By Molly McCowan
The members of legendary soul group Tower of Power (TOP) have been playing their signature infusion of funky, “get down” music for more than 40 years. Hailing from the Bay Area of California, the founding members of Tower of Power were originally known as “The Motowns.” After the band’s name change in 1970, legendary music promoter Bill Graham signed TOP to his label, San Francisco Records. That year also marked the release of TOP’s first album, East Bay Grease, which officially announced the band’s arrival into the Bay scene.
Known for its incredible horn section, powerful vocals and impeccable rhythm section, Tower of Power has become known as one of the tightest live bands to ever take the stage. 40 years, a gold record and many line-up changes later, TOP is coming to the Boulder Theater on August 7 to show Northern Colorado how it’s done.
Scene recently had the opportunity to chat via email with the founder of Tower of Power, Emilio Castillo (pictured here in the front row, second from the left).
Scene: How did living and creating music in the Bay Area shape Tower of Power?
Castillo: Living in the Bay Area in the ‘60s was very exciting because it was the nation’s hotbed for music. In the East Bay, where I grew up in my teens, soul music was the thing. In San Francisco, psychedelic music was all the rage, but we were into James Brown, Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, so when we started writing we were inspired by those great soul stars.
We were actually called “The Motowns” originally because I grew up, until I was eleven years old, in Detroit, Michigan. We were just kids, so it was my mom who said, “If you’re gonna play soul music you should call yourselves ‘The Motowns’ since you’re from Detroit.” So we did.
Scene: How did TOP originally get signed onto Bill Graham’s San Francisco Records in 1970?
Castillo: When we got a little older we wanted to play at the Fillmore Auditorium, but we knew that we’d never get in there with a name like that. So we changed the name to Tower of Power and got on the schedule for a Tuesday night audition. Bill Graham heard the horns and the rhythm and offered us a record deal. We did one recording with his label, San Francisco Records called East Bay Grease, and that was our big break.
Scene: You’ve been witness to Tower of Power’s development, growth, and trials and tribulations over the past 40+ years. How has TOP fought through the ups and downs? What is the basic philosophy that has kept the band going?
Castillo: I always say that it was the music itself that kept us going all these years. We make it very selfishly in that we make it to please ourselves. That makes it really easy to go to work day after day for all these years because we love the music!
Scene: What is one of your most cherished memories with Tower of Power?
Castillo: The first gig I did sober after abusing drugs and alcohol for 20 years was unforgettable because I realized that I didn’t have to alter my mood to make great music and also that music was my first love and the most fun thing I’d ever done.
Scene: Tower of Power has released more than 20 albums, including the self-titled 1973 release that went gold. As a band, you have so many wonderful songs to choose from when you do a live tour. What are your personal favorites to play live these days and what do they mean to you?
Castillo: I love playing “There’s Only So Much Oil In The Ground” because it’s more pertinent today than it was all those years ago when we first wrote it. I also love playing the ballads like “Time Will Tell” and “As Surely As I Stand Here.” When I play those songs I’m just beaming because they’re so musical and I feel so blessed to have participated in the writing and recording of those songs.
Scene: It seems like the members of TOP have always had a great rapport with one another. Is there a certain bond between all of you, and does that translate into the music?
Castillo: We’re definitely a family and there’s a lot of joking around and a certain amount of dysfunction, as all families have, but we really do love each other and there’s a real spiritual bond between all of the members. The music definitely reflects the feelings we have for one another and that helps us with our signature trait, which is being tight.
Scene: TOP’s current line-up features four founding members: yourself, Stephen “Doc” Kupka, Francis “Rocco” Prestia and David Garibaldi, and also features Lee Thornburg, who re-joined the group this year. What’s it like to have so many original members back on tour?
Castillo: Having so many original and long-standing members in the band is a total blessing. There’s a lot of reminiscing and a real feeling of gratitude that we can still be playing together after so many years.
Scene: Where would you like to see Tower of Power go next?
Castillo: We’re planning on recording a new CD of all original music and we just came under new management, so we’re looking forward to really stepping up the band’s worldwide appeal. We’d love to record behind some other great artists and really branch out with our music in films as well.
Got soul? Have the urge to get down and get funky? Don’t miss Tower of Power at the Boulder Theater on Sunday, August 7. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at bouldertheater.com.