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After 50 years, Tower of Power is still dreaming big

As a young musician, Tower of Power founding member Emilio Castillo had one goal: Play a show in Sacramento, California.

The Oakland-based Castillo idolized a local band called the Spyders, which had booked a gig in the state’s capital.

“I thought ‘If I could just get to Sacramento, I will have made it,’ ” he said from his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Over the last 50 years, tenor sax player and vocalist Castillo has traveled from Oakland to Sacramento and beyond, performing around the world with the soul-funk 10-piece.

Tower of Power had just returned from a string of performances around Ontario, Canada, when Castillo spoke with The Spokesman-Review, and the band comes to Spokane on Tuesday for a performance at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Tower of Power is gearing up to release two CDs of new, original tunes.

“Soul Side of Town” should be out in May through Mack Avenue Records, and the second record will be out sometime next year.

Castillo and fellow founding member and baritone saxophone player Stephen “Doc” Kupka write a majority of Tower of Power’s music, but both also write with the other members of the band and work with outside collaborators from time to time.

“It’s a lot of different writing coming from a lot of different directions but we don’t ever sit down, all 10 of us, and write,” Castillo said. “Although when I recorded, we did some jam sessions at the end of the day with the rhythm section and I turned four of those into songs later.”

Castillo said there is no theme to either record, and the band tried to get a good mix of tempos and genres, from ballads to funk tunes, on each album.

Of the 28 songs that will appear on the new CDs, a majority were recorded at the Track Shack Studios in Sacramento.

The rest of the songs were recorded at Joe Vannelli’s (REO Speedwagon, Jimmy Haslip) Blue Moon Studio in Agoura Hills, California.

“I could see that he was really, really creative, really good from an engineering standpoint, from a musician standpoint and from a producer standpoint,” Castillo said. “By then, I had realized that the project was too big for me so he was taking me to the airport and I asked him if he would help finish producing it.”

With 10 members to coordinate, Castillo jokingly calls Tower of Power a “logistical nightmare.”

In the band’s early days, Castillo said, things were easier, as the band members all lived in the same town, a few members lived together, and the band had its own rehearsal space.

But now that the musicians are spread across the country, when Tower of Power wants to rehearse, they have to find a central meeting space, hire technicians and get rental cars, hotel rooms and flights.

“It’s a logistical nightmare and a financial nightmare as well but we’ve been doing it for so long, we’ve got it down to a science,” Castillo said.

Asking Castillo about memorable moments from the last 50 years of Tower of Power turns into a who’s-who of music royalty.

Tower of Power has played on Elton John’s “Caribou” and several Santana records, performed with the Rolling Stones in Candlestick Park, opened for Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West and toured with Huey Lewis and the News.

Tower of Power played on several Little Feat records, including “Waiting for Columbus,” and has performed with everyone from P. Diddy to Neil Diamond and Poison.

But Castillo has refused to simply ride the wave of past accomplishments.

He’d like to write a Tower of Power song that’s used as the main theme in a movie (Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” from the movie of the same name, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” from “The Graduate,” are some of his favorite cinematic songs), and he’d like to record with “an artist who has a timeless quality,” namely Sting.

Castillo met Sting at an Eric Clapton concert and remembers Sting telling him that before the Police, he was in a Tower of Power “clone band” that performed “Only So Much Oil in the Ground” and “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream).”

“He said ‘Only So Much Oil’ was a timeless tune,” Castillo said. “I always thought it’d be great to remake that tune with Sting.”

A Christian who celebrated 30 years of sobriety in February, Castillo also hopes to continue helping people to know God.

“I did a lot of things in first third of my career where I wasn’t living right,” he said. “I literally did everything I could to end my career but God had other plans.”

The band will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a pair of shows, June 1 and 2, at the Fox Theater in Oakland, where it all began for Tower of Power.

For the shows, former members tenor player Lenny Pickett, now the bandleader for “Saturday Night Live”; singer Ray Greene, who now performs with Santana; keyboard player Chester Thompson; and guitarist Bruce Conte will sit in. The band will also be augmented with strings and two additional backup singers.

The shows will be recorded for a documentary and live CD, which Castillo hopes to release in the year following the shows.

Fans from around the world, everywhere from Japan and Europe to Canada and Australia, are flying in for those shows, which Castillo calls unbelievable.

“People say ‘Did you ever think?’ ” he said, “No, I had no idea. I was a kid that loved to play to music and that was my limited vision, ‘if I could just get to Sacramento.’ We’re on the way to Europe in the next few weeks.”


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