In a music industry so fickle that some groups don’t make it 50 days after releasing a recording, the mighty Tower of Power will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. The celebrated ambassadors of Oakland soul have been setting stages on fire since the group formed in 1968, through a string of memorable 1970s hits (“You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “What is Hip?”), a legendary association with famed concert promoter Bill Graham and a first-call horn section that remains the one to beat. Today, the 10-member band not only features a power roster of musicians’ musicians, it still specializes in (and has fun playing) music for the dance floor and for the soul—the kind of timeless soul power that inspired a young Emilio Castillo, the group’s leader, second tenor saxophonist, vocalist, writer, producer and founder of Tower of Power. His secret to keeping it going remains the same today as it has been over the years: to play it just the way you want it to be. Here, Castillo raps with WWOZ FM’s Soul Sister, a.k.a. Melissa Weber, about Oakland, Tower of Power and all things soul.
Next year, Tower of Power will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Did you think the band would exist for so long?
No, I certainly did not. But, you know I didn’t really think in those terms when I started out. I was just a kid, I was 17… 1968. It was a special time in our country. We were caught up in the whole Bay Area thing, and knew we wanted to play music. We were into soul music, and it became a passion for us. The band I idolized was a local band called the Spiders. They were really tight. They had a horn section, and great background vocals; really soulful singing. And I remember they got a gig in Sacramento. And I thought, ‘Man, if I could get to Sacramento, that would be something.’ That’s how small my thinking was as a 17-year-old. So, yeah, 50 years in the business was not even in my scope.
How did you start Tower of Power?
We were just a bunch of kids in the neighborhood. Got in a little trouble, me and my brother and my friend Jody. We went and tried to steal some Muscle Man T-shirts. They were these popular T-shirts with the young boys at the time. Really tight, sort of pastel colors. We had the good idea that we’d walk through Mervyn’s [Department Store] and put on three of ’em and put our shirt over it on our way to the pool, and we would get ourselves three free T-shirts, y’know? And we got caught the first time out. I had a really short crime career. [laughs] And my dad, he came and picked us up, made us apologize to the manager. Gave us a notebook. [He] said, ‘Go to your room, fill it with why you’re never going to steal again. And think of something that’s going to keep you out of trouble this summer—or else you’re never coming out of that room.’ The Beatles had just come out. It was 1964. And we said, ‘We want to play music, dad.’ And he took us to the music store immediately, and said, ‘Anything you want.’ And we started a band that day. We didn’t, like, practice our instruments for years and then join a band. We started the band first, and then we learned how to play. So we were just a bunch of kids that didn’t know nothing, and after a couple of years we started to play pretty good. That’s when we got turned on to soul music. I was about 16. Soul music was the thing in the East Bay. Over in San Francisco and different parts of the Bay Area, it was all about the psychedelic thing, but in the East Bay, it was about soul music. We got into that, and we got blinders on—we just couldn’t see nothing else. It was all about Otis Redding, James Brown, that kind of stuff. We never looked back.
Tower of Power is considered one of the anchors of the Oakland soul music scene coming out of the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of the bands include Cold Blood, Graham Central Station, the Pointer Sisters and Azteca. What was that scene like, and what was your role in it?
As you say, there were a lot of great bands. Sly & the Family Stone used to play right there in Hayward [California] at Frenchy’s, and me and ‘Rocco’ [Francis Prestia], my bass player, we used to go on weekends. And we would go along the back and climb over the fence, and go in the back way through the pool. And stay there all night. They had free breakfast at eight in the morning. [Sly] was there for a year. That was the scene. Sly Stone was a disc jockey at the time—very popular, really funny on the radio. He’d play great soul music. What sort of set us apart, though, is when we got signed to Bill Graham at the Fillmore. And we went to make our first record. This guy Bruce Steinberg who was doing the album cover said, ‘You guys should claim Oakland as your home.’ And we’re like, ‘What do you mean? We live in Oakland. What do you mean, “Claim it?”’ [laughs] He said, ‘No, with the record. We’ll call it East Bay Grease, and we’ll put a map of Oakland on it.’ We didn’t think of that being a good cover—a map? [laughs] And he says, ‘No, just think about it. The whole world talks about San Francisco and the psychedelic sound, and you just got signed by the guy who started it, Bill Graham. But, you’re not about psychedelic music. You’re about soul music! So rather than say you’re from the San Francisco Bay Area, you guys step right out and say you’re from Oakland.’ And so we did, and we’ve been doing that ever since. Our sound was an Oakland soul sound. The type of music that Sly played on the radio: Howard Tate and Freddie Hughes and Jesse ‘Mr. Soul’ James—all that stuff—it sounded like Oakland. That’s what people were used to in the East Bay, and we tried to emulate that sound and create our own version of it.
I know a lot of Tower of Power fans may have first encountered your music through the hit singles that charted in the 1970s. As a record collector, my intro was picking up a copy of East Bay Grease. Such a raw, funky record. What do you remember about writing and recording it?
We wrote the record while I was still living with my parents. We had sold our house and moved into an apartment building, and ‘Doc’ [Stephen Kupka] was living in our garage. And so he had to get an apartment. That’s when we started hanging out and writing, at that apartment complex in the suburb outside of Oakland. Then we moved into East Oakland and had a house together there. My parents left and went back to Detroit. They’re like, ‘We’re going to Detroit.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve got the band, I can’t [leave].’ My father came to me and said, ‘I know how important this band is to you. You can stay out here for a year, but if nothing happens, you’ve got to come back and live with us.’ And that was the arrangement. And within one year, we got signed to Bill Graham. Everyone wanted to get signed to this record label that Bill Graham started, called San Francisco Records or Fillmore Records. He had two labels. And the way you did it was you auditioned at the Fillmore Auditorium on a Tuesday night. So we got one of those auditions, and I guess it was just our time. I remember we were playing the set, and I saw a door open in the back. I saw a head stick out, and that was Bill Graham. He liked horns, he liked rhythm, and he liked exciting soul music. Next thing you know, we were signed. So we went in the studio with this producer named David Rubinson, who was sort of like the boy wonder that Bill had brought out from New York. And we recorded it really fast. We recorded the whole album in like a week, and then he mixed it in another week. It seemed a little too fast to me. But that was our opening statement. It was kind of a local hit; it didn’t go national too well. Locally, we were known for this uptempo funk. But we had this one ballad [on the album] called ‘Sparkling in the Sand,’ a really light, beautiful ballad with a flute. Ironically, that was the one they were playing in regular [radio] rotation. Back then, that’s when FM radio first started. There were no program directors telling you [that] you can only play 18 songs an hour. You could play whatever you wanted. So they were playing ‘Sparkling in the Sand’ regularly. But then they’d play ‘Knock Yourself Out’ or ‘Social Lubrication’ or ‘The Skunk, the Goose, and the Fly,’ and people were like, ‘So that’s the same band that [did] that flute song?’ They couldn’t put it together. [laughs] We went from being a nobody in the Bay Area, and all of a sudden, we got really popular. At the time, Cold Blood was the popular band. We sort of started inching up on them. Pretty soon, we were double-billed with them. Next thing you know, we sort of surpassed them. East Bay became our world.
Is there a favorite song that you have written?
I’ve got a lot of favorites, but I like playing ‘Only So Much Oil in the Ground.’ One of the reasons is because we wrote it back in 1974. Back then, there was an oil spill and people were talking about the energy crisis. That has played out in such a huge way to where the energy crisis is more pertinent today than it was back then. I feel that that song, lyrically, just says it all.
One of the signatures of Tower of Power’s sound is the horn section. In addition to the band’s own albums, the Tower of Power horns are recognized as an entity unto themselves, having been featured on hundreds of recordings and collaborations. How did the Tower of Power horns begin to get notoriety and work outside of Tower of Power?
It wasn’t a plan; it was kind of an accident. East Bay Grease had come out, and we were starting to get known in the Bay Area. And it was the middle of the night, and we were up partying, writing, hanging out. The phone rings and it was Nick Gravenites, who was a blues singer and harmonica player with Big Brother and the Holding Company. He was a well-known guy in the Bay Area, did a lot of stuff with Mike Bloomfield. I think he was a little bit in Electric Flag. So we knew him, and he dug the band and everything. And he calls in the middle of the night and says, ‘Hey, we’re over here at Wally Heider’s [recording studio]. I got this song, and I think it would sound really good with your horn section. Why don’t you guys come over here and put some horns on it.’ We’re like, ‘Sure!’ We thought that was great, you know—fun! We go over there. It was a song called ‘Funkie Jim’ . We made up some horn parts, and it came out great. And we’re like, ‘That was so much fun. Thanks, Nick!’ We were thinking it was just so much fun that Nick would ask us. And we’re walking out, and he goes, ‘Wait a minute!’ And he gave us some money! [laughs] And we’re like, ‘What’s this?’ And he goes, ‘You guys played on the record. Here’s some money.’ Oh, thanks! And we walk out, and didn’t think much about it. About a month later—same thing. It was the middle of the night, and the phone rings, and it’s Carlos Santana. And he says, ‘We’re over at CBS Studio in San Francisco, and we think it would sound great with horns on it. Why don’t you guys come over?’ And we’re like, ‘Wow, man, sure!’ And we go over there, and the song [we recorded] was called ‘Everybody’s Everything’ . And that was really easy. And once again we’re walking out and we’re like, ‘Thanks, Carlos, that was fun.’ And he said, ‘Wait a minute.’ [It’s someone] giving us a bunch of money again! We’re like, ‘Wow, this is really cool!’ And that record was huge. It literally was on the radio the following week. They mixed it the next day, and they pressed it and put it out as a single. Everybody was talkin’ about ‘Santana with horns, and it’s Tower of Power,’ and that took us to another level. After a few sessions like that, and some money, we realized this is like another career. So we made a booklet, and we had this really nice logo with the horns on it and these nice photos that Bruce Steinberg had taken. And we had a quote from Elton John about the horns, how he loved them. We sent that out to all the record producers, all the different artists’ managers and stuff. We just started getting calls, and it became this sideline thing. But a lot of people, they think we’re a horn section, because they see our names on so many famous records. And really, it doesn’t take any of our time at all. We go, and it’s a three-hour session, and we’re done. Mostly what we do is Tower of Power.
One of the Tower of Power horn section collaborations was with the Meters for their 1977 album, New Directions. Do you remember that session?
‘Be My Lady,’ right?
I remember it very well because David Rubinson produced it. I dug the song, a lot. And we were big fans of the Meters because of all that ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ and ‘Cissy Strut’ and all that stuff. And we used to play that stuff in the club in Oakland before we became well-known. We used to do five sets a night so we would do, besides our stuff, a lot of obscure soul music and twisted funk-type tunes. The Meters had all that crafty rhythmic stuff that we liked. I thought [‘Be My Lady’] was kind of ironically melodic and something that could be played on the radio. And it was a vocal tune, really cool. I dug it. I still dig it.
You co-wrote and sing lead on a song called “Diggin’ on James Brown” , which I admire because JB is my favorite of all time. How has James Brown inspired you?
If you’re into soul music, and especially if you’re into rhythmic soul music like we are, he’s essential. He’s not the only one, but he’s definitely at the top of the list. The other thing about James Brown is that his show, it was always so exciting. Just energetically exciting. I mean, you were sweaty when you left a James Brown show. And we wanted that element in our show. That was another thing we got from Sly & the Family Stone. We loved Sly & the Family Stone. We watched them before they even made a record. For a whole year we went and snuck into that club. But we didn’t want to emulate them musically. We wanted to emulate them from a live performance point of view. And by that I don’t mean that we wanted to do the things they did. We just wanted to have that energy, that live energy in our show. And even today, people ask me, ‘Well, what can [audiences] expect?’ Tower of Power is a live energy show, like Prince, like James Brown, like Sly & the Family Stone. You should leave sweaty.
Speaking of sweaty live shows—out of all the shows you’ve done, what performance moment stands out as being especially unforgettable?
We opened for Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore Auditorium, the weekend she played when Ray Charles came and sat in, and she made that album, Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971). We were the opening band. And at the time, we had gotten in an argument with Bill Graham, and we were on the outs with him. ‘Doc’ and I were going to visit Bill every other Monday trying to apologize and get him to release us from our record contracts so we could sign to Warner Bros. [Records]. Eventually, we settled all that, and we became the closest of friends until he passed away in the ’90s. But at that time, we were in a big fight with him. And even still, he knew that we were the best band to open for Aretha, and he put us on that show, to show what a classy guy he was. And so we were opening, and there were two things that happened. For one, Cold Blood wanted to be on the show, but Bill said, ‘No, Tower of Power’s gonna open the show.’ But he told them they could be on the bill on Saturday. And I remember; it was Thursday through Sunday. And we had already played Thursday and Friday. And [Aretha] had this background singing group called the Sweethearts of Soul. And I was backstage [Saturday] while Cold Blood was playing because they had my trumpet player—he was with them at the time—Mic Gillette. And so I was back, listening to their show, and I was sitting next to one of the girls in the Sweethearts of Soul. And she says to me, ‘They’re goooood.’ I go, ‘Yeah, they are.’ And she looks at me, and she goes, ‘But not as good as you!’ [laughs] And then later that night, after Cold Blood was done—and it was a scene. This was, like, the most important show in years at the Fillmore Auditorium. There was all this press, and everybody wanted to be backstage, it was a scene. So the whole backstage room was packed. I was standing in the doorway, leaning against the door, and here comes Aretha. This was Sunday night. And [Tower of Power] had already done three nights, and they were aware of us. King Curtis was the leader of her band, and they had the Memphis Horns, and everybody knew us by this point. And I was standing in the door jamb, and here comes Aretha and she’s wearing that tight dress with the white turban that she’s wearing on the cover of Aretha Live at Fillmore West. And she comes to go through the door, and I’m standing in the door jamb but there’s so many people, I can’t go anywhere. So I kind of scrunch up to make way, and she turns sideways and she sandwiches in the door. And we’re in the doorway, like, nose to nose. [laughs] And she looks at me and smiles, and she goes, ‘Tower o’ Power! My favorite band.’
What’s your secret for keeping a large band like Tower of Power together for so long?
These days, I know better, so I always say God did it; I just showed up. Because in truth, I made every mistake a human being could make. But along the way, after living a life of just debauchery, in 1988 I got sober. Once I got sober, I started praying. Once I started praying, I began a relationship with God. And pretty soon, we were all praying, together. When you get sober and you become of right mind, you start to make wiser choices. I just started hiring people not only for their musical abilities, but for their principles. I started to realize, I’m going to be with these guys sometimes 20 hours a day. I know them better than my brother. So I surround myself with good people.
What else have you learned along the way?
When things were really tough, we were being urged to try and be like other bands. The record company looked at us as a problem—they couldn’t get us airplay. This is late 1970s, early ’80s, and all the new wave and punk rock was coming in, Devo, and the Motels, Berlin, all these bands. They looked at us like we were a bunch of dinosaurs. And they would say, ‘If you could try to sound like so-and-so, we can get you some airplay.’ They were giving us a ton of money, so we were trying to please them. But every time we did, we still sounded like Tower of Power, and usually just a bastardized version because we were trying to make it sound like something else. After all the record deals died out and everything was kind of crumbling, we still could play live. We had fans that wanted to see us live. I remember telling the guys, ‘You know what? Let’s just quit doing all that stuff. Let’s just make the music the way we want to make it.’ That’s much more fun, and that’s what we do best. And we started to do that, and things started to pick up. And every time we made new music, the fans loved it. We just started realizing that what we looked at as a curse—the fact that we didn’t sound like the other bands; we thought that was a curse—suddenly, we realized if you only sound like yourself, that’s a blessing! So we stuck to that. We never, ever chased any trends or tried to be like anybody else again. What’s happened because of that is when we go to work every day, it’s easy. We love it because we play the music exactly the way we want it to be.
Tower of Power will play House of Blues on August 20.