Formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1968, Tower of Power is one of the few groups ever set to celebrate a 50-year anniversary next year. Which makes the 10-piece act’s blend of funk, R&B, soul and jazz nearly as long-lasting as rock band the Rolling Stones — and with more original members (four) than its venerable British counterpart (three).
That’s right, TOP still features founding members Emilio Castillo (tenor saxophone, vocals), Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophone, vocals), Francis “Rocco” Prestia (bass) and Dave Garibaldi (drums, percussion, vocals). The lineup is rounded out by members ranging from established veterans (trumpeter Adolfo Acosta joined in 2000) to newcomers (lead singer Marcus Scott in 2016), with keyboardist/vocalist Roger Smith, tenor saxophonist Tom Politzer, guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cortez, and trumpeter Sal Cracchiolo in-between. The group’s next South Florida appearance is on April 20 at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Castillo and Kupka have always remained TOP’s principal songwriters, and leaders of its heralded five-piece horn section, and Prestia and Garibaldi continue to create percolating patterns as the group’s backbone and one of music’s all-time great rhythm sections — even if its pulse has been knocked askew in recent years.
Prestia, 66, received a successful kidney transplant in December of 2014 after being forced off the road while battling health issues for several years. He’s now recovering from recurring lung infections. And in January of this year, the 70-year-old Garibaldi and substitute bassist Marc van Wageningen were seriously injured when hit by an Amtrak train while crossing the tracks along the street on foot to get to a TOP show at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Both are still recovering, but Prestia and Garibaldi are both expected to rejoin the tour schedule at undetermined dates later this year.
“Dave is probably out until November, and Marc was finally released from the hospital and is home,” Castillo says. “We’ll have Herman Matthews or Russ McKinnon on drums until then, both of whom we’ve worked with before and do a great job. And Rocco may be back with us around the time of our South Florida show. If not, we have Raymond McKinley, who we’ve been lucky to have off-and-on for the past 15 years or so, or Dewayne Pate filling in.”
“We’re grateful to have them, and grateful overall. Dave still needs a couple additional facial surgeries, and we thought we were going to lose Marc. He was in ICU and in a coma. Adolfo [Acosta] was there; about 50 feet back, and saw the whole thing. Apparently there was a freight train going by on one track, with about seven or eight people standing there, waiting to cross. That train cleared, and the people started walking forward to get to our show, Dave and Marc included.
“Adolfo saw about five of them jump back right away when they saw the other train coming the opposite way. But Dave and Marc were up front, and the train was probably going 25-30 miles per hour. Dave was thrown back, but Marc, who has no memory of the incident, was thrown onto the other side of the tracks. So we assume he may have tried to jump forward. The train horns are very loud, but the freight train was a double-decker, so no one could see or hear that a train was coming the other way.”
All four original TOP members were raised in California, but Castillo moved there (to Fremont) with his family from Detroit at age 11, and that city’s influential, soulful Motown sound eventually came across in his songwriting and arranging. Tower of Power was even called The Motowns until changing its name in 1970. But Motor City jazz greats like the Jones brothers (drummer Elvin, pianist Hank and trumpeter Thad) didn’t factor in as much to the founding tenor saxophonist.
“I’m not a jazz guy at all,” Castillo says with a laugh. “Totally soul music. I ended up moving to California just as the Motown sound hit, and since I didn’t have any friends there yet, the radio became my friend and that’s how I discovered that style. But Dave [Garibaldi] is an Elvin Jones fanatic.”
Fellow San Francisco Bay Area act Sly & the Family Stone’s post-James Brown blend of funk, R&B, soul and horns also had a profound influence on TOP, as it did on various other acts through the 1970s, including Kool & the Gang, the Average White Band, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Sly Stone and company had played one of the most memorable sets at Woodstock in 1969, the year before TOP successfully auditioned at one of promoter Bill Graham’s main rooms, the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The fledgling band recorded its 1970 debut LP, East Bay Grease, for Graham’s San Francisco Records label before switching to Warner Bros. for its next two releases, Bump City (1972) and Tower of Power (1973).
And TOP, in turn, has influenced many musicians — especially horn players — ever since.
“They’re one of the ultimate horn section bands, along with others like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears,” says John Michalak, the Lake Worth-based alto, tenor and soprano saxophonist and flutist who performs locally with jazz acts like Urban Gypsy and internationally with pop stars including Gloria Estefan, Santana, Julio Iglesias and Patti LaBelle. “Tower of Power helped me learn how importantly it is to play powerfully as part of a horn section, as opposed to trying to just toot away in the background.”
Despite each album featuring a different lead singer, it was TOP’s first three releases that launched most of their requested standards through today, including the funky vehicles “Knock Yourself Out,” “Down To the Nightclub,” “You Got To Funkifize,” “Soul Vaccination” and “What Is Hip?” as well as the ballads “So Very Hard To Go” and “You’re Still a Young Man” (with lyrics by Castillo inspired by the then 18-year-old’s relationship with a woman six years older).
“I love Tower of Power and Emilio Castillo, a flat-out sax monster and awesome composer,” says Fort Pierce-based freelance trumpeter Bill Bedwell, who co-led the powerful Treasure Coast-based horn band Boss Groove from 1994-2012, playing originals and covers (including songs by TOP). “I got their record ‘Bump City,’ and have been a fan forever since.”
Subsequent TOP albums may not have yielded as much airplay through the 1970s, but the Tower of Power Horns helped keep the band name visible by becoming arguably the preeminent horn section, through all styles, in music history. That decade featured contributions to recordings by Santana, Elton John, John Lee Hooker, Roy Buchanan, Rufus, Rod Stewart, The Meters, Lenny White, Peter Frampton, and Little Feat — including that band’s incredible 1978 double-live album Waiting For Columbus.
“A lot of people remember us on that album,” says Castillo. “Little Feat was a great band, and we got along really well with those guys. Great memories.”
From 1980 on, the horn section’s output slowed by comparison, but it’s still notched recordings that include Heart, Angela Bofill, Huey Lewis and the News, Bobby Caldwell, Bonnie Raitt, The Eurythmics, Toto, The B-52s, B.B. King, Phish, Bobby McFerrin, Ray Charles, Aerosmith, and Eric Clapton.
“We didn’t have a record deal for much of the ’80s,” Castillo says. “That was the era of New Wave pop, where anyone who had been around for five years or more didn’t factor in as much. But we always had a really devoted fan base, so we could still perform live. And a lot of it, honestly, had to do with drug abuse. I sobered up in 1988; Doc sobered up the year after, and that helped turn things around.”
TOP added a couple of fan favorites during the 1990s in the songs “Soul With a Capital ‘S’” (from the 1993 release T.O.P.) and “Diggin’ on James Brown” (from 1995’s Souled Out). Recent releases include the 2009 effort Great American Soulbook, with guest singers Joss Stone, Sam Moore and Tom Jones, and the 40th Anniversary DVD/CD Box Set, a live release recorded in 2008 featuring current and alumni band members.
The group’s last CD of original material was Oakland Zone from 2003, but that will change when TOP releases its forthcoming, all-original 50th anniversary CD.
“We’re leaning toward calling it ‘Last Band Standing,’” says Castillo. “That was Doc’s idea. It should be out late this year or early next year. We recorded 28 songs, and we’ll pick the best 12 for the CD. It’s in the final mixing stages now.”
Tower of Power appears at 8 p.m. April 20 at the Parker Playhouse, 707 Northeast 8th St., Fort Lauderdale ($37.50-$47.50, 954-462-0222).