Tower of Power Celebrates 50 Years With A No. 1 Album

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What is hip? For 50 years, Tower of Power has been the reply to its personal query, posed within the title of its 1974 hit. The Bay Area brass band has melded Motown ­inspiration from founder-saxophonist Emilio Castillo’s native Detroit — The Motowns was the outfit’s authentic identify — with ’60s West Coast funk-soul to create a formidable physique of labor and fan base. Castillo, his founding associate Stephen “Doc” Kupka and their altering forged of musicians have launched 17 studio albums over the previous 5 many years, the newest of which, Soul Side of Town, topped Billboard’s Jazz Albums and Contemporary Jazz Albums charts in June — a primary for the band. 

Tower of Power additionally has collaborated with Elton John, Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Santana, Paula Abdul, Heart and Huey Lewis & The News. “They’re only a nice [horn] part,” says Lewis, who labored with the group within the ’80s. “They’ve obtained that soul factor, in fact, however they make something they play on higher.”

More than 5 dozen musicians have gigged with Castillo and Kupka through the years, together with Saturday Night Live bandleader Lenny Pickett, saxophonists Steven Eugene “Euge Groove” Grove and Richard Elliot, organist Chester Thompson and guitarist Bruce Conte. The band — whose present lineup consists of authentic drummer David Garibaldi, ­longtime bassist Francis Rocco Prestia and vocalist Marcus Scott — lives on the highway, enjoying wherever from ­amphitheaters to casinos, however in a uncommon second in its hometown, ToP’s founders shared ­recollections from their decades-spanning legacy.

So does it really feel like 50 years? Fifty minutes? Five hundred years?

EMILIO CASTILLO: I’m 67, however I inform individuals it’s like I’m an 18-year-old in my mind. Music retains you with a younger coronary heart, and it’s been an incredible journey. When I replicate on it, I’m amazed, however I’m [always] so in movement that it seems like I’m doing the identical factor time and again. It’s somewhat heightened as a result of all people is making reference to the milestone, nevertheless it’s nonetheless enterprise as typical.

What do you suppose accounts for the band’s longevity?

CASTILLO: Lots of people seek advice from us as a musician’s band, and I’m very pleased with that legacy. There’s a excessive customary for the music that’s by no means actually modified.

STEPHEN “DOC” KUPKA: We have been advised we needed to go disco again within the ’70s. For a second, we tried that, nevertheless it didn't work out, so we went again to our roots. We simply stayed true to ourselves, and it’s paying off now. We’re extra widespread than ever.

What impression did the Bay Area have on the group?

CASTILLO: In the East Bay, soul music was actually widespread. Sly & The Family Stone [from San Francisco] have been ­enjoying round, and we used to sneak into the golf equipment on weekends — despite the fact that we have been ­underage. We needed to have that sort of high-energy dwell present. My mom was our supervisor, and she or he stated, “If you’re going to play soul music, you need to name yourselves The Motowns, since you’re from Detroit.” So we did. But after I employed Doc, he was the primary hippie I ever met. We knew we’d by no means get into the Fillmore Auditorium ­carrying fits as The Motowns. We wanted to discover a identify, and there was an inventory of bizarre ones on this recording studio. I noticed Tower of Power, and the fellows favored it. We obtained the audition on the Fillmore, and to our amazement, [promoter] Bill Graham dug it and signed us to his report label, San Francisco Records.

“You’re Still a Young Man” was your first Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1972, reaching No. 29. Not a nasty begin.

CASTILLO: We needed to report [the song] for our first album [1970’s East Bay Grease]. But the producer, David Rubinson, stated, “No, that’s too mushy.” When we went to Memphis to report [1972’s Bump City] with Steve Cropper, we performed it for him as a result of it was an enormous tune for us dwell. He stated, “Yeah, we’ll report that one, no drawback.”

You have performed with so many music legends. What are some memorable tales?

KUPKA: When we performed our first present opening for James Brown round 2000, it was simply us and him in Oakland. We have that tune “Diggin’ On James Brown,” and we have been questioning if we must always try this or not, as a result of he would possibly suppose it was disrespectful. But we did it, and afterward, he got here as much as me and stated, “I really like that James Brown tune.” I nearly fell over.

CASTILLO: We opened for Aretha Franklin when she recorded her Live at Fillmore West album there all weekend [March 5-7, 1971]. At the time, we have been in a authorized dispute with Bill [Graham]. But to indicate you what an aesthetic man he was, he knew we have been the very best act to open for her, so he put us on the invoice all weekend. The place was packed, and all people needed to be within the dressing room. I used to be standing by the door to the stage, and Aretha got here ­strolling towards me [in] a extremely tight white gown and a turban. I needed to flip sideways so she might wedge by the door, and we have been nostril to nostril, and she or he stated to me, “Tower of Power. My favourite band.” That was one of many highlights of my life, as a result of I’ve idolized her eternally.

How do you view Tower of Power’s legacy of being in-demand session gamers?

CASTILLO: It was sort of an accident. Nick Gravenites from Big Brother & The Holding Company referred to as us in the midst of the evening saying, “We’re recording in San Francisco and obtained this tune. It can be cool in case your horns have been on it.” It was referred to as “Funkie Jim” [from 1970’s Be a Brother]. We simply thought it was for enjoyable, however after we have been strolling out, he gave all people some cash. And inside per week, that tune was on the radio within the Bay Area, and we began to get extra calls from report producers and artists, and it simply turned one thing we did.

You additionally labored with Carlos Santana on his first album and Santana III.

CASTILLO: He first referred to as us for [1971’s] “Everybody’s Everything,” and that was proper after working with Gravenites. Those have been our first two periods as a horn part. Santana’s an esoteric cat. He needed Greg Adams, our horn arranger, to put in writing an association for some strings and flute for a extra delicate sort of tune on [his 1972 album Caravanserai]. [Santana’s] attempting to explain for him what he needs, and he says, “Y’know when the half from the rose and the rose petal separate? That second of separation — that’s what I need.” [Laughs.] Greg seems to be at him and goes, “I’ll offer you precisely what you want.”

How did the band turn out to be related to Huey Lewis & The News within the ’80s?

CASTILLO: The disco period had are available, and we had drug and alcohol issues. We had signed to CBS Records throughout the Walter Yetnikoff-Joe Smith feud. CBS didn’t really need us, however they provided us a lot cash that Warner Bros. couldn’t maintain us. So we have been caught. But we have been followers of Huey and people guys earlier than they even shaped their band, when [Lewis and Sean Hopper] have been in one other band referred to as Clover. Later on, we have been doing a session at CBS, and Huey got here in and stated, “We’re in a studio down the corridor and have this tune we thought you’d be nice on,” and we began [recording] with them. When [their 1983 album Sports] got here out, he requested, “I’m questioning in case you guys would think about occurring the highway with us?” I advised Huey, “If you promise me you’ll assist promote the band at each flip, we’ll do it,” and he was true to his phrase.

KUPKA: We [played the horn section for] three world excursions with Huey. He saved our profession, and I’m eternally grateful.

When your information weren’t promoting, did you ever consider calling it quits?

CASTILLO: No. We’ve been discouraged, however we at all times have had a dwell viewers. Even after we couldn’t get a report deal, we nonetheless performed dwell gigs, and there have been tons of people that loved the band. Every artist goes by these ups and downs, however the considered giving up and turning into a barber or one thing by no means occurred to us. This is what we do.

Could there be a Tower of Power with out one or each of you in it?

CASTILLO: When our youngsters have been moving into music, my spouse advised me I ought to groom my oldest boy, Christian, to take over after I can’t do it anymore. But he doesn’t have the identical type of musical mentality I’ve, so I’m unsure that would work. I simply suppose I’ll be doing it so long as I’m alive, and after that’s after that, you recognize?

Why do you suppose that, after 50 years of recording and performing, Soul Side of Town is your first No. 1 album?

CASTILLO: One of our outdated managers stated, “You guys actually need to ring the bell this time. You’re at 50 years. You’ve obtained to make the very best report of your profession.” I feel it’s our greatest, however that’ll stay to be seen as historical past performs out. But the 50-year legacy helps. Everybody will get these little moments of their careers, and I feel that is a type of for us. 

This article initially appeared within the Sept. 15 challenge of Billboard.