Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham.
When Ringo Starr needed a utility player in his All Starr Band who was capable of doing everything from hitting the high notes in “With a Little Help From My Friends” to nailing the sax parts on Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?,” he turned to Warren Ham. When Olivia Newton-John needed a new band member who could duet with her on Grease classics while recreating John Travolta’s vintage dance moves, she turned to Warren Ham. And when Toto needed a multi-instrumentalist and singer able to handle complex flute, harmonica, percussion, and sax parts, not to mention some of their more difficult harmonies, they also turned to Warren Ham.
Ham has also enjoyed stints with Donna Summer, Cher, Kansas, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. Simply put, there’s almost no role in a touring rock or pop act that he can’t handle with ease. And right now, he’s waiting for the pandemic clear so he can get back on the road with Ringo and the newest iteration of Toto.
We phoned him up at his house in L.A. to hear how he became rock’s ultimate utility man.
How has your pandemic year gone?
It’s been good. I’ve been Covid-free, thank God. My wife and I got our Covid shots back in February. I’m currently doing a movie thing as a musician and background extra that’s coming out. I can’t really talk about it because they don’t want us talking about it. You know how they are. They want everything to be hush-hush until it actually comes out, but it’s a big movie. It’s big stars and everything, and I’m in the band. I’ve been around a lot of people recently, but they’ve been testing me a lot.
I feel good about being around people because I’m vaccinated. I did lose a cousin during the holidays. I know how serious it is. I think everybody was a little confused about it at first, but it’s definitely a dangerous disease and you have to take precautions. I don’t believe in being too overly cautious, but I encourage everyone to get the vaccine.
It’s been a while since you played live.
The one thing we did is a livestream with Toto back in October. That’s coming out in late June. That was a lot of fun. Of course, we all took precautions. That was before I took the vaccine. I wore a mask. We all social-distanced and we took the proper precautions. The livestream turned out so well that they’re making a DVD of it.
Do you miss the crowds?
Oh, yeah. For me, that’s the heart and soul of the music business. I thrive by being in front of an audience. I know that Ringo does too. I’ve been working with Ringo for the past seven years. I just spoke to him recently and he still wants to be cautious, so it seems like this time next year before we work again.
Toto was supposed to go out this summer to Europe, and now that’s been pushed back a year too. Everything has just been put on the back burner as far as live is concerned. To be honest with you, it’s little frustrating. I’ve taken up a few things like this movie thing and a few sessions here and there. But for me, I’m really a live guy. I prefer that.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. What’s the first music you remember hearing that left a big impression on you?
I was raised in Fort Worth, Texas. My family was into gospel music. My mom played piano and sang, and my dad was a bass singer. He almost ended up with the Blackwood Brothers, which was a famous gospel quartet. He was on his way to Nashville to join them as a bass singer when J.D. Sumner, the bass singer for Elvis, decided he wanted to come back. And so my dad lost the gig.
Anyway, that’s the kind of music we were into, the Blackwood Brothers gospel quartet music. That’s what I was raised with. I recorded our first record when I was only five. I got to sing lead on it. I was just raised up in that atmosphere of music. I got into country music after I played gospel music. I played mandolin and my brother played guitar. We played around at things like the school variety show and things of that nature.
And then, of course, I got into rock & roll, like everyone else, when the Beatles came out. My brother was older than me. He played guitar and he got into rock & roll before I did. I began to follow him around to his gigs. Then the guys in junior-high wood shop figured out that I could sing. They needed a singer because everyone played guitar and drums. I ended up singing with just about every garage band in the Dallas–Fort Worth area at one time or another.
You play a lot of different instruments. Did they all come naturally to you?
I was a singer at the beginning, but then I started playing harmonica at 15. Then the band I was in got turned on to Jethro Tull and I went, “Ah, I gotta do that. I gotta take up the flute.” That was at 17. And at 20 I decided to pick up the sax because saxophone is in the woodwind family. It’s similar fingering, but different mouthpiece and so on and so forth.
In the early years, did you see any big concerts around Texas that really stayed with you?
Yeah. Our band opened for Spirit one time. My brother was in a group called the Yellow Pages, which went out with Eric Burdon and the Animals. He kind of led the way for me. He came out to California and worked with Sonny and Cher.
In the early Seventies, I auditioned for a group called Bloodrock. They had a bit hit record called “D.O.A.” They were in the Dallas–Fort Worth area and they had a deal with Capitol. And so I graduated high school in 1971, and after that, it was either join Bloodrock or join the Army and go to Vietnam. I thought, “Hmmm.” [Laughs.]
It was a no-brainer. I ended up working with Bloodrock and I had a writing-publishing deal with them. We did about three records and got dropped by the label.
How do you think you grew as a musician during your time in Bloodrock?
That’s when I began to co-write with the organist, Steve Hill. We wrote quite a few songs. I grew that way. And I grew musically since they made me the frontman. I was not only singing, but playing saxophone, flute, and harmonica. That is how I was thrust out into the front, in front of people. I had done this on a local level, but now this was more of a national level.
We began to tour around the country. We flew and we drove, we did planes, trains, and automobiles, and all that sort of stuff. This is the early Seventies.
When you joined Bloodrock, they were morphing into more of a prog group.
Correct. I was part of the reason that the sound changed. We began to experiment with more types of music like Gentle Giant. The original Bloodrock was more of a forerunner of heavy metal. We took it in a different direction. Some people really liked it, while others wanted the old Bloodrock back. It was just one of those kind of things.
I was just listening to “Thank You Daniel Ellsberg” off the Passage record. I haven’t heard many rock songs about the Pentagon Papers.
That was due to our drummer. We had this blues vibe going on with that and the drummer [Rick Cobb] had these lyrics about Daniel Ellsberg. He was way into the political thing at that time. I didn’t know much about it. I’ve never been that political. I try to stay apolitical since it gets so weird. But we did write that song as a sort of protest song about what was going on in Vietnam. Everything that had happened in the Sixties had carried over into the early Seventies, with Nixon trying to get out of Vietnam and the whole Watergate fiasco and all that stuff. That is where that song came from.
What happened to the band?
We did a few records, but we got dropped by the label and I moved back to Texas to go to college. That’s when my brother and I formed the Ham Brothers. We began to play a lot around the country, and we had a big following in the North Texas area.
How did you wind up touring with David Gates of Bread?
Like I said, I had moved back to Texas and my brother and I had a band going on. We had friends that had worked out here on the West Coast, Dean Parks being one of them. He’s a guitar player that played a lot with Steely Dan. And there was David Hungate, who played bass with Toto. We had a connection. My brother knew Jeff Porcaro and knew those guys, and he had played on the Sonny and Cher TV show.
One night, my brother and I were playing a club called the Hop in Fort Worth. And Dean came in with David Gates. They were checking my brother out for the guitar chair and me for the backing vocal and saxophone and flute and so on. They ended up hiring us for his tour.
That’s how we ended up with David Gates and Bread. And we rehearsed up north of Seattle in Bellingham. It was [Wrecking Crew and Bread keyboardist] Larry Knechtel’s ranch, which is beautiful. That whole tour was a really fun experience.
Bread was this big band in the Seventies with a lot of huge hits, but you never hear about them these days. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. But David was the primary writer. The last I heard of David, he wound up in Nashville doing sting arrangements and things of that nature. I really lost track of him. But his songs are so poignant. “If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you” [from the 1971 Bread song “If”]. Those kind of lyrics were coming out of that guy. And he had a real great voice. It was still in the soft-rock vein that I had come to know with Bloodrock. It’s still that same kind of vibe. But David was always the force behind that band, pretty much.
During your time with David, they were in a dispute over the name rights to the band.
I didn’t know too much about that. Like I said before, I try to stay out of any and all politics, in all situations. I knew about that, but I figured that wasn’t any of my business and I let them deal with it.
Tell me about how the Cher period started.
We just did the one tour with David. That was largely because when we played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Cher was there with one of her girlfriends. She had already separated from Sonny. She came backstage and she knew my brother from the time he had played the Sonny and Cher TV show with David Hungate, Jeff Porcaro, and Dean Parks. There was a connection there already.
Anyway, she came backstage and expressed interest in us being in her band to play in Vegas. She had this big revue that she was doing in Vegas. She had dancers, singers, and a full orchestra, but she needed an actual rhythm section. My brother and I both ended up in that situation, and I was one of the background singers. She also featured me on a couple of lead vocals and things. She was very generous. I did that for about three years, from 1979 to 1981.
What was it like to be in Vegas for that long, doing the same show every night?
[Laughs] Well, Vegas is a party town. There’s a lot of room to get in trouble. We worked a lot. It was two-week stretches at a time and sometimes we did two shows a night. It was a little bit of a grind, but I was young and healthy. And I enjoyed Vegas for the most part, though Vegas can get on your nerves after a while.
What songs are you singing lead with her?
“Those Shoes” by the Eagles was one. I sang lead on the first verse, and she came out in the second verse. It was a duet. I was really thrilled to do that, and we did it on Johnny Carson. There’s actually a clip of it you can see on YouTube.
Being on national TV and playing to those big crowds in Vegas must have been a real thrill.
It was a real thrill. I got to meet lots of famous people. Jack Nicholson was in the dressing room one night. Muhammad Ali came. It was all these people. Cher is a big star. It was good times. It was crazy times to some extent. But for the most part, it was a great experience to be involved with that.
How did Black Rose get going?
That was a project Cher wanted to do with [guitarist] Les Dudek and [keyboardist] Mike Finnigan and [drummer] Gary Ferguson and [bassist] Trey Thompson. She wanted to do a rock & roll record. James Newton Howard produced it. We were all getting pretty crazy during those times. [Laughs] It was a fun gig while it lasted. It was a short-lived thing. We did one record.
It’s interesting that it was just called Black Rose. It wasn’t called Cher and Black Rose, or anything.
She specifically wanted us to be a band. She wanted us to be like Toto or something or any of the rock bands. It was just the name of the band with her as the front person.
It was often compared to Blondie since the sound was so New Wave.
Yeah. It was in that early-Eighties time period. We all got haircuts. I got a guy to cut my hair off. He made me real punk-ish.
You go on tour and you’re just playing these new songs and no old Cher hits.
We were just doing the new record. We were opening for Hall and Oates. I remember that.
Did people in the crowd want to hear “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” and stuff? Were they surprised by what you were doing?
I think by that time, we were playing to a different audience. When we were paired with Hall and Oates, it was that kind of an audience. I don’t think they were used to seeing Cher in that role, but she was trying to break out.
She was also trying to do some movie things. That’s why Jack Nicholson was in the dressing room that night in Vegas. I think they were talking about doing Witches of Eastwick, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was asleep on the couch. I woke up and there’s Jack and Cher. I got up to leave, but she introduced me and he shook my hand. That was a moment.
How did your Kansas chapter start?
After three years in Vegas, I needed a break. I needed to get out of Vegas. I was just starting to feel like the guy in Leaving Las Vegas. [Laughs] I needed to leave Las Vegas while I was still walking around. And I got a call from one of my friends that was in the business. They were auditioning singers. And so I went and auditioned and I knew Kerry [Livgren] from years back. I think Kansas actually opened for Bloodrock once.
I knew Kerry from a distance. And I auditioned. I didn’t get the lead vocal spot, but they wanted me in the band anyway to sing high background parts and play instruments. That’s really where that wound up. I wound up working on the record [Vinyl Confessions] and the tour that year.
Tell me about making the record.
I play harmonica. They were mostly using the new singer, John Elefante, and some of his new songs. My wife and I went down to Atlanta, which is where they were living, to rehearse for the tour. I just remember playing the harmonica on the record. I don’t remember if I sang backup. But when they started rehearsing for the tour, I went down to Atlanta and spent a couple of weeks learning the parts that Kerry was showing me. I played keyboards, flute, saxophone, and vocals on that tour.
Kansas music was very challenging, and that’s one of the reasons I really wanted to do it. I wanted to continue to grow musically. It was a real thrill to play with those guys, and it was a nice change of pace for me.
How did the crowds respond to a new singer? This was a big change.
They loved Kansas regardless of Steve Walsh not still being there. Steve is a great singer and great entertainer, but people still wanted to come and hear the songs and see Kansas and hear “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son.” We did a big live show in Omaha and they made a DVD of it. It was a real successful tour. I think John did a great job of filling in for Steve Walsh.
By this point, you’d really established yourself as a utility player. You could come into a band and basically do whatever they needed.
Correct. I was becoming that. I had been a singer earlier. But as I learned to play more instruments, I focused on that because I realized that was kind of where my bread and butter was. It was where I could make a living in music. I focused more on that. I’m doing that to this day, by the way.
It makes you very employable. You can do the job of about three or four different people. It saves them a lot of money.
Yeah, hopefully. That’s the idea behind it. But I still spend a lot of time trying to hone each instrument that I play and do it as well as I can do it. I was actually practicing my tenor saxophone this morning before you called.
How did Kansas morph into AD for you?
Well, Kerry Livgren and [Kansas bassist] Dave Hope became Christian. And I was a Christian from my earliest days, even though I went through some wild years, like everybody does. You want to sow your wild oats. I went through that period, but I had always been a Christian from my earliest days. I was singing gospel music and was raised in the church. I never really left it in my heart and mind.
Dave and Kerry were relatively new converts and they were really inspired to do some gospel rock music. Basically, it got to the point where Kerry just wanted to write songs like that and it wasn’t jibing with the members of the rest of Kansas. They weren’t on the same page as that, so to speak. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. I’m not making a judgement on that one way or another. It’s just that people go in different directions after a while and they want to try different things.
This was one of those times when Kerry and Dave wanted to see if it would work, so we went in that direction with AD. The music was very similar to Kansas. Instead of the violin, we had the flute and the saxophone. Of course, you still had Kerry’s writing style. He was the primary songwriter. And I contributed a little and Michael Gleason was the other singer. He had some great songs, too.
We tried it for a couple of years and I was really proud of the music that we produced during that time. I think it holds up. I think the message we were trying to convey still holds up. I’m really proud of that time period, but it was a hard market to be successful in.
You were coming out of a huge Kansas tour. This must have been a very different kind of tour in terms of the venues you played and whatnot.
Totally. It wasn’t the same level. There was some confusion on parts of the listening audience. They didn’t know what to make of it. And people from the Christian realm didn’t know what to make of it either. Here we are coming with this really strong music that isn’t exactly like Keith Green or someone like that. It’s more in-your-face kind of stuff. It was kind of a tightrope to walk. And it was really hard to make it fly economically.
I feel like many artists are afraid to sing about their faith because it puts them in a box of “Christian artist” and it becomes difficult to break away from that.
Yeah. I think record companies like to do that. They like to have you in a certain format. For them, it’s easier to sell a certain format. But I don’t necessarily agree with that. They want to pinpoint you in a certain area: “OK, here is where you belong.” It’s not necessarily that way. I think that Bono has been able to express his religious convictions in a very creative way and still be successful with it. I think that’s a great thing. For whatever reason, we weren’t able to make AD as successful as I would have like to have seen.
Going back a few years, how did you wind up touring with Donna Summer in 1983?
Boy, that was really a godsend, I gotta tell you. I was out of work. It was in-between gigs. I don’t know what happened, but someone said that she was auditioning people. And Snuffy Walden, a guitar player friend I know that had worked with her before, suggested me. There was a little bit of a hint of who I was, and then I went down and auditioned and got it. I ended up working with Donna, on and off, for years. At that time, she had also gone Christian in her beliefs.
What was your role on that first tour?
I played the saxophone, keyboard, and I sang. I don’t remember doing any harmonica or flute at the beginning.
I was watching some videos of the tour. It was very theatrical, with costume changes and dancers. I didn’t see much of the band. Were you hidden?
When I first started with Donna, she had us behind a scrim. It was this big thing that hid the band. You could only see our shadows. We did that for the first couple of years that I worked with her. And then she finally had the band out with her and everything. When she did “She Works Hard for the Money,” she began to show the band more. She was moving into that rock & roll direction as well.
This was an interesting time because she had new MTV-era hits, but there were also the disco songs that made her famous. Some of them were pretty risqué.
There were some she didn’t want to do. When she first converted, she was like, “I can’t do that anymore.” Sometimes you gotta compartmentalize and realize that it’s a business, without sacrificing too much. She eventually came back to doing most of those songs again. But for a long time, she didn’t want to do “Love to Love You Baby.” We didn’t do that song for years. We were doing “State of Independence” and the stuff that Quincy [Jones] had produced and the stuff that Michael Omartian had produced, like “She Works Hard for the Money.” She was more interested in doing the newer stuff.
How was she as a boss?
She was great. She was a star, though, just like Cher was a star. And she was a diva. What can you say? She was a powerhouse vocalist. But she was always very sweet. It was just another experience. I have to say that all my musical experiences have been quite different, but it gave me a lot of variety in my approach to music. It’s helped with my overall musical growth.
How did you first wind up in Toto in 1986?
That was another situation very much like the Kansas situation. I had heard that they were looking for another singer. I got the opportunity and went down to audition. It was just like the Kansas thing where I thought I nailed it and thought I had it, but then Joseph Williams came along and he got the job. But then it was the same situation as Kansas. They called me and said, “We still want you to be in the band and do your thing.”
There I was, again, in the band. It wasn’t the spot that I wanted, but it was still a good situation to be in. I was singing high background vocals. It was great. I was playing a lot of sax and harmonica and flute. I even had a duet with Joe. It was great. I got to meet a lot of great musicians, like [percussionist] Luis Conte. And of course all the Toto guys, Jeff [Porcaro], Mike [Porcaro], Steve [Porcaro], and David Paich and Steve Lukather.
These are some highly skilled musicians. Playing alongside them must have really forced you to up your game.
Absolutely. You gotta bring your A game. That’s another thing. Being around the best musicians in the world really forces you to improve. It inspires you to improve, but it forces you to bring your A game all the time. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.
I think lots of people in your position would have been unable to cope with this ego-wise. They’d be like, “I’m either the singer or I’m not doing this.” How did you rise above that understandable instinct?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted about it. But my love of music overcame my ego. In this business, if you want to succeed, you have to be willing to be a nice guy, be willing to be flexible. “Hey, maybe it’s not all about me. It’s about being part of a team, and contributing what you know how to do to the rest of the exam.” Then you find out how important it is. You don’t know at first, but you find out later on how important it is for that component to be in the mix.
A good attitude goes a long way. There are a lot of very talented musicians out there who lost out on very cushy gigs because they couldn’t keep their egos in check.
Yeah. That’s a problem in the entertainment industry in general. The people that wind up being the successful ones are the ones that are able to adjust, and sort of reinvent themselves as they go along.
Tell me about Jeff Porcaro. He’s obviously one of the best drummers ever. What was it like working with him and getting to know him?
Jeff was a very sweet guy. And what an immense talent. It’s hard to describe his presence. When you walk in a room with Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, and Steve Lukather and those guys, they are a force to be reckoned with. Let’s put it that way. And Jeff was a force to be reckoned with. But he was very humble and very sweet and very accepting. I felt accepted from Toto from the very beginning. I came and went from that band in the Eighties, but I’m back now after all these years. We still have the same kind of friendly relationship.
Tell me about touring with Amy Grant.
That was after I did Toto for a couple of years. I had also gone to Tokyo with Steve Lukather’s solo thing. When I got back, I got the gig with Amy Grant. It was the Lead Me On tour, which was a huge tour. It was the largest tour she’d ever done. I sent them an audition tape and they flew me out to Nashville and we talked and discussed and she hired me.
She was someone with one foot in secular music and one foot in Christian music. That’s rare.
Yes. That had a huge following at that point. We were playing huge stadiums. That was a gigantic tour. We toured for well over a year and a half.
How did you wind up in Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? That’s a very different kind of thing.
Yeah. Towards the end of the Eighties, I got a little burned out on being on the road. I had a family and kids. My son was born in 1982 and my daughter was born in 1987. I had spent a lot of time away from them. I wanted to see if I could stay at home and make it happen at home. This is in the early Nineties.
I ended up struggling to make a living like I had before. I ended up doing some odd jobs. I worked at Disney for a while as a courier. I enjoyed being at home, but I missed the music. And so during the mid-Nineties, I started looking around for another gig. I knew a bunch of guys in the Four Seasons band and I got a call to audition. They liked me and I got the job.
What was your role?
I sang keyboards, sax, and vocals. I did the co-lead with Frankie on “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” That was for about three years.
Are you playing casinos and stuff like that?
It was a lot of casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. It was mostly in the States, a lot of East Coast gigs.
He has more hits than just about anyone.
Every song that we did in that set was a hit. And we wore the suits. I was one of the Four Seasons. It was great. I loved working with Frankie and being one of the Four Seasons for a season. [Laughs] It was another season in my career, and I loved it. Frankie loved harmonies and every player in the band sang. It was a very vocal kind of a thing. We even had a portion in the show where we went to the front of the stage and did doo-wop without any instruments. That was always a lot of fun.
I just really enjoyed those years. It kind of took my back to my years playing quartet music. It’s a different style of music, New Jersey doo-wop as opposed to gospel, but it’s three- or four-part harmonies. It had that effect on me. I really enjoyed doing that.
You also toured with Bill Medley.
I did. That was more on-off gigs here and there. I don’t really know how I got the call on that. But I did end up doing some gigs with him. I love his voice and I love playing with him. I had just started playing more tenor sax.
When was this?
I think this was during the time I was with Olivia Newton-John. What happened is that Frankie wanted to take a break at the end of the Nineties. He took like a year off. For me, that was hard times. I couldn’t really afford to take time off. I had gotten a call from Olivia’s manager when I was still with Frankie. He said, “Man, I’d really like to have you on this gig. You’d be perfect for this part. We need someone to sing the duet with her on the Grease stuff, on the song ‘You’re the One That I Want.’ You’d be perfect for that with all that you bring with the harmonica and sax.”
I said, “I’d really like to do it, but I’m with Frankie now.” They ended up getting another guy that was just a harmonica player named Norton Buffalo. And I continued working with Frankie until he got to the place where he wanted to stop for a hiatus. I thought, “Well, you know what? I’m just going to take a chance and call Olivia’s manager back and see what the situation is.”
I called back and said, “Is that spot still open?” He said, “Well, it will be at the end of the summer, if you’re interested.” This was the summer of 2001. And so I went and auditioned and got that gig. I ended up working with Olivia for 15 years. She would take periods of time off also. And it was during one of those periods of time that I ended up working with Bill Medley.
You basically had to become John Travolta onstage.
Yeah. I said, “I’m not really a dancer.” She said, “Just follow me. You’ll be fine.” I really enjoyed it. We played the Sydney Opera House and that was a real thrill. I got to do that duet with her. There’s a clip on YouTube. It was 2006 or something. It’s all starting to blur together.
This really shows that you’re just down for anything. You can be a Four Season, a Righteous Brother, or you can put on a leather jacket and play Danny Zuko.
Yeah. I had done some that kind of stuff with Cher. Her Vegas show was pretty campy. We did a thing where I slicked my hair back. I was familiar with that campy side of the entertainment business. It wasn’t as serious as Toto and Kansas, but it was fun. And so I had the experience of Cher and Frankie Valli to get me ready for that scenario. It wasn’t that difficult to jump into those shoes.
And Frankie was a part of Grease.
It all kind of ties together.
Then you’re back with Donna Summer for her last tour in 2008.
Yeah. Olivia had some health problems she was dealing with. Olivia was alway very brave and close-mouthed about her health. She didn’t want to complain. One time we were dancing and I kind of twirled her around and she winced a little bit and said her back was hurting. I didn’t know at the time that she was dealing with cancer. She’s had several bouts with the same type of cancer, but now she’s doing really well. She’s really a cancer survivor.
Anyway, that’s the reason she got time off, and Bill Medley wan’t working that much. And so I got the call from Donna that they wanted me to come back. It was her record Crayons. That was a lot of dancers and very colorful outfits, white suits with red shirts and all kinds of stuff. That was a fun gig too.
And I’m so glad I went back and worked with Donna before she passed away in 2012. I had no idea she was ill or going to be ill. She didn’t let on. You just never know what’s going to happen, and we aren’t promised tomorrow. I’m just so grateful to have had these opportunities to work with these fantastic partners.
As respected and beloved as Donna was, she was still under-appreciated. She didn’t get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until after she died.
Yeah. She was one of the greatest vocalists ever, in my opinion. She’s up there with anyone you can name, past or present.
How did your Ringo Starr period begin?
I was working off and on with Olivia. We were doing a Vegas gig at the Flamingo. I forget exactly how it came about, but I called Steve Lukather about six months prior to getting the word. I just wanted to say, “Hey, man. Let’s go out for sushi or something. I haven’t seen you in so long and I’d love to hang out. I’ll buy.”
He wasn’t able to get back to me on that. And then six months later, I get a call out of the blue and it’s Luke. He goes, “Hey, man. I’ve got something that you might be interested in.” And I’m sitting there barbecuing in my backyard. He tells me what the gig is. I was like, “Oh, my God. The Beatles! It’s a dream come true. Everyone wants to play with one of the Beatles.”
I don’t even have to audition. It’s just on his word: “Come on down and do the gig.” And of course, I did have to audition. That goes with the territory.
The job opened up because Mark Rivera was too busy with Billy Joel.
Yeah. Mark Rivera had done it. And he had worked with Ringo for years. He still served as the musical director. Whenever we’re going to do a tour, he comes in and he’s that other ear that’s listening to our harmonies and making sure we’re all on pitch and playing the right instruments and stuff. He’s a great guy. He leaves big shoes to fill.
It’s sort of the culmination of everything you’ve done your entire life. That set touches on so many different genres of music, and you’ve done them all at various points.
It’s Santana to Toto to Mr. Mister to Men at Work and Average White Band. You’re called on to do whatever. I felt like my whole career had prepared me for that.
How did it feel at first to be playing Beatles songs alongside a Beatle?
I still have to pinch myself. Since 2014, I still have to pinch myself that I’m actually playing “With a Little Help From My Friends” with Ringo Starr and singing some of the harmony parts. I mean, who gets to do that in life? I still don’t believe it’s me. It’s just incredible. It’s an incredible experience. I feel super blessed and humbled that I get the opportunity to do this, and I just want to do the best I can do. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t dare want to squander.
The All Starr Band used to totally change every time out. But Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie have now been a part of it for nine years and running.
Yeah. And I’d hope that we’d be able to continue with this as long as Ringo wants to do it. It’s been the thrill of a lifetime. It’s just unfortunate that Covid came along and wrecked everything for everybody. All the acts had to shut it down. It’s changed everything. Of course, the music business is changing anyway, but this changed it profoundly. I hope and pray we can get back to where we were, or some semblance of it.
I’m very hopeful that we will. And I’m very grateful to still be walking around and still be healthy. I hope to be doing this for the foreseeable future.
How did you wind up back in Toto in 2017?
Well, I was doing the Ringo thing and Steve Lukather was on that. One night, we got off the jet and we were back in L.A. on the tarmac and he said, “Listen, I want you to think about coming back and doing the Toto thing. We could really use you in this spot.” I said, “Man, I’m really down with that. Let’s do it.”
That’s how that happened. And I’d already played with Luke for so many years in Toto and Ringo that he knows what I can do. All he had to do was talk to the other guys and say, “I want to bring Warren in,” and they know me too. We’re brothers.
You came back around the time that “Africa” was undergoing a huge revival. Did you notice that the crowds and the energy were growing as that thing kept building?
Yeah. That song has had a life. It’s like the cat with nine lives. It just keeps coming back. And then Weezer covered it. That gave new life to that song. We did a version of a Weezer song [“Hash Pipe”] in response to Weezer doing Toto.
Toto has been one of those groups that’s been able to work. We do a lot of shows in Europe and a lot of young people come out, really young people. They see Toto for the first time and they’re amazed. They’re like, “Who are these guys that have been around for decades and can really bring it?” You can see it in their response. It’s palpable. It’s really a thrill to play your music and see a young audience, a whole new crop of kids, seeing them enjoying the music and getting into it.
Describe your role in Toto.
It’s similar to what it was before. I’m doing a bit more instrumentation. With this new configuration we have of Toto called the Dogz of Oz, I’m playing all my saxes: tenor, alto, soprano. I’m playing flute, harmonica, and percussion. I’m not playing any keyboards because we already have two keyboard players [Dominique “Xavier” Taplin and Steve Maggiora]. Joe [Williams] asked me to play keyboards and I said, “Look, you already have two great keyboard players. I think they can cover all the parts.” And they can. I was right about that.
I’m lending a little of percussion. I’m just the guy that can fill in a lot of spots. Theres’s a lot of vocal with this new configuration, as there always has been. It takes a committee to sing all of the Toto songs.
I’ve spoken to Luke about the 2019 tour. He said it was a pretty rough time for the band. Were you aware that that incarnation of the group was ending then?
I was. There was some tension and it was kind of obvious. I really tried to stay above it and I tried to act … I really thought that was a great configuration and I really wanted to see it stay together, just from my own personal point of view, just for the sake of the music, not for the personalities, but there was some tension. I’ll just put it that way.
As I said before, I always try to stay out of band politics. As much as I could, I did stay out of them. I wanted to be peacemaker, if I could. I can’t speak to that too accurately. I just don’t know too much because I tried to stay out of the fray.
How quickly after the last show of the 2019 tour did you start hearing about the new incarnation of Toto?
Luke had come to me during the tour and said, “Look, things are probably going to change. We want you to stick around.” That’s basically all I knew. I said to myself, “I’m on a need-to-know basis.” I understand it. I’ve lived through this many times before. I know why bands go through changes, for whatever reason. And I try not to take sides and just do my job and be as professional as I can be, and be a nice guy, because there’s value in that. That’s really how I tried to approach it.
I don’t want to make myself seem like an angel, or anything like that. I’ve got my issues too, I’m sure. But I feel like I’ve seen plenty of bands go through changes and I understand what’s going on when it’s going on. I try to just say, “Hey, if they want me to stick around, I’m here. If not, I’m a professional and I’ll move on to something else, or I’ll retire.”
I am at retirement age now, but people still want to work with me and I’m grateful for that and I’ll take what I can get.
The new Toto sounded great in that one webcast you did.
Thanks. I thought it came off really good. I was really pleasantly surprised. I knew that we had all the potential guys there to make it really work. We’ve got the new blood, some younger cats that can really bring it. It’s a really good mix of older cats and younger cats.
It was nice seeing David Paich there. You had his stamp of approval.
Absolutely. We got his blessing, which is really what it was. David came in and brought some of his ideas, and we hope he’ll continue to do that in future. I think he and Steve Porcaro are done with touring. And I get that. I’m getting older too. I understand how it gets to that point. But it was great to have David come in and oversee and help out with the production.
Back to Ringo, I look at him and cannot believe that he’s 80. He seems 20 years younger.
It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? When you’re around the guy, it’s unbelievable the energy that he has. And a lot of it is due to his exercise and diet. But mainly, it’s about his attitude. He’s got a youthful attitude. He walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to peace and love. He’s really genuine about it. You gotta love that about him.
He’ll do a two-hour show where he’s going back and forth from singing to drumming, and he’s doing jumping jacks at the end.
[Laughs] I come off the stage and I’m dripping with sweat. I look over at Ringo and he’s cool as a cucumber. I’m going, “Man, how do you do it?” [Laughs.]
The audience knows every song you guys play during that show. It creates a really joyful atmosphere.
Yeah. It’s so much fun. I’m having so much fun it should be illegal. It’s almost criminal to have this much fun. I have to say, this is the best time of my life. I’m so grateful that at this stage of my career, it’s the highest point I’ve been.
You deserve it. It’s like you got rock & roll tenure or something.
Yeah. I’m so grateful to be here at this point. I hope I can continue it going forward.
I can see Ringo at age 90 still doing it, and you still next to him.
I’d love that more than anything.