Change Background:
The Ultimate Destination for Soul Music
Home Classic Soul Archives Artist A-Z Features SoulMusic Records Voice Your Choice Soul Talkin' Reviews Hall of Fame The Soul Store
Classic Interviews & Features Classic CD Spotlights Classic Tracks From The Vaults Classic Videos From The Vaults Classic Soul Video Playlists TV One UNSUNG Soul Music Tributes Motown Spotlight

THAT OLD adage that you have to be Black to be a soul band has been firmly buried over the past couple of years. You can take a random look at the American soul charts over the past few months and odds are that you'll find at least a couple of white acts somewhere on view. In fact, it's become quite respectable and sophisticated for a black band to have at least one white member.

But Tower of Power are even a little bit special beyond the fact that they are white — well 80% of the ten piece self contained group! — because they acclaimed themselves a soul band when it wasn't particularly fashionable. "I don't believe you have to be black to have soul," the group's architect and founder, Emilio Castillo, philosophises. "If you have it in you to be soulful or funky, then that's all there is to it. I know some white guys who are incredibly funky and I know some black guys who aren't. Tower has always been a soul band, right from our original concept. Sure, we might have some jazz overtones but that basic soul thing is always in there."

Tower has been in existence now for six years and was formed in Oakland, California — which is still their present base and one that they are infinitely proud of. "We don't want to be identified with the San Francisco sound," Emilio stresses. "We're East Bay boys and we want to put Oakland on the map. Yes, Oakland is near to Frisco but there is a world of a difference. San Francisco is a big fashionable city whilst Oakland is always thought of as an industrial town just outside of Frisco. But in Oakland we have our own musical outlook. Frisco is known for its white rock where Oakland is known for its black funk — we've got Larry Graham, the Pointer Sisters, Tower of Power and, of course, Sly Stone and Billy Preston associate themselves with Oakland. Billy, Sly and Larry went to the same church in the city, in fact. The good thing about Oakland is that there is no racial problem and so a basically white soul band like us can exist and survive where we probably couldn't on the East Coast. There really isn't that much deep nationalisation in California at all because everybody comes from somewhere else, it's just like a great big melting pot. And people have far more open minds. Actually, to go back to the Oakland-San Francisco rivalry, there is a subtle hint of it on our "Back To Oakland" sleeve. The picture is of Oakland and Berkeley taken from San Francisco so that sums up where we stand. And the photo on our new album, "Urban Renewal" is taken in Oakland."

The group's original line-up has varied very little up to this day. It consists of Emilio, tenor sax and vocals; Steve Kupka, baritone sax, oboe and vocals; Lenny Pickett, tenor sax, flute and clarinet; Greg Adams, trumpet and flugelhorn; Mac Gillette, all brass instruments; Francis Rocco Prestia, bass; Brent Byars, percussion; Bruce Conte, guitar; Chester Thompson, keyboards; Lenny Williams, vocalist; and David (whose surname I didn't think to ask!) on drums, who replaced David Garibaldi some six months back.

The only alterations are that two years ago messrs. Williams, Pickett and Thompson replaced original members Rick Stevens, Skip Mesquite and Willie James.

The thing that puzzled me was how a group of ten (and eleven at times) guys could exist when they were unknown because they have always worked at their music full time. "We lived on a hamburger a day!" laughs Emilio. "But we have never demanded money. Even now, we only pay ourselves a salary and our manager — God bless him and I mean that! — puts the rest away. But there were times when friends would bring us food to keep us going. But we would always work — even in the early days. A typical night's work for us in those days would be to play from 8.30 in the evening to say 12.30 at one club and then drive thirty minutes to another club and play again from say 2.30 to 8.30 the next morning. And if we wanted to work an extra hour, we might get a bonus of $20. But we'd only get around $125 for a night's work like that but it was enough to keep us going. but I wouldn't trade those beginnings. And there are times today when I really wish we could go back to them. I wouldn't want to change what we have now, of course, but I'd love to go back — like a visit, I guess! It was an experience that I wouldn't have wanted to go without. Golden memories! Now? Well, here we are on a big concert tour, doing one set a night and we can't even get down into the audience."

The group's earliest recordings were on the Atlantic distributed San Francisco label and though they fared quite well in the Rock market, they were meaningless in the soul market. When the label closed its doors, they were only then able to turn their backs on a section of their career that didn't prove too bountiful for them. But the move to Warner Brothers proved to be the right one and a string of hit singles and albums followed. To date, there have been four albums (including the brand new set) and their biggest singles have been the beautiful "So Very Hard To Go", "You're Still A Young Man", "This Time It's Real" and "Don't Change Horses".

The distinctive thing about Tower's music to me has always been their rather unique brass sound. Their album spotlights the sound even more. It's a sort of old-fashioned big band sound and so I confronted Mic Gillette to explain how it comes about: "Well, I guess it is kind of old-fashioned but I have always looked upon Al Hirt as being the best brass man in my opinion and he is certainly old fashioned. I play all the high parts but Steve Kupka does about 80% of the actual arranging so the sound is really his concept."

The basic concept of the brass band bit is Emilio's. "It all came about from when I first formed the band. You see, I was born in Detroit and we all know that soul music is Detroit — right? Anyway, I saw a group back home called the Spiders and they had a big brass section — and I guess I made up my mind that that was what I wanted. So, Tower was built upon those lines.''

Does Emilio have any definite musical influences? "I don't know about influences," he smiles, "but I think Thom Bell is fantastic. And I love all of those old Memphis things by Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Eddie Floyd. The nearest to a personal influence might be Johnny 'Guitar' Watson who we know real well — in fact, he has written songs for our albums.''

Recently, Warner Bros. released a solo album on the group's lead vocalist, Lenny Williams, so I naturally asked Emilio if Lenny was considering going back into a solo thing. "No!" he emphatically replied. "Lenny was a solo artist before he joined us, as you know, and we're happy for him that he can still record as a solo artist. In fact, Chester Thompson is co-producing his new solo album and some of the guys will play on it. Lenny has such a fine, effortless voice. You know, he was with Atlantic Records before he actually joined the group — they cut him on a sort of funky version of the Stylistics' "People Make The World Go Round" but it was pretty awful and so Lenny got out from the contract. And when Rick Stevens left the group, we asked Lenny to take over — and, after a lot of thinking, he agreed and we've never looked back."

In fact, there has been no reason for the group to look back because they have only progressed over the past three years. They seem to have done far better than anyone expected on the recent Warner Bros. European Tour. And this tour was preceded by an incredibly successfully seventeen day working visit to Japan. "We astounded them almost as much as they astounded us!", Emilio is quick to point out. But now they are anxious to get home to Oakland where they can recharge their batteries before winging off to their next goal.

Sound Track






Members Comments

Tower of Power October 1973 Interview
Read More ...
Tower of Power Live Video Playlist
Read More ...