The Tower of Power horn section is one of the best in the business. The group not only performs as a solo act, but is often hired by other groups who want to add its distinctive horn-based soul to their own tracks. We spoke with founding member, saxophonist and songwriter Emilio Castillo. We started the interview talking about the Tower of Power horn section, and their experiences recording and performing with other artists.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What happens when the Tower of Power horn section gets the call to do a recording session?
Emilio Castillo: We fly to wherever it is, usually L.A. or the Bay Area. Or, they can come to us, bring the tape, and the producer. That's cheaper for them, rather than flying everybody around and putting them up and everything. They'll fly up with the tape and during the daytime we'll do the session.
Songfacts: Is "the tape" the full song?
Emilio: Generally it's the basic track that they've recorded that they want to put horns to. It's not wise to arrange to a demo because by the time you get there they've re-recorded it and there could be changes. So you record it to the basic track.
Songfacts: Who writes the arrangement?
Emilio: Generally we make sure that they use our arrangers. Greg Adams is probably our most famous horn arranger. He left the band about ten years ago and since then we've been using different guys, but mostly now I lean towards this guy named Dave Eskridge. He's just excellent and he comes from the school of Greg Adams; he idolized him his whole life and really studied up on the way he arranges. We'll tell these artists they need to contact the arranger, give him the tape, tell him the ideas they have and settle on the fee. Sometimes they don't use our arranger, and they pay the price for that.
Songfacts: Why is it so important to use your arrangers?
Emilio: For instance, Aerosmith hired Tower of Power horns after years and years of wanting us to play on their records. Joey Kramer called me up and they said they had their own arranger. I explained to Joey, "I'm not sure who this guy is but I need to tell you something. When people use their own arrangers a lot of times it doesn't come out sounding like Tower Of Power horns. If you want the real sound you should use our arranger."
He says, "Yeah, well, this guy's a good friend, he's very talented, he's done some arrangements for Barbra Streisand." And I said, "Well, obviously it's your choice, we'll come in and play his arrangements." He says, "How about this, if at any time during the session you feel that the arrangement is not Tower Of Power worthy, you just tell us - we'll call the session, reschedule, hire your horn arranger and redo it."
We go in and here's this guy, he's a nice guy, and he's a good musician but he's not really a horn arranger. Basically he wrote a lot of guitar parts for the horns. So, when the record came out, you can't even hear the horns on the record. The reason for that is Aerosmith is a guitar band, so what are you going to mix? Are you going to mix the guitars down so you can hear the horns, or are you going to mix the guitars up? Obviously you're going to mix the guitars up. Now I wasn't in the position... I certainly wasn't going to say, "Look, it's not sounding the way it should sound," because we're there, they got a big Indian food spread out there, they're spending a lot of money and they all think it's fabulous. I couldn't say anything. I wasn't going to stop the session. But the next time they call me, I will insist they use our arranger and I will tell them why.
Songfacts: Do people usually decide to use Tower of Power horns after they record the track, or from the onset?
Emilio: It depends. A lot of the times they'll have certain songs on their record and they'll say, "Man, this would sound great with a horn section, we should call Tower of Power." Or, they might just be fans of the band and they'll say, "We want to get the horn section in here." So sometimes it's after the fact. They cut all their tracks, they're getting close to mixdown, and they go, "You know what would really sound great is a horn section, why don't we call Tower of Power?"
Songfacts: What tracks are you really proud of?
Emilio: There's a lot of stuff I'm very proud of. We did a gospel record with The Hawkins Family. It was live at the Oakland auditorium for two or three days. Philip Bailey sang on it, and The Hawkins Family, and Tower of Power horns, all live before an audience and recorded through a mobile truck. That got a Grammy. That was really great music. Greg Adams did those arrangements. They were fabulous.
We also did a live album with Little Feat called Waiting for Columbus. It's a very famous album and the horns just shine on there. Those are Greg Adams' arrangements and they're just fabulous. We did most of Little Feat's records, and they were always gratifying to us because that was a very musically sound band.
We also did several Huey Lewis records. We always had a kinship with them musically. They loved our band, we were big fans of their band, and we saw eye to eye musically.
I did great work with Linda Rondstadt and Aaron Neville. They did "When Something's Wrong With My Baby." That got a Grammy. George Massenberg was the engineer, probably the finest engineer in the world.
We also did a few recordings with George Martin, the Beatles producer. We did the band America. We did the Sgt. Pepper movie. That was about four or five days of recording. That was really gratifying and we were just totally in awe of George Martin.
We worked with Quincy Jones for The Brothers Johnson. He knew us because we had travelled with him on the road - it was a Quincy Jones and Tower of Power tour. He also was the one who gave me my first gold record. He was talking to us after the session with The Brothers Johnson and he said, "You guys must have tons of gold records," and we told him, "No we don't even have one." He was amazed. He said, "You guys don't have a gold record. I can't believe that. This record is going to go gold and when it does you're getting one." And he was true to his word, he sent me one.
Songfacts: I was talking to Alex Call, who wrote "Perfect World" for Huey Lewis. He said it was great having a hit record, but he was just so proud that Tower of Power played his horn lines. So that got me thinking, how often do you get horn lines, and what do you do to them?
Emilio: These people have a track, and there's a certain part, and they'll go, "We hear it da-da-da-da-daaa-da." So our arranger will jot that down, and then he'll usually take it a step further. He may voice it, do it partly in unison, partly in harmony. He may add a little grace note here and there to refine it. But the basic idea is from them.
Whenever we get a basic track from an artist, we say, "If there's any ideas, some specific ones that you have, let us know so we'll write it in." Some artists write that way. I do sometimes. I remember when I wrote the song "Souled Out," I had the horn line before I showed the band the song. I knew what I wanted to hear, but when my trumpet and sax players did the arrangement they did a real interesting counterpoint with the baritone, and they voiced it in a really interesting way that took it a whole step further.
Songfacts: I read something about how you did some midnight concerts with Huey Lewis.
Emilio: Huey asked me to go on tour when he hit it big with the Sports album. He called me up and said, "This record is going to the moon. We've got the money, we're wondering if we can hire your horn section to on the road with us."
I'd love to do it, but my main thing in life is Tower of Power the band, not the horn section. We were at a low point in our career, we were not doing well. We didn't have a record deal, we were definitely at a low ebb in the cycle. I told him, "If you promise me that you'll promote my band at every turn, every interview, every way possible, I will do the tour. And also, I want you to bring the band out to certain key cities to do midnight shows at the local nightclub, and I want you to promise me that you guys will come and sit in. Because then it will be a scene."
He was true to his word. He mentioned us in every interview, called us by name several times during the show, and he did a couple of Tower of Power songs in the show every night. Then after the show was done he would always say, "We're all going down to..." Let's say, Toad's Place in New Haven. "Tower of Power's playing a midnight show and we're going to go jam with them."
We'd go play and it would be packed because everybody wanted to see Huey Lewis, and they'd come up and jam with us. We did that in several cities. That really sort of regenerated our career.
Songfacts: What makes the Tower of Power horn section so strong? What is your basic band philosophy?
Emilio: As the horn section, there's no real philosophy about what we do. This is what we do, it's like sweat. It's what we do naturally and the thing that makes us so special.
I mean, how many horn sections are there in the world? You can count them on your hand. Especially well-known ones, and we're probably the most well known. So that's what makes us so special. There aren't a lot of horn sections in the world, certainly not a lot of horn sections that have been together as long as we have, that play a signature style like we do. We have a definite style to the way we approach section work: we clip our notes, we get very tight. We've got to have this ESP going between the guys as far as how to interpret certain horn licks.
Emilio is also an accomplished songwriter with a talent for capturing the basic ups and downs of romantic relationships. We talked about several songs that Emilio wrote and recorded with the band.
Songfacts: Your first hit song was "You're Still A Young Man."
Emilio: That was the first song Doc [baritone saxophonist and founding member Stephen Kupka] and I ever wrote. It was inspired by a song from an album called This Is My Country by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. On that album there's a song called "A Woman's Love" that starts off with beautiful trumpets really high. We wanted to write a song with a great trumpet intro like that.
The storyline is about a guy that's going with an older woman. He's totally smitten with her, he's in love as you could possibly be, and she loves him too, but she says, "You're a young man and there's so many women out there your age." In other words, she's thinking by the time they get older he's gonna look at her like some old woman and wish that he had been with a younger girl. So she's cutting him loose and she's saying, "You're still a young man, don't waste your time with me. There's so many other fishes in the sea at your age."
It's based on a true story. I had a girlfriend that was six years older than me. I was 18, she was 24, and that's actually what happened. She had kind of cut me loose because of the age difference thing. The whole plea in the story is the young guy saying, "I'm not too young. I'm not wasting my time, and I do love you like a man can truly love a woman."
Songfacts: How about the tune "What Is Hip?"
Emilio: I would give most of the credit for that concept lyrically to Doc. He said he wanted to write a song about being hip, and I said, "About being hip?" He said, "Well, being hip is so short-lived. You can be hip by wearing your hair a certain way today, and then in three months that style's gone and you're as unhip as you could possibly be. I want to write a song about that." It's saying what's hip today might become pass.
The really unique thing about the song, we wrote it with David Garibaldi. He didn't have a whole lot of input lyrically, but rhythmically it was his idea to get Rocco [Prestia] to play those sixteenth notes on the bass. There was a song out at the time called "Going Down" by Freddie King and it had that bass line. Girabaldi's idea was to hit those sixteenth notes, and then rather than hitting a big one, you know, "One, two, three, four, one," he says, "We're going to push it one sixteenth in front of the one every time." So it'd be, "One, two, three, four boom!... two, three, four boom!"
That's what made that song drive. And then on top of that we had the classic horn arrangement and Lenny Williams singing it.
Songfacts: How about "So Very Hard To Go?"
Emilio: We wrote it in one sitting. I remember when I wrote it, I knew as soon as we were done writing it that it was going to be a hit. I actually called my manager and I said, "We wrote a hit." He said, "Yeah, sure." I go, "No, I'm serious. We wrote a hit."
I played it for him over the phone and he heard a verse of the chorus and he goes, "Damn, I think you're right."
It was kind of a made up story. I almost based it on that same relationship that I had with the girl I wrote "You're Still A Young Man" about. Basically it says our relationship is ending, and how hard it is to say goodbye to her.
Songfacts: I always like hearing about whether these R&B songs have a specific person in mind, because everyone makes it their own. It means so much to people when they hear them.
Emilio: I write a lot about specific situations, but I let the song play out in a general way.
Songfacts: Let's talk about a tune from The Oakland Zone. How about "Stranger in My Own House?"
Emilio: I wrote that song with a friend of mine, Leo Saks. He wrote the NBC Weekend News theme for Garrick Utley, but he's especially into soul music. He left that profession and started doing reissues for Legacy. He's in charge of all the reissues for Earth, Wind & Fire, The O'Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, the Isley Brothers. He pulls out stuff from the vaults and remixes it, and he does all the liner notes. He asked me, "You know, I've produced a lot of things now on these reissues. Could I produce a track for you guys?" And I said no. He goes, "Oh, you answered me pretty quickly there." I said, "Leo, I'll be honest with you man. I'm looking to work with producers on the caliber of Quincy Jones, somebody I can relate to musically. You don't know music at all. You've done these great productions for these reissues, but Tower of Power is a whole different animal. I'm not looking for that type of thing for Tower of Power. But I will write songs with you." And he goes, "What? I don't know how to write songs." I said, "Well I'll teach you." And what I told him was, "You've got to come to me, I'm not flying to New York to teach you write songs. But if you can come to my house, you can stay there for a few days and I'll show you how to write." He says, "How do you know I can write?" I said, "You're a journalist, you're into soul music big time. Pretty much we're going to sit around and talk and we're going to write songs."
He came to my house, we wrote three songs the first time he came, and then he came back when I was demoing the three songs and we wrote another one. Out of those four songs, three of them got used. Two of them made the record: "Happy About That" and "Stranger In My Own House."
"Nothing Like It" was a bonus cut in Europe. We wrote a song called "Let it Go." He was in this relationship that he wasn't sure he wanted to be in, and yet he just didn't feel like hurting the girl's feelings and breaking it off. I said, "Well that's not really fair to her, is it?" So we wrote "Let it Go," but that didn't make the record.
As far as the story about "Stranger In My Own House," there was no story. It is absolutely made up. I came up with a chord progression, that sort of minor sound, and to me it sounded like something ominous. I came up with that hook, "I feel like a stranger in my own house," and then we wrote a story based on that. But there's no truth to it, there's no real-life bearing in it at all.
Songfacts: You were able to teach a journalist how to write songs? Can you take anybody and teach them how to write a song, or does it take something specific?
Emilio: I thought he'd be cool to hang out with. That's basically all I need. I'm not one of those people that can go in a room and write a song. I have to be with somebody that can throw stuff back and forth intellectually, that I relate to. And I knew he was that type of guy. Doc is that type of guy. These are the people I write with, they see music the same way.
Songfacts: Any other cuts on that album, or Tower of Power songs in general, that you think have a great story that you'd like to tell?
Emilio: As far as specific tunes with a story, I wrote a song called "Remember Love." It's a ballad, that's kind of a true story about my life in marriage. I find that you're in the "in love" part of the relationship, and then you make the commitment, you get married, and the "in love" part wears off. You're no longer "in love." You still love the person, but it's no longer the "she hung the moon" thing.
Then you have kids and life gets complicated. Every waking hour is based on those children. So what the song was about, I just said, "Remember love. Remember what it was like when we were 'in love' - put your high heels on, put on that red dress, we're going out tonight. We're going to get a babysitter, we're going to kick it up the way we used to."
People my age who have been married a long time that are saying, "Remember love, let's get back to that 'in love' thing."
In 2009, Tower of Power released the Great American Soulbook, an album where they covered a set of soul classics, including "It Takes Two" and "Me And Mrs. Jones." Guest artists include Joss Stone, Sam Moore and Huey Lewis.
Songfacts: How did you pick the songs for the album and give them the Tower of Power Treatment?
Emilio: In picking songs for the Great American Soulbook we wanted to have some well-known soul hits like "(Baby Baby Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone," "Me And Mrs. Jones," "(Heaven Must Have Sent) Your Precious Love," and "I Thank You" along with some obscure soul tunes that particularly appealed to us like "You Met Your Match," "Loveland," "Heaven Must Be missing An Angel," "Who Is He?" and the James Brown medley of songs.
In the nine songs that I produced we didn't really take any major left turns rhythmically so we made sure that Dave Eskridge, our horn arranger, really updated the horns Tower of Power style and also made sure to have Larry [Braggs] and the background singers put their own stamp on the vocal interpretations. Then we asked George Duke to produce four songs and do major revisions on them rhythmically and had the horns and vocals follow suit. The result, I think, is uniquely Tower of Power.
We spoke with Emilio on October 11, 2004, and again in 2009 to update this piece after the band released Great American Soulbook. Learn more at towerofpower.com.