If you think You Ought to be Having Fun, even though the phrase You’re Still a Young Man (or woman) no longer fits you, but you know What is Hip, and you want to go Down To The Nightclub to get a Soul Vaccination, than you should head to the Soul Side of Town. That’s the name of the album that Tower of Power released in June to celebrate their 50thAnniversary. It became their first Number 1 on Billboard, debuting atop the charts for both Jazz Albums and ContemporaryJazz Albums.
Downbeat says of the album ” this 50th-anniversary recording affirms the trademarks of the meticulous 10-piece ensemble: a razor-sharp horn section of distinctive saxophone drama, versatile lead vocalists, song titles demanding the listener join in the fun and just enough variety to avoid predictability.”
Here’s a cut.
Tower of Power is popular enough to sell out two gigs a night during four-night stands at the Dakota each year. They’ll be appearing at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday and Friday, August 23rdand 24th where you can see them on the Leinie Lodge Stage. I had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with founder/leader Emilio Castillo a couple of weeks before their appearance. The following version of the interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
When you first thought of the idea of having a band what was your inspiration? What made you want to do that?
(Slight chuckle and pause) Well, I got caught stealing a t-shirt. My dad told me, “You’ve got to come up with something to keep you out of trouble or you’re never coming out of that room again.” Well, the Beatles had just come out and I said, “I want to play music Dad.” We started the band that day, and then we learned how to play. We did it completely backwards.
How did you recruit nine other people to be in the band?
Well, when I started we were just a little four-piece and started playing rock n’ roll. It wasn’t until we’d been playing for a couple of years that I really learned how to play and started to get into soul music. I saw this band called the Spyders, and they had a horn section. The next day I hired a trumpet player, that was Nick Gilette, and I got addicted to horn players. Next thing I knew I had five horns. (Editors Note: Steve “Doc” Kupka, baritone sax and co-writer with Castillo of the band’s songs, joined the band on August 13, 1968, which is the date the band notes as its beginning.)
You’ve managed to keep a strong horn section for over 50 years. Congratulations on that as well as a great rhythm section. How is it you’ve managed to stay so tight, when there’s been a number of personnel changes over the years?
You know, it was a trademark for us when we first started. Like I said, I was patterning us after the Spyders, and that was their signature, they were soon tight. So back in the day, that’s what we always did. You’re going to stop it on a dime, you’re going to start together, do these things just really tight. We’ve been doing that for so many years. Now, we play so much that we keep it tight.
It is unusual for such a large band to last so long. What do you attribute that to?
These days, I tell everybody that God did it, I just showed up. For the first half of my career, I made every mistake possible known to man. God got my attention, I sobered up, we started praying together, and things have been better ever since. The other thing is, we make the music exactly the way we want it to be. We stopped chasing trends years ago. We went through a little period about ten years into our career where the record company was trying to get us to change the way we sounded. They wanted us to sound like other bands. We tried to do that, but always sounded like ourselves, and for a while, thought that was a curse, but when things dried up for us, I told the guys, let’s just make the music the way we make it. As soon as we did, things got better. We realized it’s not a curse that we don’t sound like other guys, it’s a blessing.
The Tower of Power Horns have a long history of providing background for many other artists. How did that come about?
Early in our career, we got a call one night from Nick Gravenites, who was a singer for Big Brother& The Holding Company. He used to do a lot of gigs with Mike Bloomfield, and we used to play with them a lot. He called us up and said, “What are you doing? We’re over at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco.” This was the middle of the night. He said, “Why don’t you guys come over. We’ve got a song that would sound good with horns.” We went over there, and made up some parts, it sounded good. We walked out and he gave us some money. We were like, “What’s this for?” And he said, cause you came over. A couple of months later, same thing – middle of the night, Carlos Santana calls. We knew him. We’d played lots of gigs with him, and he said, “We have this song, Everybody’s Everything, and think it would sound real good with horns. Why don’t you guys come over to CBS Studio and let’s see what we can do.” And we did, made up some parts, and within a week it was on the radio.
It was a big hit, and everybody’s going “Wow, Santana with horns, who’s that.” Word got out and before you knew it, Elton John was calling us, and we were just playing with everybody. There’s a lot of guitar players, billions, but there’s probably only five horn sections in the world. We happened to be five-piece, and tight, and people like it.
Now you have a brand-new album that debuted at # one on some of the charts as soon as it came out. It’s a great album. I’ve been a fan since the early days, and to me it’s very classic, yet has some modern touches. How did that come about?
It took a long time. You know we’re a working band. So we have to go in and out (of the studio), but the last three years we worked on it the most. We did two albums. We have one waiting in the wings. It’ll come out in about a year. I worked with Joe Vanelli, who produced all those great records for his brother Gino Vanelli over the years. He’s a skilled producer and engineer and he pushed me on every level – harmonically, rhythmically, and technically. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made in my career.
It really fulfills, all the way through. How many of the songs are in your current show?
We’re doing four songs right now. We usually do two a night.
You play that song, Diggin’on James Brown. I have to tell you, there’s a high school here in the area with a big R&B band that plays that tune, so your inspiration is an inspiration for young people today.
Yeah, you know that’s become a big song for a lot of bands. There’s a lot throughout the world. There’s a lot of bands that are Tower of Power clone bands that take my song titles to name the band. There’s a band called Soul Vaccination, and another called Souled Out, one called Soul With a Capital S. They all play Diggin’ on James Brown. And then there are marching bands, large stage bands, and jazz bands in high schools and colleges that are also working up our arrangements, so that’s been really nice over the years.
You mentioned that you’ve enough for another album. How long will we have to wait for that?
Well, we’re still touring behind this one. At least a year I would say. We also recorded a live DVD and CD. On June 1stand 2ndwe celebrated our 50thAnniversary in Oakland and we filmed that in HD. When we get off this particular leg of our tour, I’ll go to L.A. and work on that for a bit. Once we get the mixing done on that we’ll do the video editing, and come out with a two-disc package, so we’ve got a lot of stuff coming out in the next couple of years.
I sure appreciate your taking time for this interview and am looking forward to seeing you on the Leinie Lodge Stage at the Minnesota State Fair.
I appreciate it. God Bless. Bye Bye.
(Editor’s note: To close, and just for fun, here’s a classic instrumental from the band)