Tower of Power Keeps on Rising

Fifty years in, Tower of Power is still putting out new material.
Fifty years in, Tower of Power is still putting out new material.
Anna Webber
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Tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo was still a teenager when he formed the Motowns five decades ago in Oakland. The funk-and-soul group played black nightclubs and after-hours joints until some of the bandmembers got busted for underage drinking in a bar. Castillo says the clubs, afraid of losing their liquor licenses, wouldn’t hire them anymore.

Not long after that, the band changed its name to Tower of Power and landed an audition at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, run by impresario Bill Graham, who had just started two record labels.

“That was really what changed our lives,” Castillo says. “We auditioned on a Tuesday at the Fillmore West. They looked at us like we were a bunch of freaks because the other five bands were guitar bands, and here we come with all these horns and this black singer. The crowd started to walk out. We started out with a James Brown tune, and it was like somebody said ‘About face.’ The whole crowd turned back and started walking back in. I saw Bill Graham stick his head out of the back door, and the next thing I knew, he offered us a record deal. We got signed to his record label. Famous bands were trying to get on his label and being turned down. For some reason, he wanted us.”

Tower of Power’s 1970 debut, the David Rubison-produced East Bay Grease, set the course for the horn-heavy group steeped in funk, soul and R&B, which came along just as San Francisco’s psychedelic-rock scene that Graham had helped ignite was beginning to run its course.

“What [Graham] had done,” Castillo says, “was sort of collectively tweak the ear of the Bay Area by bringing in all this other music with these psychedelic bands. When you’d go to the Fillmore, you might hear Miles Davis, Sam & Dave and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and go the next night and hear Eddie Palmieri and John Lee Hooker and the Grateful Dead. Everybody’s mind was expanding, and they’re listening to this new stuff that they didn’t normally listen to, and they were going, ‘Wow, that’s cool, man.’

“Before you knew it, the whole Bay Area musical ear was tweaked up a notch. Right about that time, when the psychedelic thing had sort of run its course and they were ready for something with some rhythm in it or some horns, we came along at the perfect time. Oakland really shaped the way that we sound, because over on that side of the Bay Area — that was the soul side of the Bay Area — people were listening to Sly Stone on the radio. He was the number-one disc jockey, and then he started his band, Sly & the Family Stone. All the clubs in the East Bay, they were all into soul music, and that was our thing. That’s the neighborhood that we hung out in. We hung around the soul-music musicians, and we made original-style soul music. We still do today.”

With the band’s history in mind, it’s fitting that its 25th album is titled Soul Side of Town. The record was released in June on Mack Avenue.

“Oakland is a very urban city, and it certainly has that side of the town where all the barbecue joints and all the after-hours places and the various delights adorn the streets,” Castillo says. “That was the premise for writing the song, and the song came out really good. It’s one of the best songs on the record, and we thought it would be a good album title. It’s kind of a universal concept. Every major city at least now has a soulful side of town.”
Knowing the band’s fiftieth anniversary was approaching, a former manager told Castillo the time had come: He needed to make the best record of his career. To do so, Castillo knew he couldn’t just throw together a dozen tracks and put them out.

“He told me the only way you do that,” Castillo recalls, “is you do the Michael Jackson method: Record way more than you need and you take the best twelve. We recorded 28 songs, and the record company wanted to put it all out. We said, ‘Let’s do one at a time.’ So we got a whole other album in the can, already mixed, mastered and sequenced, ready to go. It will probably be out within the year.”

After the group had recorded some of the tracks for Soul Side of Town with Tower of Power veterans saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Francis Rocco Prestia as well as current bandmembers in the ten-piece outfit, Castillo realized the project was too big for him to produce, particularly since Tower of Power was trying to make the best record of its career, so veteran producer Joe Vannelli, who has worked with Chaka Khan and Eartha Kitt, came on board to help finish the album.

“That proved to be a really smart choice, because he’s a very creative musician, a very creative producer and an excellent engineer,” Castillo says. “He has all the technology right at his fingertips right there in Agoura Hills, California. Believe me, we used it all. He pushed me in every way — harmonically, rhythmically, from a technical-engineering standpoint to a mixing standpoint, in every possible way. And I was there injecting my soul and my style into his, and the fusion was just a wonderful combination.”

Many of the cuts on Soul Side of Town have the essential ingredients of great Tower of Power songs — like having a unique rhythm that makes you want to dance, says Castillo: “It’s got to in some way move you emotionally and physically and have some good crafty lyrics — of course, that signature horn sound.

“On this particular record, we really pushed the envelope with background vocals,” he continues. “I brought in some girls from Sacramento and did eleven of the songs with them. And Joe said to me, ‘I think we need more, but those girls are way up there and we’re down here.’ He said, ‘Just put on the guys.’ So we got guys and girls. We brought in some other girls and some other guys, and we started adding all these background vocals. It took us in a whole new direction, and I just love it.”

In early June, the band played two nights at Oakland’s Fox Theater that were filmed for a live DVD to be released in the near future. Castillo says the musicians worked up some cuts, “Squib Cakes” and “You’re So Wonderful, So Marvelous,” that they hadn’t played in years. On its current tour, Tower of Power (playing with WAR this weekend at Levitt Pavilion) has been delving into older cuts — and not just the famous ones, but more obscure album tracks.

“A lot of those tracks take us right back to playing the On Broadway nightclub in Jack London Square in Oakland on Monday and Tuesday nights, four or five sets a night,” Castillo says. “I remember we’d be playing there and nobody’d be there. There’d be three people in there. Pretty soon we got so popular the owner started to have a dress code — like, ‘You can’t come in if you’ve got a hat. You can’t come in if you’re wearing Levi’s.’ He’s the only club owner I’ve seen trying to keep people out because they got so crowded. We remember those times fondly. We had a lot of fun and played a lot of music. Lots of people would come sit in. People from Santana, Sly Stone, Hugh Masekela, Bernard Purdie, Mike Finnigan, the people from Journey. All kinds of people would come sit in at that nightclub with us. We cut our teeth there. We play these songs now, and we remember those times.”

Tower of Power and WAR, with Megan Burtt 6 p.m. Saturday, August 4, Levitt Pavilion, 1380 West Florida Avenue, $25-$75.

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