Tower of Power built to last
For more than 40 years, Tower of Power has drawn laudatory reviews for an exuberant fusion of soul, funk, rock and jazz. Hailed as one of the world’s greatest rhythm-and-blues bands, Tower of Power became a fixture on the San Francisco Bay Area music scene in the 1970s, producing spicy hits like “What is Hip?,” “Don’t Change Horses,” “Soul Vaccination,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “Down to the Nightclub.”
Still going strong, Tower of Power has successfully weathered various shifts in musical taste, surviving the disco era, punk and rap, staying true to a love of what members describe as original soul music.
“We’ve made some great records, but the thing is the live show,” says Tower of Power founding member Emilio Castillo. “It’s kind of like a James Brown show with a lot of energy and emotion. Even when things were tough for us in the ’80s and people were calling us dinosaurs and we’d never be popular again, we could always play live. People tell me you still sound so good, and it kind of baffles me because I expect it to sound really good. We’re fine-tuning our sound every single night. We don’t sound like anyone else, and we’re the deal for people who are into this kind of thing.”
Comprising four core original members – Castillo on saxophone, drummer David Garibaldi, bassist Francis Rocco Prestia and saxophonist Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka – Tower of Power still fields a mighty 10 piece-band.
And like many stellar, veteran bands, the appeal spans generations. “We started noticing it in the mid-’90s: really young kids coming to see us, especially in Europe and Japan,” Castillo explains. “At first we though it was just fans bringing their kids, then we found out a lot of aspiring, professional musicians back in the day became educators, and they’re hipping kids to Tower of Power. So we have young kids coming out because it’s cool to be a Tower of Power fan.”
World-renowned for their superb horn section, these funk kings have spiced up recordings over the years with a host of artists, including Elton John, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Huey Lewis and Rod Stewart. More recently TOP’s horns added some zest to Aerosmith’s album, “Just Push Play,” released in 2001.
Originally known as the Motowns, Castillo and his young bandmates began playing San Francisco’s East Bay in the mid- ’60s, gradually building an enthusiastic following for their spirited style of soul.
“I was into soul music whole-heartedly when I was 16,” he recalls. “I saw this white soul band called The Spiders in the East Bay of the Bay Area, and they had a singer who was astounding and a tight horn section. I sort of patterned myself after them. That was all I wanted to play. Then the whole psychedelic, hippy (promoter) Bill Graham-Fillmore Auditorium thing happened, and they were all hippy, psychedelic bands, but in the East Bay, where we lived, the majority of people were into soul music. That was our passion. Sly Stone at the time was the most popular disc jockey in the Bay Area.
“After a couple of years the whole psychedelic thing started to run its course, and Bill Graham had exposed people to blues, jazz and soul artists. He was upping the collective ear, so they were ready for us. Their minds were open; they were ready for something more in the groove that moved them.”
The Fillmore featured many historic concerts, and Castillo remembers one particular favorite, when they opened for Aretha Franklin for three nights, a series of concerts captured on the historic album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West.”
“We did the whole weekend; that was one of the most amazing experiences of our whole career,” he reports. “She had Bernard Purdie on drums, King Curtis was the band leader, an all-star band with the Memphis Horns and Cornell Dupree on guitar and Jerry Jemmott on bass. They would sit in with us when they came to town. The highlight of my life was when I was standing in the doorway of the packed dressing room, and all of a sudden I see Aretha coming. She squeezed through, and we were nose to nose, and she says to me: ‘Tower of Power, my favorite band.’ I just melted.”
Cutting its first record, “East Bay Grease,” in 1971, the group hit the big time with a series of great albums, from “What is Hip?” and “Don’t Change Horses,” to “Soul Vaccination.”
By the 1980s, TOP’s drawing power had dimmed a little, but the group managed to keep going. Touring with Huey Lewis and The News helped resurrect the band, and members started playing a lot of David Letterman shows, which increased their exposure and led to a new recording contract with Epic Records.
In 2009, Tower of Power roared back in to the spotlight, releasing a classics covers album, “Great American Soulbook.” As America’s premier soul ensemble, Tower of Power naturally delivered a superb collection of songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Billy Paul and James Brown.
The album mixed ’60s hits like Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” with less familiar tunes like Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “Loveland.”
“Our manager proposed the idea, and I was adamantly against it,” says Castillo about the covers project. “We had learned many years ago not to chase trends. A lot of artists were doing a bunch of old soul songs, and we were not doing that. Then he ran the idea by some of the biggest promoters we worked with, and they commented: ‘Of all the artists in the world, Tower of Power is the one that should do this record as they truly are a soul band.’ Everyone got onboard, and at the end, when we were mixing it, we knew we had something really special.”
Among the stars adding to the album’s allure was Tom Jones singing Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You,” along with guests Joss Stone, Sam Moore and Huey Lewis. Other highlights included “Star Time,” a hot medley of James Brown hits and Billy Paul’s classic “Me and Mrs. Jones,” which showcased the talent of TOP’s terrific lead vocalist Larry Braggs.
Now Castillo is excited about a new, double disc, live Tower of Power album released this week, “Hipper Than Hip (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” recorded at a Long Island radio station in 1974.
“It’s been bootlegged for years, but this is the actual, original master,” he enthuses. “It’s one of our greatest performances ever.”
Blending an irresistible mix of funk, Latin, rock, soul and jazz, War has sold more than 23 million records and created an impressive catalogue of timeless hits, from “Low Rider,” “The Cisco Kid,” and “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” to “All Day Music,” “Gypsy Man” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
The musicians of War first found fame performing with former Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon. After releasing their debut album, “Eric Burdon Declares War,” featuring the hit single “Spill the Wine,” Burdon and War toured extensively across Europe and the U.S., garnering rave reviews.
When Burdon quit in the midst of a European tour in 1971, the group continued on its own. War’s second solo album sold close to 2 million copies and included the hits “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “All Day Music.”
The band really hit its stride on the follow-up album, “The World Is a Ghetto,” which topped the charts and sold more than 3 million copies, making it the best-selling album of 1973. It also produced two Top-10 hits in “The Cisco Kid” and the title ballad.
Success continued with the album, “Deliver the Word,” which spawned the hits “Gypsy Man” and “Me and Baby Brother.” Then “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” which sold more than 2 million copies, provided the gold-selling title track and War’s most famous song, “Low Rider.”
Among the group’s compilations, the two-CD release, “Anthology 1970-1994,” was hailed by Jazzizz magazine as, “putting homogenized ’90s R&B to shame.”
Featuring only one founding member, keyboardist Lonnie Jordan, the current version of War features saxophonist David Urquidi, percussionist Marcos Reyes, drummer Sal Rodriguez, bassist Poncho Tomaselli, lead guitarist Stuart Ziff and harmonica player Stanley Behrens.
In 2008, War released “Greatest Hits Live,” which included a 30-minute “Low Rider” medley. Also in 2008, Eric Burdon reunited with War for the first time in 37 years, performing at London’s historic Royal Albert Hall. A year later, War was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.