With almost 40 years of recording and touring experience behind them, Tower of Power still garners reviews calling them a "very contemporary sounding band." Melding jazz, funk, rock and soul in a way no group ever has, the ten-piece outfit is, as a recent Hollywood Reporter review called them "tighter than a clenched fist." Well known in the 70's for tunes such as "What is Hip?" and "You're Still a Young Man," Tower of Power toured with Sly Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival, creating traffic jams when they started to headline their own shows. They performed on records with the likes of Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart and Dionne Warwick, and influenced a generation of musicians (including Sting, who has told Emilio Castillo, founder of the group, that he once had a "Tower of Power clone band" before he formed The Police). Now, Tower of Power is experiencing a renaissance, touring most of every year and packing venues in the United States, Japan and all over Europe with its audience of new and old fans.
It has been a long, hard road, but lately, things just keep getting better and better. It has always been difficult to describe TOP's music; even band members, when asked, give a myriad of responses. Says founding member and saxophonist Emilio Castillio, "What Tower plays is urban soul music." Former lead singer Brent Carter calls it "old school funk with new school flavor." And says former Tower saxophonist Lenny Pickett, now musical director for the Saturday Night Live television band, "TOP is the world's greatest rhythm and blues band." In reality, Tower of Power's horn driven, in-your-face sound is all its own, and verbal descriptions fail. You have to experience it for yourself, and then, as Tower fans say, "seein' is believin'.
Bandleader Castillo, whose heritage is half-Mexican and half-Greek, was born in Detroit, then moved with his family to a working class neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area's Fremont, a place he calls a "hot rod town." 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 saxaphonist Stephen "The Funky Doctor" Kupka and the two moved to a house in Oakland determined to compete with the Bay Area's reigning psychedelic rock bands. He 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," Castillo recalls. "He loved soul music and that was my passion.... we clicked immediately." Out of their partnership came the beginnings of the Tower of Power repertoire. The first song the pair penned was the band's signature classic, "You're Still a Young Man."
The group was soon a fixture in the Bay Area music scene, and in 1970 cut their first record, East Bay Grease, for the legendary Bill Graham's San Francisco Records. The rest is history from "What is Hip?" to "Don't Change Horses (In the middle of a stream)" to "Soul Vaccination." Tower went through a down period in the 80's, but never disbanded and kept performing. In 1991, the group made its first of a series of recordings for Epic/Sony, titled Monster on a Leash. This has been followed by two more studio recordings, Souled Out and Rhythm & Business, as well as a live recording, Soul Vaccination: Live!. Even more recently, Tower released a 2-CD retrospective on Rhino records, titled What Is Hip?. In late 2001, Warner Brothers released a single CD retrospective, Tower of Power: The Best of the Warner Years.
When not in studio, the band tours constantly, crisscrossing the world, selling out shows at venues from rock halls and theatres to sheds and giant festivals. Staunch fans travel miles and hours to see them; some of those fans plan their vacations to coincide with Tower performances. As if that wasn't enough, in between all those tour dates, the Tower of Power Horn Section has somehow found the time to guest on records for a very diverse group of artists from Michael Bolton to Phish. Over the past few years Tower of Power has added new members and a fresh outlook, but the band has always remained true to itself and to its soul music roots, never failing to please audiences. As a reviewer from the Fort Worth Star Telegram recently wrote, "If you see someone sitting still at a Tower of Power concert, don't bother checking their pulse -- they're already dead!"