Adventures In Tower of Power
Top Row: Larry Braggs, David Garibaldi, Roger Smith, Rocco Prestia, Mark Harper
Bottom Row: Adolfo Acosta, Mic Gillette, Doc Kupka, Tom E. Politzer, Emilio Castillo
Ed sat stood before me with the twin monoliths as if he was a modern day Moses, holding the two tablets of commandments handed down from high above on Mt. Sinai. In his left hand, he held Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, which contained the euphoric “The Song Remains the Same,” and an Eastern-infused song that was perhaps my first experience with a primitive occult-like spell, “Dancin’ Days.” In his right hand, Ed held an album created by a band based in our own East Bay backyard, Tower of Power. “These are bands that are important,” he said cryptically. “They play real music, and you need to understand what they’re trying to do. You need to hear these albums.”
I was just a kid; I had no grasp of real music. Zeppelin’s music was very complicated, and sort of startled my primitive philosophical sensibilities (as it should), but Tower of Power was something else all together. Whereas Zep was primal, medieval-like majesty, the East Bay horn-driven band was tight, funky, hot, danceable, born and bred in the streets, and best of all, they had a very human groove. This was pre-disco soul music, filled with a huge heart, and it was real. If I had been older and hip, “it’s a motherfucker” would have also been used on that holy day. Alas, that definition would come later.
During the 1970s, Tower of Power reigned supreme with a brand of soul music that was deep and wide, and carried with it a genuine ingenious instinct for warm grooves. Albums like Back to Oakland and Urban Renewal and classic singles, co-written by Emilio Castillo, like “You’re Still a Young Man,” sealed their immortal status. But their path out of the 70s was marked with a profound fall that forced the band into a painful retrenchment period, inevitably remolding their essence, and reawakening their muse.
On October 18, 2008, Tower of Power celebrated their 40th anniversary as a band at the Fillmore. The stage featured numerous former and present members of the band in a unique celebration of their timeless and influential music at the base of their origins—the San Francisco Bay Area. Spearheading the anniversary and reunion was none other than the band’s co-founder, original member, and 41 years and counting, second tenor saxophonist and producer, Emilio Castillo. We sat down with the leader of the band for a lively conversation about Tower of Power’s excellent new covers album, Great American Soulbook, and various collaborations along the rocky path the band tread, pre- and post-disco era, the shifting patterns of the 80s and 90s, and beyond.
Ironically, Ed, my older and wiser childhood friend, is a chiropractor on the East Coast, and I often think of that amazing irony, how he twisted my internal philosophical spine on that day long ago, with the inhuman power and spectacle of Led Zeppelin, and the gorgeous humanistic musical shadings of Tower of Power. In the end, this music remains very relevant, and it is a testament to musicians like Castillo, who found the honest moments within the whirlwind of activities that often permanently derail a lesser artist. Indeed, Castillo rose and fell and rose, and few creative individuals (or non-creative, for that matter) are given those ethereal second chances in life. But he was, made the most of it, along with the effervescent Tower of Power, and continues in this fifth decade creating music so engaging, it often transcends the real, and just becomes music of the soul.
RR: I have a personal connection with you and Tower of Power. My family moved to Fremont in the early 1960s.
EC: Fremont, California?
RR: Yeah, we lived there until the early 80s, and I was out of high school. It was a magical time to grow up there during the 60s and 70s.
EC: Where did you go to school?
EC: Same as me. My bass player, too [Francis Rocco Prestia].
RR: How important was Fremont to your development as a creative artist?
EC: Well, I wouldn’t call Fremont the cultural capital of the world, but for some reason or other, that’s why I got into music. After learning how to play for a couple of years, that’s where I really got into soul music, and I think it had a lot to do with that area. The whole East Bay was really kind of a soul-driven community. Soul music was very popular there. There were a lot of Latino and Asian influences there, and certainly Blacks, and soul music was just very popular in the East Bay. Sly Stone was a disc jockey, and everybody listened to him. Bands like the Spiders and Sly and the Family Stone and Magnificent Seven—just all these soul bands were around. So yeah, it had a big influence on who I am today.
I moved down to Oakland when I was 18 years old, but Fremont, you know, it’s, like I say, not the cultural capital of the world, but there was something about the hang there that made me the way I am, and I appreciate it.
I grew up until I was 11 living in Detroit, and that was also a very impactful city. My father was a bartender, and there were a lot of blacks in our lives. My dad’s Mexican so he had a huge family, and there’s a lot of Mexican people in my family. They were young, and they were very much into music: Bill Doggett, the Platters, the Ink Spots, Dinah Washington and Billy Eckstein—my parents were into it, man—Elvis Presley; they dug music. I always had a passion for music, but I was mostly listening.
Then I got to Fremont, and I got into a little trouble one day. My dad said I needed to think of something to keep me occupied. That’s right when the Beatles came out. My friend had gotten a guitar, and we said we wanna play music, and my life completely changed. Literally, from that moment on, I had a band. I never ceased having a band from that day on, and I never wondered what I wanted to do from that time on. I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.