Emilio Castillo doesn’t feel like he’s been leading Tower of Power for 50 years. But it does feel like the brassy group from the Bay Area has some miles on its mouthpieces.
The group is celebrating its golden anniversary with the June 1 release of a new album, Soul Side of Town, whose “On the Soul Side of Town” is premiering below. And Tower of Power — which still includes original members Castillo, fellow saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia — will also play a pair of 50th anniversary concerts on June 1-2 at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, Calif., which will be filmed for a documentary. Several former members, including keyboardist Chester Thompson and saxophonist Lenny Pickett, now leading the Saturday Night Live house band, will return for the shows.
“It’s amazing to me,” Castillo tells Billboard about ToP’s longevity. “I blink my eyes and here I am, and I still feel like I’m an 18-year-old kid in my brain. The music sort of keeps you young at heart and it’s been a great ride. We actually are one of the bands that did it full-time the whole time. We never took any time off. Some years we didn’t have a record deal, but we were still playing live all the time. I never had to take a day gig or anything. This has been my life for 50 years.”
The Soul Side of Town album has been in the works since 2012, according to Castillo, recorded over four sessions during the past six years. “The whole idea was to make the best record of our career,” Castillo says. “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.’ When all was said and done we had finished 28 songs and were ready to pick out the best of those.”
That was a difficult choice as far as Mack Avenue, ToP’s current label, was concerned. Castillo says the company, which has also released some archival titles, was ready to put out the whole batch at once but settled on releasing the 14-track Soul Side Of Town album, co-produced with Joe Vannelli (Gino’s brother) now and another next year. “No matter what we do, we keep sounding like Tower of Power — it’s a curse,” Castillo says with a laugh. “It’s soul music, but it’s an original style of soul music. We have our own particular signature. We mess with the rhythms a lot and create this rhythm section fabric that’s very unique compared to other artists. And then we always have a real premier lead singer and some unique songwriting, great background vocals, some pretty decent production — that’s what makes Tower of Power.”
“On the Soul Side of Town,” meanwhile, was co-written with Leo Sacks, who’s previously written liner notes for some of ToP’s Sony Legacy releases. “‘Soul Side of Town’ is that idea that every major metropolis has that side of town, shall we call it the ‘dark side of the moon area?’ that’s what it’s about. It’s about those soulful places in every city,” Castillo says.
A new album will make ToP’s year busy, but Castillo says good behavior helps to balance everything else. “My answer for ‘How do you do it these days?’ is I tell people ‘God did it and I just showed up,'” he explains. “The first 20 years of my career I made every mistake you can imagine. Drinking and drugging about killed all of us. I got sober in ’88, Doc got sober in ’89, we hired more sane people into the band. But the biggest factor is we don’t chase any trends. We learned a long time ago no matter what we do, we sound like Tower of Power. We’re always making music exactly the way we want it to be, even tweaking the (songs) from the old catalog, updating and changing it on a nightly basis. That makes it easy to go to work every day.”