As this week moved along I had the pleasure of listening to many of the big hits of 70’s soul band Tower of Power. The group is marking their 48th anniversary in the music industry by doing what they do best: performing live. I certainly understand why so many fans still gravitate toward their music. Tower of Power is one of several groups that represents a time instrumental musicians accompanied vocalists in great numbers. Plenty of horns were used throughout the 70’s and into the early 80’s punctuating complete musical outfits and legendary live performances.
Groups like Tower of Power were set before me and provided inspiration for me to continue playing the trumpet throughout high school, college and more. I remember well a conversation I had with my father just after college. I quickly got to work arranging music for horn sections. Always intrigued by the sounds provided by certain horns, I worked to include various instruments to enhance the desired sound. I said, “there is nothing like a baritone saxophone at the bottom of an arrangement to really fatten the horn sound.” My father, coming from the big band jazz era readily agreed. Of course other instruments like the trombone enhanced the power of the horn section, the baritone saxophone added strength to the horn presentation. Certainly this thinking fueled the formation of arguably the greatest horn section of all time in popular music, Tower of Power. In the summer of 1968, tenor saxophonist/vocalist Emilio Castillo met Stephen “Doc” Kupka, who played baritone sax. Castillo had played in several bands, but Castillo’s father told his son to “hire that guy” after a home audition. My goodness was Castillo’s dad on the money. 48 years later and here we sit with a large library of distinctively great horn work. Within months the group, then known as The Motowns, began playing various gigs around Oakland and Berkeley, their soul sound relating to both minority and rebellious listeners.
How did this group of Oakland, California musicians become the Tower of Power? On a break from recording in a little studio in Hayward, Castillo was sitting on the studio owner’s desk, and right in front of him was a long list of weird band names. He looked through it and saw Tower of Power and thought “Yeah, that describes us.” The band agreed so the name stuck. The group went on to make music that still is uniquely their own. By 1970, the now renamed Tower of Power signed a recording contract with Bill Graham’s San Francisco Records and released their first album, East Bay Grease. Over the next couple of years the band started to gain recognition and radio airplay for their songs. Tower of Power was released from their San Francisco label contract and moved to Warner Bros. Records. With Rick Stevens now singing lead, 1972’s Bump City gave the band their first national exposure. This album included the hit single “You’re Still a Young Man”, which peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Stevens’ pinnacle vocal performance before leaving the band. Tower of Power, released in the spring of 1973, was the third album for the band. It featured Lenny Williams on lead vocals and Lenny Pickett on lead tenor saxophone. This was the group’s most successful album. It peaked at #15 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and was RIAA certified as a gold record (for sales in excess of 500,000 copies). The album also spawned their most-successful single “So Very Hard to Go”. Although the single peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, it landed in the Top 10 on the surveys of many West Coast Top 40 radio stations, hitting #1 on many of them. The album also charted two other singles on the Billboard Hot 100, “This Time It’s Real” and “What Is Hip?” The latter is possibly their most enduring song.
Listening to all of the Tower of Power hits took me back to a wonderful time in my life. It was before I finally made a solid commitment to study music, and play the trumpet. Tower of Power is a group that pushed me to analyze music before gaining a working knowledge of reading, and later arranging. TOP at the time was not like many acts because they were a horn section first. What they created was a horn section, accompanied by other musicians and vocalists.
On some of their releases in the mid-1970s, such as Urban Renewal (1974), the band moved more toward funk than soul; however, they continued recording ballads as well. Williams left the band in late 1974, and was replaced as vocalist by Hubert Tubbs. Though the band remained popular, their days of chart radio airplay declined. During the late 1970s they briefly tried recording disco-sounding material. Leader Emilio Castillo said in an interview that the band’s brief foray into quasi-disco was at the request of Columbia Records, who had the band under contract at the time.
Tower of Power still tours extensively today, although there have been many changes in personnel over the years. The legendary group, known for its unique blend of Soul, Funk, Jazz and Rock, plan to celebrate their 48th anniversary in 2016 doing what they love: performing for their fans. With new generations of fans discovering their timeless music, Tower of Power have never been busier or more in demand. “As we push the envelope globally, our audiences are getting bigger and bigger and younger and younger,” said Emilio Castillo, bandleader for Tower of Power. “What a blessing to see this younger generation seeking out this type of music and also to see so many up and coming Tower of Power ‘clone’ bands endeavoring to play our music.”
The best thing to come from Tower of Power’s growth of a younger audience, is that possibly, a young kid or two might decide to pick up a horn and study music. The result might be another super group like Tower of Power. Even if we never gain another Tower of Power, we will definitely gain more instrumental musicians. There is nothing wrong with plenty of horns!