Legendary soul/funk band Tower of Power returns to San Diego for an appearance at the KAABOO Festival on September 14. Best known for hits such as “You’re Still a Young Man” (#29, 1972), “So Very Hard to Go” (#17, 1973), and “What Is Hip?” (#91, 1974), the ten-piece band formed in 1968. Tower of Power is celebrating their 50th Anniversary with a world tour and new album, Soul Side of Town. Notably, on June 16, the disc debuted at #1 on both the Billboard Jazz Albums and Contemporary Jazz Albums charts. Between the band’s 18 studio albums to date, as well as their horn section’s extensive studio work, it’s likely that the combo is amongst the most heard group of musicians, ever.
It’s been a long, but rewarding road for Tower of Power founding member Emilio Castillo (tenor and alto saxophones, backing and occasional lead vocals). Raised in Detroit, his family relocated to the West Coast when he was 11 years old. His introduction to the world of music came about shortly thereafter, through his father, but not in the obvious way. “I got caught stealing a T-shirt and my father wanted me to find something to do to keep me out of trouble,” Castillo said good-naturedly. “The Beatles had just come out and I told my dad [that my brother Jack and I] wanted to play music. He told us to get in the car and took us straight to the music store. We started a band that day and then learned how to play. Totally backwards. I’ve had a band ever since.”
Castillo began performing in the mid-1960s with a succession of bands, including the Extension Five and the Gotham City Crime Fighters, the latter of whom released the garage classic 45 “Who Stole the Batmobile” (1966). “I was 14 years old [when I first played live],” he said. “I’m not sure what song we played but it was probably ‘Louie Louie.’ The crowd was indifferent, but we were thrilled.” Castillo soon moved on from garage rock to soul, inspired by other Bay Area combos. His next group was dubbed the Motowns. “I saw a local soul band called the Spyders and they were so good I wanted to be just like them,” he recalled. “At the same time, Sly and the Family Stone had signed a one-year contract to play regularly at a club near me, called Frenchy’s, and we used to sneak in and watch them as well.” The Motowns soon morphed into Tower of Power, releasing their first album, East Bay Grease, in 1970.
Tower of Power has had many lineup changes in its five-decade run. Today the band still includes Castillo alongside other original members: Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophone, backing vocals, oboe), Francis Rocco Prestia (bass), and David Garibaldi (drums, backing vocals, percussion). The band is rounded out by Roger Smith (keyboards, backing vocals), Sal Cracchiolo (trumpet), Adolfo Acosta (trumpet, flugelhorn), Marcus Scott (lead vocals), Tom Politzer (tenor saxophone), and Jerry Cortez (guitar, backing vocals).
Keeping a typical band on the road is hard enough, but maintaining a ten-piece group can be a daunting task. The fact that Tower of Power still includes four key members after so much time speaks volumes for the camaraderie in the band. “We absolutely love this type of music and we make it exactly the way we want it to be, so it makes it really easy to go to work daily,” Castillo said. “We love each other like a family.” He feels the same way about the band’s longevity. “It’s all God. That’s the only explanation. We’re blessed indeed!”
Tower of Power scored eight Billboard chart singles (as well as 13 Billboard R&B hits) between 1972 and 1979. Interestingly, 1974’s “What is Hip?” wasn’t initially a big hit, but has since gone on to be the band’s signature song. “Honestly, when Doc told me he wanted to write a song called ‘What Is Hip?’ I had no idea how ahead of its time that concept was,” Castillo said. “Back then we just wrote and tried to bring things to fruition. I think that when Garibaldi brought the 16th note bass line idea to the table the song really came into its own.” More than four decades after its first chart appearance “What is Hip” continues to show up in soundtracks such as the film Blindspotting (2018) and the HBO TV series, Vinyl (2016).
The band released their 18th album, Soul Side of Town, earlier this year. It was the first new music issued by the band since 2003, though there were several archival releases during this time frame. The 15-year gap was ended to coincide with Tower of Power’s 50th Anniversary. “Coming up on 50 years we felt we needed to try and make the best recording of our career,” Castillo said. “So we resolved to record way more songs than we needed and pick the best twelve.” Fans will be happy to know there won’t be a 15-year wait for the band’s next album. “We actually wound up recording 28 songs and they all came out great, so we now have a completed second album waiting in the wings for release after this one runs its course. We also have a few bonus tracks that will go out to Europe, Japan, and other special issues.” While the band could easily play shows just with songs from their vast repertoire of material already taped, Castillo notes that it’s important for the band to keep recording new, original songs. “We’ve always written and performed new material. It’s what keeps things fresh for us and keeps the creative juices flowing,” he said.
In addition to their own music, the Tower of Power horns have appeared on hundreds of other artists albums, working with a long list of music icons. Indeed, it would be the rare album collection that didn’t feature the ToP horns somewhere in their collection. The horns on Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back,” Heart’s “Even It Up,” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” are all courtesy of the ensemble, as is the “The Final Frontier (Theme),” from the NBC TV show Mad About You. Meanwhile, movie soundtracks with their work include Arthur 2: On the Rocks, The Care Bear Movie, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “We always did great work with Huey Lewis and the News and also with Little Feat, but there were tons of other great sessions as well,” Castillo said with understatement. The list of artists that the Tower of Power horns have recorded with is staggering and the diversity is seriously impressive. It’s an accomplishment that will likely never be equaled. They’ve hit the studio with the likes of Rod Stewart, B.B. King, The B-52s, Phish, John Lee Hooker, Neil Diamond, Poison, Ray Charles, Aerosmith, P.I.L., and Santana, amongst many more. “The session with Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville doing “When Something’s Wrong With My Baby” was excellent and won a Grammy,” Castillo recalled. “The horn arrangement by Greg Adams, our trumpet player back then, was just amazing. It was always really soulful working with Graham Central Station too.”
The band continues a grueling tour schedule, with no signs of slowing down. Their current run of dates runs through December 2, with stops in Japan and the Philippines included. “We’re out 200 days a year,” Castillo said. “That’s about 175 shows, plus days off and travel days. The travel is the hardest part at our age, so we have to take good care of our health, get plenty of sleep, and stay spiritually strong.”
In addition to a new album in 2019, as well as a never-ending tour, Tower of Power is keeping busier than ever. “Right now we’re working on the DVD documentary of the 50th anniversary celebration that we did in Oakland at the Fox Theatre earlier this year,” Castillo said. “That will be a DVD and live CD two-disc package. Also, in addition to the followup to Soul Side of Town that will come out down the road apiece, we’ve got a lot of stuff from the past that we’d like to release from our Warner Bros. days as well.” In the meantime, he’s looking forward to the band’s performance at KAABOO. “San Diego has always been a big ‘Tower’ town,” Castillo said. “Lots of Latinos and the fans are rabid! [For example], we’ve been doing Humphreys by the Bay for several years now and it’s always sold out, with an exciting crowd.”
With 50 years as a member of Tower of Power behind him, Castillo is still having a great time making music alongside friends and entertaining fans around the world. He’s happy with the impact he and his band have had on the world of music. “It’s really gratifying to hear from people that we have profoundly affected their lives, and the musical legacy we’ve created over the years is most definitely a source of great pride,” he remarked. There is so much on his plate, it’s hard for him to pinpoint a favorite thing about the band. “I wear a lot of hats with Tower of Power,” he explained. “I’m a bandleader, a record producer, a songwriter, a singer, and a sax player. At any given time any of those things that I do can be my favorite thing,” Castillo said.