By Lorraine Kay
August 2009 – The 60s band Tower of Power is still going as strong as ever. In an exclusive interview with the band’s co-founder Emilio Castillo, he discussed the band’s ever growing tour schedule. Performing in excess of 200 concerts a year the band is touring farther and wider than ever before visiting new places like New Zealand, Bangkok and other Asian countries. “I got a new manager about four years ago and I told him that I appreciate that we are playing all the time, and I like the places we go, but I want to go someplace new to us and he has made that happen.”
The 8-piece band has been playing and recording together for 41 years this month, this year. There have been many personnel changes over the years, but for this tour there will be five of the original players on stage, including Mic Gillette, who just recently returned and will be playing for the first time in several years this month.
“Mitch heard that Mike Bogart Was going back in the Navy and jumped at the chance to come back. Originally, he had taken time off to raise his daughter, and now that she is grown he was itching to get back on tour.”
Over the past years Tower of Power has lost members, added new members, welcomed back old members and a fresh outlook, but the band has always remained true to itself and to its soul music roots, never failing to please audiences.
Original guitarist Bruce Conte left the band for over 20 years but returned in 2004. to play with his long time friends.
The recording of “Oakland Zone” brought the prodigal return of David Garibaldi, Tower’s original drummer. Garibaldi’s return reunited him with bassist Rocco Prestia to recreate Tower of Power’s original, mind-blowingly tight rhythm section. At that time Tower was also joined by then, new singer Larry Braggs, who Castillo describes as “The best singer we’ve had since the ’70s.”
After 41 years, the band is still on the road featuring a new selection of songs. Even though they will be pumping out a slew of the old favorites at the Saturday, August 22nd show, they will toss in a handful of songs off the new album, “The Great American Soulbook, Tower of Power’s 20th album, and first studio disc in five years. The new album is a different spin for the group with a collection of giant covers featuring as guests some of the greatest vocalists in the business.
According to Castillo, the band struggled against doing a cover album but “our manager talked us into it and now I think it was a good idea. I think people will like it. I heard that we were recently on the Jazz charts for the last 17 weeks,” says Castillo
The new album features 2 tracks, including
1. “You Met Your Match” – By Stevie Wonder
2. “I Thank You” – By Sam & Dave (featuring Tom Jones in a duet with Tower of Power singer, Larry Braggs)
3. “Loveland” – By The Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band
4. “It Takes Two” – By Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston (featuring Joss Stone in a duet with Tower of Power singer, Larry Braggs)
5. “Me & Mrs. Jones” – By Billy Paul
6. “Star Time” – A James Brown Medley with 4 songs: “It’s A New Day,” “Mother Popcorn,” “There It Is”, and “I Got The Feeling”
7. “Mr. Pitiful” – By Otis Redding (featuring Sam Moore)
8. “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel” – By Tavares
9. “Since You’ve Been Gone (Baby, Baby, Sweet Baby)” – By Aretha Franklin
10. (“Heaven Must Have Sent) Your Precious Love” – By Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (features Joss Stone in a duet with Tower of Power singer, Larry Braggs)
11. “634-5789” – By Wilson Pickett (features Huey Lewis in a duet with Tower of Power singer, Larry Braggs)
12. “Who Is He (and What Is He To You)?” – By Bill Withers
The group is releasing The Great American Soulbook on its own “Tower of Power Records” label with distribution through Ryko. And in keeping with audience needs in these internet-centric times, Tower of Power is focused on selling the album at live shows, on its web site, and on Amazon.com, iTunes, and other digital forms of media. Bassist Rocco Prestia says that while young music fans are learning about classic soul from them, the group is catching up with the youngsters, “It’s common knowledge that this is the way the music business is going – downloads. It’s all computerized and exciting.”
Castillo produced most of the tracks, but legendary Frank Zappa keyboardist George Duke helmed tracks 4, 8 & 12.. “George gave us so much freedom,” says lead singer Larry Braggs, he’d say, ‘I don’t need to tell you how to sing-just sing!”
According to Castillo. In the old days, making a record was a bit easier because our then 10 – piece group was based in the Oakland area of California. But now, in between spending over 200 dates on the road every year, the guys also live in different parts of the United States during their off time. So we had to schedule studio time every few months to make the recording of The Great American Soulbook happen.
“We were resistant at first to the idea,” says Castillo. “But a third of the way into the recording, we realized how good it was working.” “In the old days,” says the group’s co-founder, saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, “the thought of doing other peoples’ songs would have been unthinkable, but this felt like a really good way to go – our take on classic great soul songs that we listened to on the way up.”
Drummer David Garibaldi felt both the making and listening of The Great American Soulbook to be inspirational, “We were such big fans of James Brown-his music had such a powerful affect on us. And then listening to ‘Loveland,’ Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band was such a profound influence on me. That music was happening when we were starting out, and we’re still inspired by this music.”
Some of the album’s highlights include Braggs’s solo numbers, like “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel.” Initially he wondered how he’d enhance these covers, but realized, “You entertain, enlighten, and give a piece of yourself when you’re making this music.”
The outside collaborations with guest vocalists Sam Moore, Joss Stone, Sir Tom Jones, and Huey Lewis brought fresh dimensions to the songs. Castillo says he was astounded to be “in the same room as the legendary Sam Moore,” especially collaborating on an Otis Redding classic.
In working with the young British singer Joss Stone on “It Takes Two” and “Your Precious Love,” Braggs realized, “this was an artist who creates her own licks when she sings, and you have to step back and just let her sing and be creative.” Most people when they hear the soulful voice of the young singer comment that she must be 40 years old in disguise or have grown up in a blues bar, but according to Stone, “I grew up on a farm just outside of London.”
“Huey Lewis helped save our career over 20 years ago,” says Castillo, remembering the days that Huey Lewis and the News was a chart-topper and the Tower of Power horn section were part of Huey’s live shows. Regarding Lewis’s track on The Great American Soulbook, Braggs says, “We raised the key for ‘634-5789,’ and Huey sang his parts in Montana, and sent them back, and we told him, ‘it sounds great,’ but he said, ‘I’m glad you liked it, but I’m also glad you didn’t have to see me while I sang it!’”
Braggs felt most honored working with Sir Tom Jones, who Tower of Power toured with in 2006. “Singing in the studio with Tom is one of the greatest accomplishments for me. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid, I used to watch his TV show every week.”
The band personnel on The Great American Soulbook included,
Emilio Castillo on second tenor sax and vocals, Co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax. Framcis Rocco Prestia on bass, David Garfield on drums, Larry Braggs on lead and background vocals, Roger Smith on keyboards, Tom E. Politzer on first tenor sax and alto sax, Adolfo Acosta on second trumpet and flugelhorn, Michael Bogart on lead trumpet, flugelhorn and trombone and Mark Harper on guitar.
Always inspired by soul and R & B music, it has always been difficult to describe Tower of Power’s blinding collage of soul, rock, funk and jazz. Even band members, when asked, give a myriad of responses. Says bandleader Castillo, “What Tower plays is urban soul music.” In reality, Tower of Power’s horn-driven, in-your-face sound is all its own, and verbal descriptions fail.
In 1968, co-founder Castillo hooked up with baritone saxophonist Stephen “The Funky Doctor” Kupka, and moved to Oakland determined to compete with the Bay Area’s reigning psychedelic rock bands. “Doc was the strangest bird I’d ever met,” Castillo recalls. “He loved soul music and that was my passion…we clicked immediately.”
Out of their partnership came the beginnings of the Tower of Power repertoire. The first song the pair penned was the band’s signature classic, “You’re Still a Young Man.” The group was soon a fixture in the Bay Area music scene, and in 1970 cut their first record, “East Bay Grease, for the legendary Bill Graham’s San Francisco Records.
Melding jazz, funk, rock, and soul in a way no other group ever has, Tower of Power was eventually a key part of Warner Bros. Record dynasty in the 1970s–storming the charts with tunes such as “What Is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man.”
Penned by critic Marcus Nordal of Seattle Times, “Tower of Power’s brand of high octane funk, like the music of Ray Charles or James Brown, never sounds dated and appeals to a wide cross section of listeners.
One reviewer from the Fort Worth Star Telegram wrote, “If you see someone sitting still at a Tower of Power concert, don’t bother checking their pulse–they’re already dead!”
Growing from their prodigious Easy Bay beginnings to move on and record for Mo Ostin’s legendary Warner Bros. powerhouse, the rest of Tower of Power’s brilliant history–from “What is Hip?” to “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)” to “Soul Vaccination.” In 1991, the group made its first of a series of recordings for Epic/Sony, titled “Monster On A Leash”. These were followed by two more studio recordings, Souled Out and Rhythem & Business”, as well as a live recording, “Soul Vaccination Live!”
Tower went through a down period in the 80’s, but never disbanded and kept performing and is still tight as a clenched fist, and funky as week-old meat.
Tower of Power has been experiencing a renaissance the past few years, touring most of every year and packing venues in the United Sates, Japan and all over Europe with its audience of new and old fans.
Castillo, who not only plays sax and does vocals for the band has been is one of the busiest men in the business, wearing more hats that can be counted. Not willing to just sit back between tours, he also teaches kids workshops and plays for nearly everyone else in the business, including the Rolling Stones and others. “I just love it all. When I am writing with Doc and we finish a song I think, yeah, that’s why I do this. And then when I am on stage with the Stones, I say, yean this is why I do it. I don’t know, I just love it all,” says Castillo
But that’s the way it is for all the members of the band. they tour nearly half of the year and when they aren’t in the studio, they are working on other projects with other heavy hitters in the business.
When not on the road, Tower of Power’s horn section guests on albums for a range of other artists, including recordings for Elton John, Phish, Rod Stewart, Neil Diamond, Aersomith, Little Feat, Smokey Robinson, Michael Bolton, Bonnie Raitt, and David Sanborn.
When asked what is next for the band, Castillo said they have a new DVD that they are working on. It is a live concert DVD that he hopes will be released soon.
The band will be sharing the Grandstand Stage at the Antelope Valley Stage Saturday night with another legendary band, “War”. The concert starts at 7:30. Tickets are still available, Ticket prices are Gold: $50, Track: $25. The bleacher seats are free with admission to the fair.