It was the matter-of-fact delivery and incisive tone of the late concert impresario Bill Graham that greeted a sold-out house two years ago when Tower of Power hit the stage at the Fillmore West to celebrate 40 years of making red-hot, funk injected soul and R&B music.
Graham was one of the first promoters with clout to champion Tower of Power when the band burst out of the Oakland bars and cabarets, offering up a sound to the music fans in the San Francisco bay area that was anything but psychedelic.
The Fillmore auditorium was a regular pit stop for the band in the early seventies, and four decades on, the venue was an obvious choice for this Tower of Power celebration. Another nod to Bill Graham, who also managed the band for a time, came in the resurrection of one of his patented intros which had been recorded at a gig back in the early days of the band.
So after 2 years of editing and mixing, T of P leader Emilio Castillo recently signed off on a two-disc package, one CD and one DVD. The finished product was released a couple of weeks ago, showcasing a band in amazing form and one that was joined by a number of T of P alumni.
There was no sitting down in stuffed seats for this concert, as the packed house was up, swayin’ and groovin’ from start to finish.
“As the date approached everybody and their mother was commenting on our history. I just kept hearing, “Wow, forty years, that’s remarkable,” and the closer we got to the date I just became more and more consumed with the logistics and the creativity of putting that concert together. I didn’t come up for air until about a week after the show was over and then I was just in shock that we had assembled all these past members to come and play with us for three and a half hours, and that we had lasted all these years. 40 years seems like the blink of an eye, but we’ve truly been blessed and I am very grateful. At the time I was very emotional,” says Castillo who has not only written much of the T of P songbook along with guiding the band, but added his hearty tenor sax playing to what is one of the most sonically identifiable horn sections on the planet.
Castillo shares in 17 of the songwriting credits found on the live recording. Among the gems, that inspire the Tower faithful to return for more with each passing year, are Soul With A Capital “S”, This Time It’s Real, Down To The Nightclub, You’re Still A Young Man, Only So Much Oil in the Ground, and Time Will Tell.
A beautifully molded and executed set, that fires with the funk and soothes with the ballads, the core band that hits the road today was joined at various times in the evening by 21 members of the T of P alumni association. Keyboard wizard Chester Thompson, who left the group in ’79 to become Carlos Santana’s right-hand man, vocalists Michael Jeffries and Ellis Hall, and trumpet players Mic Gillette and Greg Adams were just a few of the dynamic
musicians who returned for the celebration. All added additional knock-out punches to a performance filled with both explosive and wonderfully understated, but always emotionally charged turns.
“I have been very fortunate. I’ve had a great relationship with every player who has ever gone through the band; I can’t think of a single person who I don’t get along with. A lot of them still come around and sit in. Lenny Pickett always sits in with us whenever we play New York,” says Castillo of the sax player who has been the Saturday Night Live bandleader for years.
Castillo was only 18 years of age when he and life-long friend, songwriting partner, baritone sax player and arranger Doc Kupka rounded up the personnel for the first edition of Tower of Power.
“About a year before we put Tower of Power together my dad took me to go see Sly and the Family Stone. I remember we walked in to this club and they were doing some cover tunes, an Otis Redding tune and a Temptations song, but doing them their own way. Then they went into Georgia that Larry Graham was singing. But there was this organ on stage that no one was sitting at and then all of a sudden here comes this guy walking through the dance floor and he’s wearing a Sherlock Holmes outfit and he gets on stage and stops the band and goes “one, two, three, four” and all of a sudden they went to the moon. I didn’t want to so much emulate Sly’s music, I wanted to emulate that energy. They were so exciting.”
The kind of excitement and show biz savvy Castillo refers to, has long been part of the T of P performance equation. Showcasing that side of the band is part of the draw to this 40th anniversary set that was released by Tower of Power Records earlier this month.
In a recent conversation with legendary guitarist Amos Garrett, the subject of Tower of Power came up, as Garrett found himself on a triple bill that included onetime T of P guitarist Bruce Conte for the SIRENS society in Edmonton. As Garrett spent a fair amount of time in the bay area in the mid-seventies working with Maria Muldaur, I asked him if he had ever crossed paths with the super-charged horn band.
“Not really in the bay area scene, but I’ll tell you about when I first saw Tower of Power. I was working with Paul (Butterfield) and Geoff (Muldaur) and the guys in the Better Days Band in 1972 and we thought we were pretty hot,” recalled Garrett of the band that served up moments that were nothing short of brilliant.
“So we had played this theatre date in Vancouver and were looking for something to do after our show and somebody suggested to us that we go check out this hot band called Tower of Power. We were pretty full of ourselves in those days, kind of the toast of the scene, so we headed on down to this club with a kind of show us what you can do attitude,” said Garrett who entered a haunt that we determined was Oil Can Harry’s, a great west-coast showcase room for r&b stars.
As Garrett continued, this grin took over the landscape of his face as he completed the tale.
“So we stroll into the club and this &%$%#* big band that was a force of nature hits the stage and pins us to the back wall of the club. Someone in our entourage spoke up and said something to the effect of, “Well, I guess we better keep on rehearsing.”
That has been a big part of the Tower of Power story for the past four decades plus. Not much has changed since the seventies; Tower of Power remains larger than life and armed with great tunes and dynamite chops.
If that kind of thing appeals to you, and you are a soul and r&b fan, the 40th Anniversary CD/DVD set from Tower of Power should be at the top of your “must have” list.