Tower of Power Celebrates 50 Years With A No. 1 Album

Tower of Power
Anna Webber

Tower of Power, from left: Tom E. Politzer, Prestia, Adolfo Acosta, Sal Cracchiolo, Kupka, Scott (seated), Jerry Cortez, Castillo, Roger Smith and Garibaldi.

What is hip? For 50 years, Tower of Power has been the answer to its own question, posed in the title of its 1974 hit. The Bay Area brass band has melded Motown ­inspiration from founder-saxophonist Emilio Castillo’s native Detroit -- The Motowns was the outfit’s original name -- with ’60s West Coast funk-soul to create a formidable body of work and fan base. Castillo, his founding partner Stephen “Doc” Kupka and their changing cast of musicians have released 17 studio albums over the past five decades, the most recent of which, Soul Side of Town, topped Billboard’s Jazz Albums and Contemporary Jazz Albums charts in June -- a first for the band. 

Tower of Power also has collaborated with Elton John, Aerosmith, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, Santana, Paula Abdul, Heart and Huey Lewis & The News. “They’re just a great [horn] section,” says Lewis, who worked with the group in the ’80s. “They’ve got that soul thing, of course, but they make anything they play on better.”

More than five dozen musicians have gigged with Castillo and Kupka over the years, including Saturday Night Live bandleader Lenny Pickett, saxophonists Steven Eugene “Euge Groove” Grove and Richard Elliot, organist Chester Thompson and guitarist Bruce Conte. The band -- whose current lineup includes original drummer David Garibaldi, ­longtime bassist Francis Rocco Prestia and vocalist Marcus Scott -- lives on the road, playing anywhere from ­amphitheaters to casinos, but in a rare moment in its hometown, ToP’s founders shared ­memories from their decades-spanning legacy.

So does it feel like 50 years? Fifty minutes? Five hundred years?

EMILIO CASTILLO: I’m 67, but I tell people it’s like I’m an 18-year-old in my brain. Music keeps you with a young heart, and it’s been a great ride. When I reflect on it, I’m amazed, but I’m [always] so in motion that it kind of feels like I’m doing the same thing over and over. It’s a little heightened because everybody is making reference to the milestone, but it’s still business as usual.

What do you think accounts for the band’s longevity?

CASTILLO: A lot of people refer to us as a musician’s band, and I’m very proud of that legacy. There’s a high standard for the music that’s never really changed.

STEPHEN “DOC” KUPKA: We were told we had to go disco back in the ’70s. For a second, we tried that, but it didn't work out, so we went back to our roots. We just stayed true to ourselves, and it’s paying off now. We’re more popular than ever.

Brian McLaughlin/Michael Ochs Archives
The band onstage in California circa 1974.

What impact did the Bay Area have on the group?

CASTILLO: In the East Bay, soul music was really popular. Sly & The Family Stone [from San Francisco] were ­playing around, and we used to sneak into the clubs on weekends -- even though we were ­underage. We wanted to have that kind of high-energy live show. My mother was our manager, and she said, “If you’re going to play soul music, you should call yourselves The Motowns, because you’re from Detroit.” So we did. But when I hired Doc, he was the first hippie I ever met. We knew we’d never get into the Fillmore Auditorium ­wearing suits as The Motowns. We needed to find a name, and there was a list of weird ones in this recording studio. I saw Tower of Power, and the guys liked it. We got the audition at the Fillmore, and to our amazement, [promoter] Bill Graham dug it and signed us to his record label, San Francisco Records.

“You’re Still a Young Man” was your first Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1972, reaching No. 29. Not a bad start.

CASTILLO: We wanted to record [the song] for our first album [1970’s East Bay Grease]. But the producer, David Rubinson, said, “No, that’s too mushy.” When we went to Memphis to record [1972’s Bump City] with Steve Cropper, we played it for him because it was a big tune for us live. He said, “Yeah, we’ll record that one, no problem.”

You have played with so many music legends. What are some memorable stories?

KUPKA: When we played our first show opening for James Brown around 2000, it was just us and him in Oakland. We have that song “Diggin’ On James Brown,” and we were wondering if we should do that or not, because he might think it was disrespectful. But we did it, and afterward, he came up to me and said, “I love that James Brown song.” I just about fell over.

CASTILLO: We opened for Aretha Franklin when she recorded her Live at Fillmore West album there all weekend [March 5-7, 1971]. At the time, we were in a legal dispute with Bill [Graham]. But to show you what a classy guy he was, he knew we were the best act to open for her, so he put us on the bill all weekend. The place was packed, and everybody wanted to be in the dressing room. I was standing by the door to the stage, and Aretha came ­walking toward me [in] a really tight white dress and a turban. I had to turn sideways so she could wedge through the door, and we were nose to nose, and she said to me, “Tower of Power. My favorite band.” That was one of the highlights of my life, because I’ve idolized her forever.

How do you view Tower of Power’s legacy of being in-demand session players?

CASTILLO: It was kind of an accident. Nick Gravenites from Big Brother & The Holding Company called us in the middle of the night saying, “We’re recording in San Francisco and got this tune. It would be cool if your horns were on it.” It was called “Funkie Jim” [from 1970’s Be a Brother]. We just thought it was for fun, but when we were walking out, he gave everybody some money. And within a week, that song was on the radio in the Bay Area, and we started to get more calls from record producers and artists, and it just became something we did.

You also worked with Carlos Santana on his first album and Santana III.

CASTILLO: He first called us for [1971’s] “Everybody’s Everything,” and that was right after working with Gravenites. Those were our first two sessions as a horn section. Santana’s an esoteric cat. He wanted Greg Adams, our horn arranger, to write an arrangement for some strings and flute for a more delicate kind of tune on [his 1972 album Caravanserai]. [Santana’s] trying to describe for him what he wants, and he says, “Y’know when the part from the rose and the rose petal separate? That moment of separation -- that’s what I want.” [Laughs.] Greg looks at him and goes, “I’ll give you exactly what you need.”

John Gilleese/REX/Shutterstock 
From left: Kupka, Politzer and Castillo performed at Academy 2 in October 2017 in Manchester, England.

How did the band become associated with Huey Lewis & The News in the ’80s?

CASTILLO: The disco era had come in, and we had drug and alcohol problems. We had signed to CBS Records during the Walter Yetnikoff-Joe Smith feud. CBS didn’t really want us, but they offered us so much money that Warner Bros. couldn’t keep us. So we were stuck. But we were fans of Huey and those guys before they even formed their band, when [Lewis and Sean Hopper] were in another band called Clover. Later on, we were doing a session at CBS, and Huey came in and said, “We’re in a studio down the hall and have this song we thought you’d be great on,” and we started [recording] with them. When [their 1983 album Sports] came out, he asked, “I’m wondering if you guys would consider going on the road with us?” I told Huey, “If you promise me you’ll help promote the band at every turn, we’ll do it,” and he was true to his word.

KUPKA: We [played the horn section for] three world tours with Huey. He saved our career, and I’m eternally grateful.

When your records weren’t selling, did you ever think of calling it quits?

CASTILLO: No. We’ve been discouraged, but we always have had a live audience. Even when we couldn’t get a record deal, we still played live gigs, and there were tons of people who enjoyed the band. Every artist goes through those ups and downs, but the thought of giving up and becoming a barber or something never occurred to us. This is what we do.

Could there be a Tower of Power without one or both of you in it?

CASTILLO: When our kids were getting into music, my wife told me I should groom my oldest boy, Christian, to take over when I can’t do it anymore. But he doesn’t have the same sort of musical mentality I have, so I’m not sure that could work. I just think I’ll be doing it as long as I’m alive, and after that is after that, you know?

Why do you think that, after 50 years of recording and performing, Soul Side of Town is your first No. 1 album?

CASTILLO: One of our old managers said, “You guys really need to ring the bell this time. You’re at 50 years. You’ve got to make the best record of your career.” I think it’s our best, but that’ll remain to be seen as history plays out. But the 50-year legacy is helping. Everybody gets these little moments in their careers, and I think this is one of those for us. 

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.