Today’s music market has become saturated with genre and audience-specific artists, most of which are simply just carbon copies of other artists who have seen recent success. Much of today’s music is formulaic and stale, and many current artists are afraid to blaze new trails and create their own unique style. This has left the music buyer searching for honest music, something that has been increasingly hard to find in this digital age. It’s safe to say that in this climate, there aren’t any groups out there that can hang with the legendary band known as Tower of Power!
Music’s most innovative artists cannot be confined to one genre musically, and the same can be said for Tower of Power. Some call them an “Urban Funk Outfit,” others define them as “Jazz Fusion,” and yet others believe they are “a Soulful Rock Band.” The truth is that this group is all of the above and then some. Blending influences from funk, soul, rock, and jazz, Oakland’s Tower of Power is one of the most dynamic groups to ever grace a stage.
Tower of Power got its start in the thriving mid ’60’s Bay-Area music scene, after founding members Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka met at Emilio’s house for an audition. The 17-year-old Castillo had moved to Fremont, CA from Detroit and was fronting a soul cover band known as “The Motowns.” Infatuated with the idea of creating a more original sound, Doc’s signature baritone sax sound blew Emilio away, and the two joined forces on the spot. The fledgling band moved to Oakland in 1968, adding new members Francis “Rocco” Prestia on bass, Mic Gillette on trumpet/trombone, and trumpet player Ken Balzell to their original two-man line-up. Oakland became home to the band, and was very kind to them as they began their gigging career on August 13, 1968. San Francisco played host to many of the band’s early concerts, including a fateful one in 1970 at the legendary Fillmore, where the band caught the ear of famed concert promoter Bill Graham. Graham had started his own label, San Francisco Records, and he immediately locked the group into a deal. Tower of Power was on their way, and they had also added two new members, trumpeter/arranger Greg Adams, and drummer David Garibaldi.
After signing the deal, Castillo and Kupka immediately went to work on the group’s debut album, penning six of their own original tunes which comprised the entirety of 1970’s “East Bay Grease.” 1972 saw the release of the group’s next album, “Bump City,” on Warner Bros. Records which contained the classic “You’re Still a Young Man.” Based on a real-life relationship between Castillo and an older woman, the song became the group’s first breakout hit after it peaked at #29 on the Billboard top 100 Chart, and has since gone on to become a bonafide Lowrider classic. The group’s third album, “Tower of Power,” peaked at #15 on Billboard’s Top Albums chart and was certified Gold by the RIAA. Vocalist Lenny Williams lent his soulful vocals to the standout hit “So Far to Go,” from this album, a song which became a regional number one in many west coast markets before settling in at #17 on the Billboard charts. This album also spawned two other monster records, “What is Hip?,” which showcases the tight chops of Tower of Power’s noted horn and rhythm sections, as well as the Motown-inspired groove “This Time It’s Real.” Both of these singles cracked the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973 and 1974. The group released “Back To Oakland” in 1974 which yielded two more Billboard chart toppers in “Don’t Change Horses (in The Middle of a Stream)” and “Time Will Tell.” The next year they followed with “Drop it In the Slot,” an album that contained the contagiously funky title track which was sampled as the drum break for 90’s true-school hip hop artists De La Soul, for their hit “A Roller Skating Jam named Saturdays.” The group ended up on Columbia Records in 1976 for the album “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now,” which was not as critically well-received as the group’s previous body of work. Apparently Columbia Records pressured the group into releasing more “disco-oriented” music, a decision the band was not very fond of. The group released two more albums with Columbia before parting ways with them for good.
Tower of Power has seen a number of line-up changes throughout the years, but they have remained dedicated to their fanbase by touring and releasing music relentlessly. Including their live recordings, the group has released a whopping 22 albums, and maintained a tour schedule that has kept them travelling the world over for nearly four decades. In fact, the group celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2008 by throwing a special concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the place where it all started. The group recorded a live DVD at the concert, which shows proof that this band is still one of the baddest in the business and can throw down with the best of them. The horn section from this band is the stuff of legend, having backed up such legendary performers as the Monkees, Santana, Aerosmith, Jefferson Starship, Heart, Elton John, Toto, and Rod Stewart. The rhythm section is just as world renown as the partnership between Rocco and Doc has been regarded as one of the tightest in modern music. Rocco also recovered from a full liver transplant in 2002 and is back behind his signature electric bass. Vocalist Larry Braggs is the group’s current lead singer, and Mic Gillette is also back with the original four members, giving Tower of Power the “Oakland Stroke” it needs to keep on pushing for another 40 years. If you get the chance, go check out this legendary group the next time you see their name on the marquee, you will not be disappointed! Their greatest hits album is a great place to start if you’re a newbie, but their albums also contain many must-hear jams for any Lowrider and music enthusiast.