Tower of Power
Tower of Power
Soul and funk group
Tower of Power created the brassy fusion of soul, funk, and jazz known as the Oakland stroke. An ever-changing, racially mixed aggregation of top instrumentalists and sly R&B vocalists, they energized the West Coast soul scene and helped 1970s funk make its way into the commercial mainstream. At the heart of their sound is a horn section that showcases fat, catchy phrases against prominent bass and rhythm guitar lines. Unique too is their abundance of original material, written exclusively within the group, and their sophisticated, though uncluttered, arrangements. As a result, whether they play a live open-air festival, or a studio session for hire, their work is distinctive, passionate and a stone groove to behold.
Tower of Power grew from Detroit-bom tenor saxman Emilio Castillo’s 1967 band the Motowns. “I was inspired during the ‘60s when I was a teenager by the music of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, all the great singers of soul music,” Castillo declared on his band’s Epic web page. “And those great singers always had great bands—great rhythm sections, great horn sections, great background vocals, and great emotion. To me those are really the ingredients of great soul music…”
Members include Adolpho Acosta (joined group, 2002), trumpet, flugelhorn; Greg Adams (group member, 1968-93), trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals; Mike Bogart Coined group, 2002), trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals; Tom Bowes (group member, 1991-94), vocals; Larry Braggs (pined group, 2002), vocals; Brent Carter (group member, 1995-2001), vocals; Emilio Castillo (group member, 1967-), alto sax, tenor sax, vocals; Bill Churchill (group member, 1995-2001), trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone; Bruce Conte (group member, 1973-78), guitar, vocals; Barry Danielian (group member, 1995-2001), trumpet, flugelhorn; Willie Fulton (group member, 1968-72, 1987), guitar, vocals; Dave Garibaldi (group member, 1968-76, 1979, 1998-), drums, vibes, vocals; Mic Gillette (group member, 1970-79), brass, vocals; Carmen Grillo (group member, 1991-96), guitar, vocals; Ellis Hall (group member, 1987-2001), vocals, keyboards, guitar; Michael Jeffries (group member, 1977-79), vocals; Stephen “Doc” Kupka (group member, 1967-), baritone sax, oboe, English horn, vocals; Nick Milo (group member, 1991-2001), keyboards; Lenny Pickett (group member, 1973-79), reeds, vocals; Francis “Rocco” Prestia (group member, 1968-76, 1991-), bass; Roger Smith (joined group, 2002), keyboards; Rick Stevens (group member, 1970-72), vocals; Chester Thompson (group member, 1973-83), keyboards; Lee Thornburg (group member, 1987-93), brass, vocals; Hubert Tubbs (group member, 1975-76), vocals; Lenny Williams (group member, 1973-75), vocals
Formed as the Motowns in Oakland, CA, 1967; became Tower of Power, 1968; released debut album East Bay Grease, 1970; released Bump City, 1972; released self-titled gold-certified album, 1973; released Back to Oakland, 1974; released Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now, 1976; recorded two LPs for the Cypress and Sheffield Lab labels, 1988; signed with Epic/Sony, released Monster on a Leash, 1991; Souled Out, 1995; Rhythm & Business on Epic, 1997; Soul Vaccination-Live, 1999; Very Best of Tower of Power: The Warner Years released on Rhino, 2001; released later career compilation LP Soul with a Capital ‘S’: The Best of Tower of Power, 2002.
Dressed in sharkskin suits and sporting razor cut hairdos to emulate their favorite local band the Spiders, the Motowns played nearly every smoky dive in the Oakland/San Francisco area but didn’t really get anywhere. In 1968 Castillo teamed with baritone saxist Stephen Krupka and bassist Rocco Prestia and began writing original material and rethinking the band’s style. Then, reasoning that they would never be able to compete against the area’s psychedelic rock bands with their current moniker, they changed the group’s name to the more imposing Tower of Power.
An amateur night win at the Fillmore West auditorium resulted in a record deal. “[Legendary promoter and entrepreneur] Bill Graham signed us to our first record deal,” Castillo recalled for Tina Alvarez of Entertainment Magazine On-Line. “By the time we played the Fillmore we were ready to break up. We were so broke, you might say our lives depended on it that point. We played with a vengeance and Bill loved us. He was a big fan of horns.” However, the failure of Tower of Power’s 1970 debut album East Bay Grease created a rift between the once-grateful band and their new benefactor and manager.
“It didn’t really get in the record stores across the nation,” Castillo told OnStage magazine online. “We toured with Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and then we did the Bump City record [their Warner Bros, debut]. We had a legal battle with Bill Graham for almost two years, between those two records. So, our popularity was skyrocketing in the Bay Area, and word was getting out in the nation, but there was no record out.”
Even as Tower of Power was fighting their way out of the contract with Bill Graham, something far more serious was happening within the band. Their popular vocalist Rick Stevens, who recorded their best-known early ballad “You’re Still a Young Man,” was charged with the murder of three men; he was convicted in 1976. After much auditioning, the band hired Arkansas-born Lenny Williams to replace Stevens.
Although Williams had recorded unsuccessfully for Fantasy and Atlantic, his potent uptempo belting helped Tower of Power solidify their sound and attract a nationwide audience. As the voice behind such enduring hits as “What Is Hip?,” “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream),” and the poignant “So Very Hard to Go,” Williams was an important factor in the band’s most popular era. At the peak of the group’s commercial success, however, Williams returned to solo performing after 1975, recording unsuccessfully for Motown and Warner Bros, before finally signing with ABC, where he finally reached the R&B charts with “Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh!” and “Cause I Love You.” Although his Tower of Power replacement, Hubert Tubbs, sang with real ferocity and the horns were beefed up to match his gritty passion, some intangibles were clearly lost.
The group began recording for Columbia Records in 1976, and though they scored a modest hit with “You Ought to Be Having Fun,” their commercial fortunes began to decline. Buckling under the strain of constant lineup changes, tours, and demand for fresh product, Tower of Power lost their creative edge. Moreover, by indulging in monotonous ballads and dabbling in disco, they frustrated longtime fans who were expecting the group’s trademark brand of hot funk and soul. After the band’s recording contract expired, they began to issue half-hearted, poorly conceived albums on small labels like Cypress and Sheffield Lab, the latter initially released only in Denmark. With funk and soul vanishing from the airwaves, their prospects were at a nadir.
Yet even when their own albums didn’t jell, the Tower of Power horns lit up recordings for a galaxy of music industry stars—Aerosmith, Santana, Elton John, Elvin Bishop, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Bolton, Peter Frampton, Michelle Shocked, Aaron Neville, and Dan Fogelburg, to name but a few. More importantly, they were still a powerhouse show band whose rhythms could fire audiences out of their seats when given the opportunity.
During the late 1980s early 1990s, a three-year stint touring behind Huey Lewis and the News and high-profile gigs with the Rolling Stones and the Eurythmics resuscitated Tower of Power’s flagging career. Once again writing songs with humorous bite and crisp, imaginative arrangements, the band signed with Epic Records, a Sony Music label, in 1991. Their subsequent albums continued to feature a revolving door of musicians and vocalists, but the band’s core was once again focused on creating fresh, energetic funk grooves. Indeed, vigorous new material such as “Soul with a Capital’S’,” “Funk the Dumb Stuff,” and “Diggin’ on James Brown” have proven popular.
Naturally, the Tower of Power leader accepts this rekindled fame as the ultimate validation of his band. “We went through the whole ‘80s without a record deal and people counted us out, said we were dinosaurs,” Castillo told Entertainment Magazine On-Line. “We stuck to our guns and kept playing this type of music and it’s paid off for us.”
East Bay Grease, San Francisco/Atlantic, 1971.
Bump City, Warner Bros., 1972.
Tower of Power, Warner Bros., 1973.
Back to Oakland, Warner Bros., 1974.
In the Slot, Warner Bros., 1975.
Urban Renewal, Warner Bros., 1975.
Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now, Columbia, 1976.
Live and in Living Color, Warner Bros., 1976; reissued, 1989.
We Came to Play!, Columbia, 1978.
Back on the Streets, Columbia, 1979.
Direct, Sheffield Lab, 1981.
Power, Cypress/A&M, 1987.
Monster on a Leash, Epic, 1991.
T.O.P., Epic, 1993.
SouledOut, Epic, 1995.
Rhythm & Business, Epic, 1997.
Direct Plus, Sheffield Lab, 1997.
Soul Vaccination: Live, Sony, 1999.
Very Best of Tower of Power —The Warner Years (compilation), Rhino, 2001.
Soul with a Capital “S”: The Best of Tower of Power (compilation), Sony, 2001.
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