Hip for nearly 50 years, the soul vets prove you just can’t stop the funk

Ask Emilio Castillo—who co-founded Tower of Power in 1968—how his band has survived, and he offers a simple answer. “It’s because we make the music exactly the way we want it to sound,” he says. “We noticed years ago that if we try to deviate from what we do, it doesn’t work—we still sound like us, only a bastardized version. So we’re going to make sure we sound like the best us we can be.”

Castillo, who plays saxophone with the iconic Oakland, California-based horn-driven soul-funk collective, is one of four original members still on board, alongside baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia, who recently underwent successful kidney transplant surgery.

Castillo is quick to point out that Tower of Power has always been greater than the sum of its parts. Since the band’s inception, its lineup has changed many times. Some, like Lenny Williams, have gone on to successful solo careers, and others have faded into obscurity. Multi-instrumentalist Lenny Pickett—a member of the heralded Tower of Power horn section from 1972 to 1981—has served as musical director of Saturday Night Live’s house band for two decades.

“Every single facet of the band has changed several times over,” says Castillo. “It’s a conceptual sound, and that concept resides with Doc, Dave, Rocco and myself. But even if one of us were to leave, the new guys, once we give them Tower of Power 101, they know what our thing is. They’re giving their input and their ideas because they know what it takes to make this thing. We’re all in this together.”

Castillo is especially psyched about vocalist Ray Greene, who joined the band in 2013. “I can’t even tell you how comfortable and wonderful this guy is,” Castillo says. But he’s also excited about Hipper Than Hip, a recently released two-CD set that captures a classic live radio broadcast from 1974—after they’d just recorded Back to Oakland, one of the jewels of the group’s discography. “We were definitely firing on all 10 cylinders that night,” says Castillo.

Though the band is closing in on a half-century of classic funk, Castillo is looking toward the future. Tower of Power recently recorded enough new material for two studio albums. Going in, Castillo says, “I told the others, ‘We’ve made a lot of great records, but now we need to make a major-league statement to the best of our ability.’

“This is really all I know and all I’m good at,” he adds. “Soul music, running a band and writing songs—I know that stuff because I love it.”

–Jeff Tamarkin

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