request for a cover story in 1983 at the height of their popularity following Toto IV and its Grammy sweep, which included album of the year.

“In retrospect, not a good career move,” Paich allows, while the more verbose Lukather unleashes on the magazine’s publisher, who also serves as a gate-keeper for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution that will never induct Toto despite honoring music its members made.

“[Jann Wenner] is a phony fake. Probably a [expletive] Republican. He started this underground, peace, love, hippie chick voice of the youth and now he’s …”

Best to stop there. Paich laughs at his band mate’s candor, for which he’s equally legendary in the music business. “He’s a colorful person, isn’t he? Our favorite saying in the band is, ‘You can’t unhear that.”

Actually, the members are in good spirits these days. Toto had split in 2008 but regrouped two years later for a European tour to raise money for its bass player, Mike Porcaro, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. The shows went so well, with Joseph Williams back on lead vocals, that Toto has begun recording a new album for spring 2015 release. The new 35th Anniversary: Live in Poland Blu-ray/CD package offers some of the group’s liveliest playing to date.

The Toto/McDonald tour reunites musicians who first played together on Steely Dan’s 1974 album, Katy Lied. The old pals will sit in on each other’s sets for a couple of songs. The concert, Toto’s first in South Florida since Easter 1985, also serves as a homecoming of sorts for Paich.

“My first gig when I left high school … I worked the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach with Sonny & Cher. What a town that was. Had a lot of fun at the Deauville,” he said.

Lukather, 56, who says he loves the Toto spoofs on South Park and the Yacht Rock tag that dogs the band’s softer songs like 99, is jazzed too. “This is the coolest thing ever. Can you believe we made it to pop culture where they make fun of us? I write ‘musician’ on my tax return for 40 years. It’s a nice life. I have four beautiful kids. Nothing to complain about.”

Toto and Michael McDonald perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Tickets: $54-$74. 954-797-5531. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

Howard Cohen