In the late 1960s, the San Francisco sound was all the rage. Local rock bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, and Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) were already famous or about to be. But one new band, Tower of Power, found themselves on the outside looking in. For one thing, they were from Oakland; although located directly across the bay from San Francisco, it might as well have been a suburb of Chattanooga as far as the rock audience was concerned. And second, Tower of Power didn’t play psychedelic rock—from the start, they were all about soul and funk.
“It was pointed out to us early in our career that we were not a San Francisco band,” says Tower of Power tenor saxophonist and bandleader Emilio Castillo, one of the two co-founders still performing with the group, along with baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka. “Our album designer said, ‘You guys need to claim Oakland.’ So we named that first album East Bay Grease and we’ve been promoting Oakland, California, ever since, throughout the world.”
It all came full circle for ToP in June 2018, when the then-current lineup celebrated the outfit’s 50th anniversary over the course of two nights at Oakland’s historic Fox Theater. The highlights, which included guest appearances from several alumni—Tower of Power has encompassed more than 60 individuals during its half-century—have now been released as a two-CD/one-DVD set, appropriately titled 50 Years of Funk & Soul—Live at the Fox Theater (Artistry). All of the band’s signature tunes—“What Is Hip?,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “You Ought to Be Having Fun,” and 18 others—are given definitive live treatments by the ensemble, numbering more than a dozen players for the occasion.
Regardless of who’s come and gone through the years—and ToP has hosted a number of fine vocalists as well as instrumentalists—the core of the band has always been its five-piece horn section. When most folks think of Tower of Power, it’s those horns—among them longtime trumpeters Greg Adams and Mic Gillette (who died in 2016) and saxophonist Lenny Pickett—they have in mind. Besides recording the band’s albums, the horn men of ToP have been called upon to grace the recordings of dozens of other artists, ranging from Eric Clapton to Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, John Lee Hooker, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and many more.
It was the horn section, too, that made an early champion of concert promoter Bill Graham, who booked the band regularly at his Fillmore West in San Francisco. “I actually doubt that we would have done anything at all without him,” Castillo says. “He had the vision to sign us to his record label and he paved the way for bands like us by putting together bills that were completely eclectic. He would have Jefferson Airplane and Miles Davis and Sam & Dave on the same bill. He tweaked the collective ear of the Bay Area, and pretty soon the whole world’s ears were tweaked because of him.”
Castillo was still in his teens when he put together the rudimentary band that would become Tower of Power. At first, they were called the Motowns, but they knew pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to fly. Honing the membership, they jelled into an air-tight unit by the start of their recording career in 1970. Their commercial peak came in the midst of that decade, with a series of albums for Warner Bros. But while some members—funky bassist Rocco Prestia (who died in 2020) and drummer David Garibaldi (who spent most of the ’70s in the band, then returned in 1998), keyboardist Chester Thompson, and a parade of singers—became well-known, ToP was always more concerned with a uniformity of sound than individual acumen.
They were also unflinchingly tenacious: Attempts to push the band in temporarily trendy directions were met with scorn. “When synthesizers took over, some of the [record company] geniuses thought we should be like that,” Kupka says. “Then when smooth jazz was big, they thought we should go in that direction. But we found that, for us to be at our best, we had to be true to ourselves.”
Jazz, in fact, has only been on the periphery of the Tower of Power formula, rarely an overt factor in their music. While Kupka cites trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Eddie Harris as influences, and Castillo names sax greats Hank Crawford, Maceo Parker, and King Curtis, the two ToP mainstays are quick to point out that they eschew soloing, preferring to drive the band by perfecting prescribed written parts. “I’m not really much of an improviser, but I make a horn section sound real good. That’s my strength,” Kupka says.
But, adds Castillo, some of the key musicians who’ve been with Tower of Power do have solid jazz credentials and take readily to soloing; when they step up, they’re given unfettered leeway. Also, he points out, “Playing with so many players that are excellent jazz musicians and having them inject their ideas—various chord changes and different things you could do rhythmically—I absorbed all of that into our music.”
That music, both co-founders say, will keep going as long as there are people around to play it. While the 50th-anniversary shows and CD/DVD release have cast a nostalgic light on Tower of Power’s lengthy history, the musicians are all itching to get back on the stage once the pandemic subsides and create new music.
“I’ve been enjoying being home and I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting,” Kupka says. “So some good came from that bad. It’s a real pleasure to still make music after 50 years and still do it well. As long as I’m healthy enough to play, and I am so far, I’ll be glad to do it. In our business, you don’t retire till the phone stops ringing.”
“My role model was B.B. King,” Castillo adds. “I remember watching him come off his bus. He looked like he was ready to drop all the way up to the stage. But the lights would come on, and he was like a little kid up there for two and a half hours, with energy to burn. That’s what I want to do.”