"She went on several talk shows and said it was about her. But I can tell you that it wasn't": the real story behind Toto's Rosanna

Toto in 1982
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives)

In 1982 the members of Toto discovered an angel in their midst. Her name was Rosanna Arquette.

She was a 20-something actress whose career was still three years away from pay dirt in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, and whose fledgling relationship with Toto keyboard player Steve Porcaro meant she occasionally dropped off beers as the band recorded what would become Toto IV.

“We got on quite well with her,” recalls singer Bobby Kimball. “She was going out with Steve and we were always respectful to each other’s partners. I mean, how hard is it to have a beautiful woman around?”

Arquette was not the only thing of beauty in LA’s Studio 55 during that time. One track recorded for Toto IV stood out above all others. In contrast to some of the album’s harder tracks, this was a lilting power ballad, sketched out by band lynchpin David Paich, hopelessly romantic in its sentiment (‘All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes’) and titled simply Rosanna.

“David was constantly writing songs at that point,” recalls Kimball, “and he came to us with Rosanna half-finished. The first time we ever heard it was when we walked into his living room in Encino. He had this grand piano, and he told us: ‘I want you to check this idea out’. He was pleased with it, and we were too. I knew it was a hit.”

Each member of Toto played a part in bringing Rosanna to fruition. Kimball and guitarist Steve Lukather transposed the musical key so the verse and chorus could be traded between them as a duet. Porcaro and Paich ironed out the keyboard solo at five o’clock in the morning. Late drummer Jeff Porcaro laid down a masterful shuffle inspired by John Bonham

“Jeff was really into Led Zeppelin,” recalls Lukather, “and for Rosanna he morphed Fool In The Rain [from Zep’s 1979 album In Through The Out Door] with a Bernard Purdie drum groove [a renowned session drummer, as was Porcaro, Purdie invented the Purdie Shuffle]. And we took it from there.”

As former session musicians to a man, it was little surprise that Toto bottled Rosanna fast in the studio. “In one afternoon we did the basic rhythm track,” Lukather says. “And that first guitar solo was made up on the spot the first time we played it. You just get lucky with stuff like that sometimes.”

“I remember that I had my two-year-old daughter listening to my vocal as I recorded it. And when the band recorded their parts, I knew it was something special.”

Less expected was Rosanna’s impact upon its release in the summer of 1982, with US No.2 and UK No.12 chart placings suddenly making this most faceless of muso bands a household name. “We loved it,” recalls Kimball of his overnight ubiquity. “Any time you can get a leg up in the music business you have to go for it. The fact that Rosanna was such a hit made all the difference in the world. It’s like winning a Grammy or something – people take notice.”

And yet, even as it was a hit around the world there was a major bone of contention surrounding Rosanna. On the television networks of America, Rosanna Arquette was informing audiences that the song had been written in tribute to her. 

“It was just an opportune moment for her to grab the brass ring and run with it,” says Kimball. “She was just starting her career, and the song was so big that she went on several talk shows and said it was about her. But I can tell you that it wasn’t. David’s line was always that he just used the name because it fitted into the song. Then she came into the picture and claimed it.”

That sentiment that has always been supported by Paich. “Rosanna is about three girls I knew, all rolled into one,” he explains. “After I met Rosanna Arquette I just stole her name and stuck it on there.”

As the years went by, the war of words between Arquette and Toto over the spiritual ownership of Rosanna has gone back and forth, ranging in tone from playful to hostile. In one 2006 interview Lukather openly expressed the opinion that “that bitch has ridden our coat-tails long enough”. Arquette, meanwhile, has claimed in print that she doesn’t even like the song. “That’s because it’s no longer useful to her,” argues Kimball.

Rosanna had never been left off a Toto set-list since it was written, and it was some testament to the song’s popularity that when Kimball returned to the fold 15 years and five studio albums later, it was still the moment in the shows that received the most feverish reception.

“We rewrote the intro to Rosanna recently,” concludes Kimball, “and decided to do it with keyboards and barber-shop quartet vocals. The crowd gets a little confused when we start it, but then they hear the first line and I see the glow in their eyes. It’s the one song the crowd are waiting for. And I can’t tell you the number of people who have come up over the years and told me that they fell in love or made babies over that one song!”

The girl in the video

Never mind Rosanna Arquette, most men of a certain age remember Toto’s song Rosanna for the leggy female dancer in the promo video.

“We hired a huge studio over a weekend and filmed Rosanna and Africa,” says singer Bobby Kimball. “With Rosanna they wanted to make a storyboard out of the video that was similar to West Side Story, with dancers, a wire fence and a girl with beautiful legs. The girl is called Cynthia Rhodes. And we actually saw her recently when we played the House Of Blues in Chicago.” 

Rhodes was in the 1984 SF movie Runaway with Gene Simmons. But her most notable role was three years later, in Dirty Dancing. Rhodes was married until recently to Richard Marx. You can see the pair together in the above video.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.