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Enjoy Magazine

Tower of Power

08/07/2013 04:29PM ● By Enjoy Magazine
For 44 years, Oakland’s Tower of Power has delivered its unique brand of music to crowds around the world.

The self-proclaimed “Urban Soul” band’s approach to music is totally its own. The band’s groove laid rhythm section, unique horn-driven sound and lead vocals combine to make it one of the most dynamic groups to ever perform on stage.

Band leader Emilio Castillo, whose heritage is half-Mexican and half-Greek, was born in Detroit, then moved with his family to a working-class neighborhood in Fremont.

There, at 17, he formed a band called The Motowns, performing obscure soul tunes on the East Bay circuit. In 1968, Castillo hooked up with baritone saxophonist Stephen “The Funky Doctor” Kupka.

The two moved to a house in the Oakland ghetto, determined to compete with the Bay Area’s reigning psychedelic rock bands. Castillo changed the group’s name to Tower of Power and discarded the sharkskin suits and razor-cut hairdos, but kept the sound and began writing original material with Kupka. “Doc was the strangest bird I’d ever met,” he recalls. “He loved soul music, and that was my passion. We just clicked immediately.”

Out of their partnership came the beginnings of the Tower of Power repertoire.

The first song the pair penned together was the band’s signature classic, “You’re Still a Young Man.” After playing at a Fillmore West audition in 1970, Tower was signed to Bill Graham’s San Francisco records and their first album, “East Bay Grease,” was recorded. All of the compositions were original tunes written by Castillo and Kupka.

Their next album, “Bump City,” was recorded on the Warner Brothers label. This led to a string of hits and memorable albums that include many of the songs that TOP fans come out in force to hear, even to this day. Well known in the ‘70s for tunes like “What is Hip” and “Down to the Nightclub,” the group toured with Sly Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and played on records with the likes of Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart and Dionne Warwick.

Says Castillo, “One of the best moments of my career was when we opened for Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore Auditorium on the weekend, when she recorded the album ‘Live at the Fillmore’ with King Curtis and Ray Charles. She told me that Tower of Power was her favorite band.”

The group’s 2009 album, “The Great American Soulbook,” which features covers of soul classics with guest singers Joss Stone, Tom Jones, Huey Lewis, and Sam Moore, spent 19 weeks in the Top 40 of Billboard’s jazz charts.

Over the years, the Tower of Power Horns have recorded with hundreds of artists as diverse as Aerosmith, Little Feat, Phish, Santana, Heart, Huey Lewis and many others, forever infusing the radio airwaves with their musical DNA.

Personnel changes have been part of the history and evolution of the band; at least 60 musicians have performed, toured and/or recorded with the band through the years.

Notable alumni include saxophonist Richard Elliot, trumpet/flugelhorn player Greg Adams and Saturday Night Live musical director Lenny Pickett.

Original members Castillo (tenor sax, vocals), Kupka (baritone saxophonist), Rocco Prestia (bass) and David Garibaldi (drums) remain at the helm of the 10-piece ensemble, their creative vision and dedication still guiding the band. The rest of the line-up includes Adolfo Acosta (trumpet), Larry Braggs (lead vocals), Jerry Cortez (guitar), Sal Cracchiollo (trumpet and trombone), Tom Politzer (lead tenor sax), and Roger Smith (keyboards).

Tower of Power’s most recent musical release, an album/DVD package entitled “40th Anniversary,” was recorded live at San Francisco’s historical Fillmore Auditorium.

Castillo says the band continues to grow and write new material, and a new album will come out in the near future.

“When we start to groove, I mean really start to click, we enter what I call ‘the Oakland Zone.’ That’s when we’re really in the pocket, when our fans jump out of their seats and give us back that same high energy that we’re putting out. It’s almost a transcendental experience.”

Because of exposure on the Internet, the band’s audience is also getting younger.

“I know that we are blessed by the love and respect we get from our fans and fellow musicians. It’s a humbling experience and it fills me with a tremendous amount of gratitude. Our music carries a lot of energy and emotion; the magic being, that we can translate and share it. It’s like the funk, you just can’t fake it.” •

Cascade Theatre in Redding • August 28 Laxson Auditorium in Chico • August 29