Tower of Power, the horn-heavy soul band that originated in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene of the late-’60s, has shown some willingness to change with the times. Take the clothes, for instance. A 1973 video of the band playing its funky hit “What Is Hip?” reveals the band embracing fully the styles of the time — a saxophonist in a white tuxedo jacket with tails; a singer sporting dazzlingly wide lapels. Jump forward nearly four decades and the band has taken a sartorial leap — jeans with jackets, lots of black and charcoal.
“Fancy tuxedos, platform shoes — we’re not wearing those anymore,” band leader and tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo said. “I went through different phases — bell bottoms, velour shirts with most of the velour missing. Then we made some money, got some better fashion sense.”
In their sound, however, Tower of Power has stuck to the foundation they began with in 1968, when Castillo hooked up with fellow saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka to form the band. There was a brief period in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when dance music was thrown for a loop by the emergence of disco, when the Tower of Power veered from its original vision. The band switched labels, and the new corporate bosses forced them in a new direction. Castillo said it became clear that the emphasis that had proved successful for the first decade — a signature, horn-heavy take on soul music — could continue to work decades to come.
“CBS gave us so much money — it wasn’t even a negotiation. They stole us from Warner’s,” said Castillo, who leads the 10-piece band to a gig tonight at Belly Up.
“Then they looked at us as a problem that needed to be solved. They started teaming us up with different producers, even though most of the hits I had produced myself. They felt they knew more about our music that we did.”
To Castillo, Tower of Power’s style can be summed up simply: it’s soul music. “Some people say Tower of Power is a funk band,” he said. “But you’ll hear wrenching ballads, big band stuff, shuffles. It’s in the soul realm. And it’s a soul that’s all ours — a five-piece horn section, and a rhythm section that doesn’t approach soul like anyone else. It’s busier, more syncopated.”
For that short period in the disco era, Castillo and the shifting group of players that made up Tower of Power were confused about their band identity. “We felt we were cursed; ‘Why can’t we sound like these other bands, the bands that were getting airplay at the time?’” said Castillo, who is joined in the current lineup by Kupka, and longtime members, drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia. “But no matter what we did, it always sounded like Tower of Power. We learned we have a sound.”
Fairly quickly, the band learned that the Tower of Power sound didn’t need fixing. Even without much of a radio presence, the band — like many of the bands that came out of northern California in the ‘60s — could thrive as a live act.
“That’s always been our thing,” Castillo said. “We make interesting records, but that’s a different aspect of the band. We’ve always been able to play live. We always had this certain segment of the public that liked us. There were always places we could go and play and attract a crowd.”
Stylistically, Tower of Power has little in common with the guitar-oriented, jam-happy rock bands that arose from San Francisco with them. But Tower of Power has been, if not a brother to the early jam bands, then a close cousin. They have shared members with Santana, and on one memorable New Year’s Eve in the early ‘80s, Tower of Power began the night jamming with the Jefferson Starship at the Fillmore in San Francisco, then the horn section journeyed across the bay to end the night sitting in for a set with the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Auditorium.
Castillo said that any time Tower of Power has taken even a short break — and there have been few of those in 43 years — there seemed to be something missing.
“We’ve had a month off here and there,” he said. “And everybody sort of griped about it.”