Fifty years. Tower of Power has been a band seven times longer than The Beatles. It hasn’t been easy, admits founder Emilio Castillo. But here it is, playing the free outdoor show on Saturday, the final night of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. A night that’s traditionally the biggest of the festival’s nine days.
Castillo says he’s long ago stopped counting how many musicians have passed through the Tower of Power lineup. Seventy seems to come pretty close. Always men. “It’s a man’s band,” Castillo says, sort of joking, although maybe not: That’s how it was then, “Just like James Brown, it’s a man’s band.”
Castillo was there from the start, along with Stephen “Doc” Kupka, both on sax, when the band called itself The Motowns. One of the early members, drummer David Garibaldi, is also still with Tower of Power, even though he’s quit four times. “Back in the day when we were all nuts, out of our minds, he couldn’t take watching us kill ourselves,” Castillo says. “The last time he left, he left for 18 years.”
Even though Castillo was raised in Detroit, which has a bit of a soul history, it wasn’t until he moved to Oakland in the summer of 1968 that he fell in love with it himself. “Soul music just became my complete passion,” Castillo says.
“It was like I had blinders on, I didn’t listen to any other music, except soul music.”
Throughout the early ’70s, the band’s horn-driven soul and R&B produced hits such as “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “What Is Hip?” and “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream).”
But this sound, which seemed such a blessing Castillo says, became a curse. Disco. Remember that? It closed out the ’70s, and along with the hard-riding lifestyle, was nearly the death of Tower of Power.
“We had a lot of pressure on us at that time,” Castillo says. “We were in the downslope of our career, by then drugs and alcohol had sort of taken their toll on us.” And the music industry, including Tower of Power’s label, Columbia Records, was intent on shoving the dance-club trend down the throats of its musicians. “They looked at us like a problem,” Castillo admits.
What could Tower of Power do? The band changed horses in mid-stream, it went with the disco beat. And it didn’t work.
“After everything dried up, no more record deals, we said, ‘Let’s just make the music the way we make it,” Castillo says. “Sound like only ourselves.’”
And sounding like only themselves, churning through 70-something members, Tower of Power is still here. The band has just released its first album in a decade, Soul Side of Town. “We’re always overdue, we’ve been slow our whole career,” Castillo says. Their producer insisted they had to go out and “ring the bell” on this one. And Tower of Power did so, Castillo says, recording 28 songs. Enough for Soul Side of Town. And the next Tower of Power album.
The sound has proven to not be a curse, but a blessing. Disco? And grunge, or whatever was the sound of the moment? “We never chased a trend again,” Castillo says.
Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com. He will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.