If Tower of Power’s new Step Up — premiering exclusively below in front of its March 20 release — sounds cut from the same cloth as 2018’s Soul Side of Town, there’s good reason for that.
The 14 tracks were recorded with producer Joe Vannelli (Gino’s brother) during the same sessions as its predecessor, which also marked ToP’s 50th anniversary. Step Up is even subtitled The Soul Side of Town: Volume Two. “We worked on both of these records for a long time,” co-founder and saxophonist Emilio Castillo tells Billboard. “The whole time I was like, ‘Oh, man, I wish I could just play this for people already.’ It was, like, two years before we got it all completed and ready to come out. So it feels really good to get it done now and get it out. It’s been waiting for a while.”
Castillo adds that the division of tracks wasn’t particularly scientific between the two albums. “We just put it together in terms of what suited each other best,” he explains. “Obviously we wanted to have big openers and uptempo tunes to bookend both of the records.” On Step Up that’s achieved with the funky, two-part blasts of “East Bay All the Way” and “East Bay Oaktown All the Way,” short, polyrhythmic snippets that frame the collection of brassy, soulful stompers and ballads that flow in between.
For Castillo, however, Step Up is differentiated with its lyrics, the clever handiwork of baritone sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka, ranging from celebration to romantic fare and even some political commentary in “Any Excuse Will Do” and “If It’s Tea Give Me Coffee.” “Doc’s just got a quirky mind for lyrics. He’s been my partner for 50 years, so I expect it of him,” says Castillo, who co-wrote “The Story of You and I,” “Who Would Have Thought?” and “Sleeping With You Baby” with Kupka. He also penned “Addicted to You” with former Miracles member Sydney Justin.
ToP’s 50th anniversary was responsible for the group’s prolific past few years, according to Castillo. “We were trying to make the best record of our career ’cause we knew the 50th was coming up — and we made two great records, which is so great. We’re really clicking right now. I’ve had all these great lineups before, but this one feels amazing. We have more energy now — new material will do that for you.” ToP has tour dates listed from April 2 through the summer, though like everyone else the group is waiting to see how the novel coronavirus pandemic impacts those.
In the meantime Castillo and company are working on a new film chronicling its 50th anniversary concert, complete with alumni members and a string section, at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, which he hopes will be ready this year. “We need another project so, boom, we’ve got this DVD that’s just fabulous,” says Castillo, who anticipates a live album along with the concert film and possible a separate documentary. “It’s, like, three hours of music and it sounds so good I can’t believe it. So that’s what’s next, I think.”