By Paul Freeman [2007 Interview]

Oakland, California’s Tower of Power has staying power. For 40 years, they’ve delivered an instantly identifiable brand of rock-funk-jazz-R&B.

The band attracts a wide age spectrum these days. Such ageless hits as “What Is Hip?,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “You’re Still A Young Man” appeal to all demographics.

Emilio Castillo, saxophonist, songwriter and founding member, says, “Something happened about 15 years ago, and all these young kids started getting into our music. I don’t know if it’s because they write about us a lot in trade magazines or they see our horn section on different albums.

“Our drummer Dave Garabaldi got the R&B Drummer of the Year Award from Modern Drummer magazine several times. They talk about us a lot as the cream-of-the crop musician’s band. Up-and-coming musicians read about that stuff and it’s turned out to be cool for young people to go to Tower of Power gigs. The internet really helps, also.”

Tower of Power began life as an East Bay soul band. Destiny summoned them into the rock world.

Castillo recalls, “One day we got this call from Nick Gravenites, who was in the Electric Flag and also Big Brother & The Holding Company. He was doing a solo album and asked if we would put some horns on the record, because he used to watch us a lot at Keystone Korner (one of San Francisco’s top clubs in the 70s). We went over there, did it. He gave us some money.

“Next thing we know, Santana called and said, ‘We were thinking of some horns on this song ‘Everybody’s Everything.’’ We did it, made some money, got rave reviews, everybody talked about it a lot,” Castillo says. “We suddenly realized, ‘Wow! There’s this other career happening, as well.’”

Their first rock concert took place at Berkeley Community Theatre, opening for Jimi Hendrix. “We were just a bunch of rookie kids,” Castillo says. “It was actually uncomfortable, because he made us play in front of the curtain, with the lights on, while people were walking in. He was not a very nice man at that point in his life. It was shortly after that, that he passed away, actually.”

Bill Graham apologized for Hendrix’s behavior and eventually became Tower of Power’s manager. “It was without a doubt the single most important thing that happened to us,” Castillo says. “That put us on the map. At that time, every single rock band in the United States was trying to get signed by Bill Graham. People were coming from far and wide. He had these two new labels, one called Fillmore Records, the other San Francisco Records.

“Bands from far and wide would go to the Fillmore on Tuesday nights to audition. That audition list was backed up over a year-and-a-half. Just to get on the list. You wouldn’t actually have your audition for another year. All these bands, some of them famous, were trying to get on those labels. We had gotten on that list and auditioned. For some reason, he liked us a lot.

“He always liked rhythm and horns. He liked soul music and was a big fan of Salsa. We were coming in on the tail end of all that psychedelic stuff. That had kind of run its course by that point. He saw us and said, ‘This is something different.’”

Castillo credits Graham with building the local scene. “He was the first guy to do the big rock ’n’ roll concerts. People were really into music then.

“He exposed the Bay Area’s collective ear to many different forms of music. At first it was just like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver and that kind of stuff. He started bringing in B.B. King, Albert King, Otis Redding, San & Dave, Tito Puente, Miles Davis. Everybody’s mind was so open at that time. They took it all in. So they developed a better ear than most of the country.”

Castillo’s own keen ear helped him co-write the band’s hits, primarily with fellow sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka. Their first effort was “You’re Still a Young Man.” “As far as airplay, that’s still today one of our most played songs,” Castillo says. “We had no idea it would be timeless.”

The subject matter came from one of Castillo’s own relationships. When I was 18, I was going with a 26-year-old woman. She, at some point, said, ‘You need to be with someone your own age.’ I said, ‘No, I want to be with you.’ That was the basis for the story.”

Tower of Power not only put together a string of their own smashes, but also contributed to other records, including those by Elton John, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, The Rolling Stones and Smokey Robinson.

“We’re one of the few organized horn sections in the world,” Castillo says. “We’ve played on a lot of famous people’s records. So when a lot of these big stars have certain songs they think would sound great with horns, the first name that comes to their mind is Tower of Power.”

Over the years, Tower of Power has endured innumerable lineup changes. Castillo remains a constant.

“We’ve had many people in this band, but always people who know this concept of music. We bring them in, whip them into shape… it’s kind of like a little college here. People come in really good musicians and leave vastly greater musicians who go on to do great things.”

He doesn’t mind life on the road. “We’re out about 150 days a year. People say, ‘How can you have a family like that?’ I point out that that leaves 215 days a year that I’m home. And when I’m home, I’m home 24 hours a day. I have much more time with my wife and kids than most men these days do.

“The band travels comfortably. We get to see the world, play the music we love and get paid pretty well to do it. It’s a great job.”

The Tower of Power stalwart believes in the power of music. “Music had a profound, positive impact on my life from an early age, and continues to. It does the same for many other people. People come up, telling me they fell in love or conceived their babies to certain songs. They named their children after me. It’s amazing. We have these die-hard fans. Music has been the great communicator.”

Tower of Power is recording a new CD of old soul tunes. Castillo, having fun with the process, isn’t concerned about how it will fare.

“My goal when I started was to get to Sacramento and play the topless bar. I thought, if I did that, I was a hit. So I’ve far exceeded any original goals I ever had. My career is still growing and doing well. I have no complaints at all.”

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