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Tower of Power has own soul signature

Tower of Power during a performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in February.
Tower of Power during a performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in February.

Band’s roster changes, but voice remains solid

Even though it’s in its 46th year, the soul-funk band Tower of Power is working harder now than ever. They’re road warriors, touring as frequently as their lineup revolves, and the group remains one of the defining acts of its genre.

“Some bands tour, and then they take a year or two off,” said Emilio Castillo, one of the band’s founding members and current tenor sax player. “But we’re a working band, and in order for us to support all the people that work for this band, we have to work all the time.”

Tower of Power’s roots stretch back to the Bay Area of the late ’60s, when Castillo said the music scene was split between the psychedelic rock of San Francisco and the R&B being produced in Oakland.

“Soul music was the thing over there,” said Castillo. “That’s what we were raised on. When Sly Stone came out in the mid-’60s, we’d used to go and sneak into the nightclub as teenagers, before he’d ever made a record.”

But the inspiration for Tower of Power came from an unexpected place: Castillo recalls seeing a performance by a Bay Area soul band called the Spyders, and it’s the moment he knew he would become a soul musician.

“My life changed,” he said. “I had never seen anybody play soul music with a horn section and background vocals that authentically.”

Castillo and baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka then started a group called the Motowns, which had changed its name to Tower of Power by 1970, when they were signed to legendary concert promoter Bill Graham’s label San Francisco Records.

“Quite frankly, people were amazed that we were signed, because we were not popular and we were not known,” Castillo said. “There were very famous bands trying to get on that label, but they saw something in us.”

Their first studio album, “East Bay Grease,” was released that same year, and the band continued to record and tour at a furious rate throughout the ’70s. Some of their most popular singles include “What Is Hip?,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “You’re Still a Young Man,” and countless others that are still regularly performed by jazz and marching bands today. Tower of Power is working on a new album, which Castillo hopes will be released next year.

Tower of Power’s roster of musicians has changed many times over the years – famous past members include vocalist Lenny Williams, “Saturday Night Live” music director Lenny Pickett and trumpeters Mic Gillette and Greg Adams – but its current lineup includes four original members: Castillo, Kupka, drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia. After so many years of playing together, Castillo said they’ve developed a complex musical language that they now speak fluently.

“After you’ve done this for a certain number of years, at some point you realize what your signature is, what your actual voice is in the music industry,” he said. “So we know really well that we do now, so we’re better at doing it, and we can push the envelope musically.”

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