When: 5 p.m. Saturday, July 26, 2014
Where: Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $39.50- $151. Visit Ticketmaster.com or call 800-745-3000
Tower of Power. January 9,10,11,13,14, 2015. Yoshi's Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland, California. $42-$48. Visit https://www.yoshis.com or call 510-238-9200.
Buy "Hipper Than Hip" at Amazon.com
Buy "Back to Oakland" at Amazon.com
What is hip? That's a question Bay Area soul band Tower Of Power has been asking and answering for more than 45 years. I spoke with Emilio Castillo, founder and second tenor sax about the band's formation in Hayward in the late 1970s, and their seminal role in American funk, soul and rock music.
Castillo was brought up in Detroit, where his father was a bartender.
"Dad had a lot of black friends, and they would listen to Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstein, The Platters," Castillo said. "Even as a little kid I loved singers, and my mother said I would sing 'Only You' by The Platters, sitting on the toilet.
"Once we learned how to play our instruments [and got to California], we saw this band called The Spyders, and we got into soul music. Otis Redding was big, and there was a whole community in the East Bay that was into soul music."
Castillo credits his father with supporting his interest in music, because he knew it would keep him off the streets and out of trouble.
"The band was sounding great with three horns, but we kept trying out these trombone players from high school marching bands. They just didn't get it. They played too square, they didn't get the syncopation thing. So we all said 'OK, no more weird horn players.'
"Well, I met this guy. Stephen 'Doc' Kupka. He was the first hippie I had met, and a real quirky guy. He said 'Your band is great, but there's one thing wrong the horn section. It needs a little bottom. I play a baritone sax with a low A (most baritone saxes at the time only went down to Bb).'
"So I invited him out to the house for an audition. He played 'Cold Sweat' by James Brown, 'B-A-B-Y Baby' by Carla Thomas, 'Tell Mama' by Etta James and 'Philly Dogs' by the Marquees. All those songs had really good bari parts in them, and we'd been playing them all this time without the bari parts. By the time my dad called me out to the kitchen to tell me 'Hire this guy,' the others, well, their eyes had gotten pretty wide. I came out and told them, 'He's in the band, rehearsal's over.'"
From where did the name Tower of Power come? Some long-forgotten Bay Area landmark? No. The band was called The Motowns when Doc Kupka came on board. They were a soul band with sharp suits and razor cuts. But everyone else was turning into hippies, with long hair and wild clothes. So they started to dress the same. They had one objective in mind: play The Fillmore in San Francisco.
But they weren't going to get in with a name like The Motowns, when there were bands called Big Brother and The Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service. So, on a break from recording in a little studio in Hayward, Castillo was sitting on the studio owner's desk, and right in front of him was this long list of weird band names. He looked through it and saw Tower Of Power and thought "Yeah, that describes us." The band agreed so the name stuck.
It had the right effect, because soon after they were booked into the Fillmore by legendary promoter Bill Graham.
In the '70s, Tower Of Power was the soul band. There were soul performers such as Marvin Gaye and James Brown, but here was a bunch of white guys playing black music. Did that ever cause any problems?
"We were a West Coast band and that (a bunch of white guys) was pretty common. In the East Bay, we looked up to a band called The Spyders with a black chick, but everyone came to see their white singer, a guy called Dennis Dell'Acqua.
"There were a lot of white kids who were into soul music, and on the West Coast the white/black thing wasn't as intense. But we got booked at the Sugar Shack in Boston. It was a really prominent black nightclub The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder all played there. We got booked there and were excited. Next thing we know the gig was cancelled and we had another gig in Boston.
"So, Doc and I went to the club one night. Here's two hippie white guys knocking on the door saying can we come in. The guy makes a call, and this Jewish white guy comes down and says 'Come on in boys.' He was the owner and he took us to his office. He said he was really excited to have us, as our record was huge here, but when he saw the publicity photos ... he said there would have been a riot. We just couldn't relate to that. But because we didn't think about it ourselves, nothing much happened."
The Tower of Power horn section soon achieved a reputation in its own right, backing musicians such as Carlos Santana, Little Feat and Graham Central Station.
"The first session we ever did was with Nick Gravenites, a blues singer from Chicago. He called me up in the middle of the night and says 'I'm in San Francisco and I have this song called "Funky Jim." I want you guys to come down and try and put some horns on it.'
"So we drove over, made up some horn parts, it was a lot of fun and he loved it. When we were leaving, he stuffed some money in my pocket. We weren't doing it for the money, just for some fun.
"Second session we got called in the middle of the night again, and it was Carlos Santana, and he was down at CBS studios. He said 'We've got this song and we think it would sound cool with horns.' So we drove over there and we did 'Everybody's Everything' (a big hit for Santana in 1971).
"Once again, walking out, someone stuffs money in our pockets. We expected nothing, totally had a ball doing it.
"It was at that point when we thought, we got a whole 'nother thing here! Carlos (Santana) used us a few times. We played live and he used us on a couple of albums. "He also took the band on tour with him when we were nobody and he was the No. 1 act in the world. He took us all over the U.S. because he loved the band."
But the collaboration with Huey Lewis and the News is one that Castillo remembers best. At a low point in their career in the mid-'80s, Lewis asked Castillo if his horn section would come on tour with him. Castillo agreed, on one condition Tower of Power would play a midnight show in the main cities of the tour, and Lewis would promote the band at every opportunity. Lewis agreed and was true to his word. The midnight shows were besieged and they toured together for more than four years.
Although the horn section is what everyone thinks about when they hear the name Tower Of Power, what about the guys in the back? The rhythm section, bass and drums?
"Rocco" Prestia and David Garibaldi hold court back there, and Prestia's syncopated bass lines dovetail perfectly with Garibaldi's uniquely expressive drumming.
But Prestia didn't always play bass. According to Castillo, he started out with the band on guitar and was invited to join mainly due to his cool hair. As it turned out, his hair was better than his guitar playing, but the band liked him anyway. A San Jose music teacher, Jerry Sanders (hired by Castillo's dad to help the band) told Prestia, "You need to play bass."
As Castillo tells it, Prestia learned more bass in seven days than he had learned guitar in seven years.
"He just had a knack for syncopation," said Castillo, "and when David Garibaldi joined us on drums, it just unleashed Rocco and the two of them went to all these weird places."
And so to the present day. Tower Of Power is touring with the Steve Miller Band and Journey, thanks to friend Neal Schon from their Santana days. Castillo was a little concerned about what 20,000 Journey fans would think of them, but he has been pleasantly surprised.
"We've been received really well at all the concerts, and we're making a ton of new fans. I think a lot of people were aware of us, but coming to these shows has sort of ignited a flame for Tower Of Power. It's been good for us."
"That's the 'Back To Oakland' lineup," said Castillo, "and we were playing really well. It's one of our best performances ever."
So what is hip? And whatever it is, does it last? According to Kupka, Castillo and Garibaldi, "What's hip today might become passé."
Luckily, Tower Of Power were hip back then, and are still hip today, and maybe a whole new generation of fans will appreciate the tight horn arrangements, soulful vocals, funky rhythms and syncopated bass lines.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org