Tower Of Power
Tower of Power
Tower of Power (or TOP for short) is an American R&B-based horn section and band, originating in Oakland, California, that has been performing since 1968. They are best known for their funky soul sound highlighted by a powerful horn section and precisely syncopated bass-guitar lines. There have been a number of lead vocalists, the most well-known being Lenny Williams, who fronted the band between early 1973 and late 1974, the period of their greatest commercial success. Their highest-charting songs include "You're Still a Young Man", "So Very Hard to Go", "Soul With a Capital S", "Soul Vaccination", "What Is Hip?", and "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)".
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. Together, they became the backbone of Tower of Power. 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.
Castillo really wanted to play Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, but he realized he would never get in with a name like The Motowns. So, 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.
By 1970, the now renamed Tower of Power—now including trumpet/arranger Greg Adams, first trumpet Mic Gillette, first saxophone Skip Mesquite, Francis "Rocco" Prestia on bass, Willie Fulton on guitar, and drummer David Garibaldi—signed a recording contract with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records and released their first album, East Bay Grease. Rufus Miller performed most of the lead vocals on this debut album. The group was first introduced to the San Francisco Bay area by radio station KSAN, which played a variety of artists such as Cold Blood, Eric Mercury and Marvin Gaye's album "What's Goin On" in its entirety before the bay area's soul and R&B stations became aware. Dusty Street of the Flying Eye Radio Network's Fly Low show and Sirius XM radio was a DJ there in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The single "Sparkling in the Sand" received airplay on famed Bay Area soul station KDIA.
Augmented by percussionist/conga/bongo player Brent Byars, 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. Emilio Castillo, who, along with Stephen Kupka, co-wrote "You're Still a Young Man," told Songfacts that the song was based on a true story concerning a former girlfriend who was six years older. Though not a big hit single "Down to the Nightclub" received heavy airplay on West Coast FM stations and several AM stations. Both songs still get substantial airplay on oldies radio and remain fan favorites.
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. Bruce Conte replaced guitarist Willie Fulton and keyboardist Chester Thompson also joined the band during the recording of the album. 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.
1974's Back to Oakland spawned another hit, "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)", that reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Time Will Tell", which charted at #69. The funk-jazz classic instrumental "Squib Cakes" also came from this album.
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. At least 60 musicians have toured or recorded with the band over their 40-plus-year existence. These include current Saturday Night Live musical director/saxophonist Lenny Pickett, drummer David Garibaldi, bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia, organ master Chester Thompson, saxophonists Richard Elliot and Euge Groove, and guitarist Bruce Conte. Conte's cousin, BALCO founder Victor Conte, also played bass guitar in the band from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Former lead vocalist Rick Stevens (real name Donald Stevenson) was sentenced to life in prison on three counts of first-degree murder for crimes committed after leaving the band. Stevens was paroled on July 20, 2012 after 36 years in prison. Bruce Conte rejoined the band in 2006, replacing veteran guitarist Jeff Tamelier. He departed after slightly more than a year, citing personal recording projects and health issues. Following Conte as guitarist was Charles Spikes (while auditions for a permanent player were held), then Mark Harper. The band's current guitarist is Jerry Cortez.
Horn section collaborations
The Tower of Power horn section has gained renown as a separate entity to much critical acclaim. They have appeared on a number of other artists' recordings, including one of the most highly regarded early live albums: a performance with Little Feat in 1977, one of the three inaugural acts to perform at the newly opened Rockpalast studios on the song, "Rocket in my Pocket".
Other performers supported by the Tower of Power horns include electric slap bass guitarist Larry Graham's Graham Central Station, The Monkees, Grateful Dead, Santana, Journey, Elkie Brooks, Cat Stevens (on his Foreigner Suite), Luis Miguel, Elton John, Linda Lewis, rad. (Rose Ann Dimalanta), Jermaine Jackson, John Lee Hooker, Helen Reddy, Rufus, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship, Mickey Hart, Heart, Damn Yankees, Huey Lewis and the News, Frankie Valli, Spyro Gyra, KMFDM, Lyle Lovett, Poison, Phish, Toto, Pharoahe Monch, Brothers Johnson, Sam The Band, and Aerosmith, among many other acts. "So Very Hard To Go" was featured in the soundtrack of the 2002 film City of God, as well as Will Ferrell's Semi-Pro.
- Emilio Castillo - Tenor saxophone, vocals
- Stephen 'Doc' Kupka - Baritone saxophone
- Francis 'Rocco' Prestia - Bass
- David Garibaldi - Drums
- Roger Smith - Keyboards, vocals
- Sal Cracchiolo - Trumpet
- Adolfo Acosta - Trumpet, flugelhorn
- Ray Greene - Lead vocals, trombone
- Tom Politzer - Tenor saxophone
- Jerry Cortez - Guitar, vocals
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Jerrold Hayles (?)
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