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Emilio Castillo: Hip Sounds

Gigi Brooks interviews the Tower of Power founder during the 2013 Clearwater Jazz Holiday

Tower of Power in performance at the 2013 Clearwater Jazz Holiday

This year the Clearwater Jazz Holiday celebrated its 35th year as one of Florida’s largest and most popular venues in the country for some of the greatest headliners of jazz in the world. This world-class event has featured jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Herbie Mann, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, Esperanza Spalding and many others.

The line-up this year consisted of a mixed bag of highly explosive, famed and popular bands from the past such as Average White Band, Tower of Power and Chicago. Jane Monheit, Larry Carlton and Paul Brown were the “icing on the cake” for this year’s event.

It was quite a privilege to be able to watch for the first time artists, who have been in my music collection for over forty years, come to life on stage and perform better than I remember on the recordings. Tower of Power and Average White Band brought a freshness and vitality to the festival in a way I have never experienced before. The crowd was enthralled with the sound of the brilliant horn section Tower of Power, which is well-known and sought after by some of the industry’s greatest musicians from all genres.

During my visit, I had the privilege to sit down with the founder and band-leader of Tower of Power, Emilio Castillo. Originating in Oakland, California, the band is now in its 46th year and still traveling the world bringing their signature sound to the world.

In this brief, telling interview I was given insight into the man behind the brilliance and longevity of Tower of Power.

Gigi Brooks: When you were a little boy your dad told you had a choice and to find something to do and you decided it was music. I want to know where did the influence of your music come from that caused you to lean towards the soulful sound of the saxophone? You could have focused on classic jazz and you didn’t.

Emilio Castillio: I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I lived there until I was eleven years old and my parents loved music and so they were always playing records and even though I’m a sax player, I basically only play parts. I’m not a soloist or a great sax player, the thing that I do best is that of a band leader. I write songs for the records, but my thing since I was a little boy was singers; I loved singers, because my parents were playing these records -Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Elvis Presley, The Platters…Sarah Vaughan… you know they were always playing this pretty soulful music from the mid 50’s to the late 60’s. I used to sing to those records and try to emulate them and so when I finally got into music I already had a slant towards that type of sound.

Gigi: That explains it. When you formed the band you started off as The Motowns, right? Where did the name Tower of Power come from?

E.C.: Well right before we were Tower of Power, we were a soul band just like Tower of Power; we were called The Motowns. We were a bunch of kids, my mother was the manager and she said if “you’re going to be soul band, you should call youselves “The Motowns” you grew up in Detroit!” [laughs] Then I met Doc, who is our baritone saxophone player and is my song-writing partner and he’s still with the band. He was the first hippie I ever met and that’s when everybody was growing long hair and dressing differently and everything; and there were protest marches and all that stuff. The really popular place to play was the Fillmore Auditorium and we wanted to get in there. We had been playing these little, soul night clubs around the Bay Area for a couple of years and not really doing much, but the band was tight and it was good and we thought we’d like to get into the Fillmore. So, we got ourselves an audition there, but we knew we would never make it with a name like The Motowns, because they had all those weird names like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and so on… so we decided we were going to change our name and I found the name Tower of Power on a list.

Gigi: On a list? [laughs]

E.C.: [Laughs] Yes, on a list of weird band names. We were doing a little recording in this recording studio and we took a break and I was in this guy’s office and right in front of me was this list of weird band names like: 13th Floor Elevators; Vanilla Fudge. It was a list of potential band names, so I saw on the list “Tower of Power” and I said “Hey, what about Tower of Power? I think that describes us,” and they all said “yeah!” so that was it.

Gigi: That is fantastic! Tell me about the years as Tower of Power from 1970 to 2000.

E.C.: Well you know the early 70’s were our “heyday”-that was when we had our biggest hits. It was back in the Bay Area, which was the mecca for music at the time. I mean all the best bands were coming out of the Bay Area and that’s where everybody wanted to be and that was the sex drugs rock n’ roll scene and we sort of did our share and most of yours too and barely lived to tell the story about it. You know, I think even then God got us through it; and somehow, someway after battling addiction problems and finally coming down from that crash and getting hit with reality in the mid to late 80’s; I sobered up and a year later my partner Doc sobered up and before I knew it we were both on a spiritual journey and wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we started living right God blessed is with another record deal . We signed with Epic Records and we had a record deal in the early 90’s and we started recording again and we started praying and pretty soon I learned through all those hard times that it makes sense to hire people who are sane and have principles. So, I had a pretty good group of guys by then and I was living right, we were praying and God blessed us and so we started moving up and forward ever since.

Gigi: I have to say and I’m glad you mentioned that, because it’s so important when you really turn it around and start paying attention to what God says, then your whole everything can open up for you; so I’m so glad you brought that up that up, because it’s so important. Would you suggest that to the musicians today who are trying to get into their careers; would you advise them to go that route?

E.C.: Well, I do clinics in our horn sections and sometimes our whole band will do clinics for young people. We do it sometimes at schools, sometimes at music stores and you know we always try to give the message to young people that you don’t need to do drugs, you don’t need to drink, you don’t need to hang out in gangs, you don’t need to fall prey to all that stuff that’s out there. You can and it’s very easy to do that, but you will have to pay a price for it. We have a real short little motto: “Live Right. Feel Right.”

Gigi: Did you ever imagine when you first started the band that you would have this kind of longevity? I mean, we’re talking about 46 years.

E.C.: You know when I was first starting out and we had just changed our name to Tower of Power, I remember I idolized this local band called The Spiders. They were a very tight soul band and I sort of patterned myself after them and Sly and the Family Stone, who were also local. I saw The Spiders go to Sacramento and play a gig up there and I thought, “Wow if I could just get to Sacramento.” [laughs]

Gigi: [Laughs]

E.C.: … and then I heard about Sly Stone, they went to Vegas; they played a whole month in Las Vegas and I was like “oh, man” you know? [laughs] So the idea of me making it 46 years traveling all over the world wasn’t even an inkling for me. I was so close minded and I had a small little world, I was a young boy and I just knew I loved making music you know? I thought, “If I could just get to Sacramento.”

Gigi: [Laughs] In the music industry, most people don’t make it for very long, so for you to be around this long says a lot about the bandleader and the band itself. Even though there have been many members, it seems as though there’s been great success for some of them even after Tower of Power for some of your members inthe past. What do you think it is about the band that can elevate a musician to another level of their career once they’re with you. It’s almost like Tower of Power is the equivalent in music to what Saturday Night Live is to a comedian’s acting career. Many of the comedians who were on Saturday Night Live have long careers after they leave and go into movies and everything else; the same with many of the musicians who leave Tower of Power.

E.C.: You know these days I just say God did it and I just showed up! You know… in fact I try to tell this to young people… it’s very important that you’re passionate about you music and that you’re seeking out who you are. In other words, what is your personal signature? What is your personal voice that sets you apart from others? If you really apply yourself and if you really.. I mean obviously you have to borrow from people it and you are influenced by people, as you’re doing that you’re developing your own way of doing things and at some point it kicks in that I have this sound; this is how I sound and then you polish the diamond.

Gigi: Yes. That explains why they go so far in their careers afterwards. The horn section of Tower of Power has a life of its own. It has actually backed the greats such as Elton John, Grateful Dead; Santana; Jefferson Starship; Spyro Gyra; Rod Stewart; Rufus; Aerosmith and so many great bands and artists. What is it about your horn section that these other great bands feel they need to have it in their music?

E.C.: Well, for one thing we have been together for a long, long time and we’ve sort of

figured out our style. If you listen to our horn section as compared to others, we have kind of an illegitimate style. We cut our notes short. We kind of play a clipped style. We’re very intuitive about what we do. We can tell when the note is going to end and everybody ends together. It becomes instead of five guys showing up to play some parts, it becomes this one person in the guise of five guys. [laughs]

Gigi: [Laughs]

E.C.: We show up and it’s just a very tight horn section and if you think about it there’s a billion guitar players, theres a billion keyboard players, there are a billion drummers, but horn sections you can kinda count them on your hand. It’s not like there’s millions of horn sections; there’s a few more than I used to be, but not a whole bunch.

Gigi: I agree. There’s only a few I can think of Tower of Power, Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth, Wind & Fire, Ohio Players….

E.C.: Yeah! Chicago… but you know there’s not a lot. So, when they hear our horns making somebody sound really good like Aerosmith, here’s what we did with Elton John, you know they want that, so they’re going to call us that they’re not just going to go ‘oh let’s put four guys together try to do that’, they’re just going to give us a call. For that we’re very fortunate. We didn’t plan it. Early in our career we got a call in the middle of the night from Nick Gravenites, he was a member of the band Electric Flag; he was a big blues guy in the Bay Area and he said “Hey, I’m down there in the studio and I thought maybe you guys could come down and put some horn parts on”. So, we showed up and he had this song called “Funky Jim.” It was a funk tune and we made up parts like we did every day when we were rehearsing, because that’s what we did and he loved it! So we were like ‘yeah that was fun’ and then we were getting ready to leave and then he said “here!” and he gave us some money and we were like ‘Oh!’ Then a of couple of months later in the middle of night again, Carlos Santana calls, and he says “we’re over here at CBS Studio and we got this tune and we think it should have some horns on it. Why don’t you guys come over here?” So we went over there’s a song called “Everybody’s Everything” and you know, within an hour we put the horn parts on it; and it sounded fabulous! Once again, we were getting ready to leave, ’cause we just had some fun and then they gave us all this money! [laughs] So, we started to realize, “Yeah this is some other kind of thing that we can do.” There was no plan, it just kinda happened. [Laughing]

Gigi: [Laughing] What a funny story! That’s tremendous! You are a brilliant, creative and talented band leader. What is it that you’re looking for in a musician or replacement to replace a member who has left? What do they need to bring to the table in order to be a bandmember of Tower of Power?

E.C.: Well, first of all, they have to have a certain degree of expertise on their instrument. It’s a high musicality in the band. We’re looking for great musicians, but there are a lot of great musicians there out there. Unfortunately, a lot of those great musicians are not great people and so it’s wonderful to get up and make some great music on stage, but then there’s the other 20 hours that you have to spend with those people on the road. So, for me, what I learned probably 30 years ago, was that you look for people who are the kind of people that you would be proud to be with and that you’re comfortable to be with and that have a certain code of principles that they live by, so that you can all co-exist on the bus.

Gigi: One last question, because I know you have to get ready for tonight’s performance. Tower of Power has never stopped touring and playing and so now I’m seeing you at the jazz festivals which I think is wonderful and I’m so glad you’re here in Clearwater. What is it that you want the audience to take away from tonight’s performance? What are you guys going to do tonight?

E.C.: Well, we’re going to come together tonight and bring the classic Tower of Power show, high energy, soul music which includes not only fast tunes that are really exciting, but those slow, heart-wrenching ballads that ring your heart out like a rag and the live audience participation. It’s a very exciting show with a real high degree of musicality. We want people to know that we’re out there and as vibrant and as viable as ever. We recently put on our 40th Anniversary DVD, that we recorded live at the Fillmore Auditorium, with all of our past members on it practically; and we’re in the process of doing a brand new all original recording at this time and we’re about a third of the way through it. I’m doing twenty-five songs and I’m picking the best twelve. I’m trying to make the best record of my career, so it’s going to take a while. It’s not coming out next year, probably by the end of next year. It’s sounding really great and I just want to document the band the way it sounds right now, because it’s one of the best aggregations I’ve ever had. We also have a new CD coming out at the end of the year, it’s a live recording that we did in 1974, and this album is called Hipper Than Hip…Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. It’s a two disc CD set and I am very happy about this one too.

Originally Published