Emilio Castillo, who plays second tenor sax, is the leader, and along with baritone sax man Stephen "Doc" Kupka, a co-founder. We spoke with him about the music-making process, and also about the defining moments from their first half century.
The latest ToP drama is the loss of their lead singer, Ray Greene, to Santana, which made him an offer he couldn't refuse. This happened while they were making Soul Side Of Town, so he's on some of the tracks while new guy, Marcus Scott, is on others. Let's start there.
Emilio Castillo: Well [laughing], not a really nice thing to do. But what can you say? He's Carlos Santana, he gets to do that, I guess.
Songfacts: I wonder if this is going to start a war. It's a San Francisco/Oakland thing - you're going to have to retaliate now.
Castillo: Yeah, no warfare from our side. We're very grateful to Carlos. He's been very good to us over the years. When we were nothing and nobody, he took us on tour and promoted us all over the country. He's used us on his records.
It's just business. I would have appreciated a call or something, but it is what it is. He's a different sort of cat.
Songfacts: When you say you were nothing and nobody, what era are you referring to?
Castillo: Early '70s, just before Bump City came out [it was released in 1972]. We had East Bay Grease out. We were hot in the Bay Area, but in the rest of the country we were nothing. But Carlos was into the band. And mind you, every night, we gave him a run for his money. A lot of guys would have just said, "I ain't going to have those guys open for me, I look bad." But I believe he felt it made him play better and urged him on. So he took us all over the country and people had no idea who we were. We'd be playing and people would go, "Where's Santana? We want Santana!"
Songfacts: Well, that sounds like a formative few years for you guys, because you built into something that became so lasting.
Castillo: It was definitely a formative time for us. We learned how to tour. We were exposed to concert performing. We had no experience with that.
You've got to understand, when we were signed to Bill Graham, we were the most unlikely of bands to be signed by him. Everybody wanted to get on his label, and I mean everybody. Famous people were trying to get signed on his label. And for some reason - I think David Rubinson had a lot to do with it - they found our songs and our soul and our rhythm and our horns something that was attractive to them and they signed us.
But we had no experience playing concerts. We were playing little dance nightclubs in the East Bay, and we had even been banned from doing that for the previous year, because we got busted for being under age. It was definitely a formative time. All of a sudden we're with Santana, we're touring around the nation, there's 18,000 people out there. We played the Forum. It was fun.
Songfacts: How old were you guys and how did you get busted?
Castillo: I was just 16 when I started the band. We were still the Motowns. But shortly after, I turned 17 and I hired Doc. We set our date for Tower Of Power as August 13, 1968. That was Doc's first gig, and he and I are the main writers, so we clock it from there. I turned 18 in September of '68. A year later we got signed, so I was not quite 20 when all this touring with Santana started. We also did a big tour with Creedence Clearwater, 32 dates. All before Bump City. The only record we had out was East Bay Grease and nobody in the nation really knew it, only in the Bay Area.
Songfacts: So you weren't supposed to be playing in bars when you were 17 years old?
Castillo: Well, we were playing bars and dance clubs. We played after-hours joints and before-hours joints. One of our guys got caught drinking, Mic Gillette, our trumpet player. So we would play after hours and they would close the bar, because between 2 and 6 a.m. you can't drink. And then at 6 a.m. they would take the plywood off the bar and they would open it up. We'd still be there. We'd usually play until 8. We were supposed to be done at 6, but the guy would put a $20 bill on the organ and say, "Play a couple more sets."
By that point we knew how to drink and smoke pot, so the bar opened and Mic got himself a screwdriver and ABC [California's Alcoholic Beverage Control] busted him. We laid low for a little bit and then started playing around again, and they busted us again at the On Broadway in Oakland, which was sort our regular haunt on Monday and Tuesday nights.
We had these fake IDs - my mother got them for us. They were discharges from the service, and it could be any service. She filled them out and the ABC guy came in and they had us in the back room. He says to my guitar player, Jody Lopez, "What service were you discharged from?" We hadn't even read 'em. [Laughs] Jody looks at the guy and he goes, "Uh, Navy?" The jig was up. He was supposed to be Air Force or something.
When we got busted that time they sent out a memorandum to all the clubs in the Bay Area saying if you hire these kids, we'll take your liquor license, and nobody was going to gamble with that.
So all of a sudden we had no gigs. And since we had been playing in clubs for so long, we had never really played high schools. We weren't popular in high school - that's why we went to the clubs. So now we can't play clubs, and none of the high schools knew us. We didn't tell Bill Graham any of this when he signed us. But after he signed us, he signed us to a booking agency contract as well, and that's when we told the guy, "By the way, we can't play clubs because we're under age and none of the high schools know us."
So the first thing they did was they sent us to Mexico City to play for 14 days, because they wanted to bring Santana down there. There had been a riot a few years prior when the Grateful Dead played, and they had banned all concerts, so they wanted to start again.
We got down there and we were supposed to play 10 days and be off four days. We played four days and they closed it down. The Federales were around the whole place with machine guns and nobody came in. They were just testing the waters. They quickly saw how it was going, and the Federales weren't going for it.
So we had gotten to partying with the promoter, and he was a friend of Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison was there the whole two weeks. That was our first-ever time going on the road. Then we came back, we opened for Jimi Hendrix at the Berkeley Community Theater. We had to play in front of the curtain with the lights on. Jimi needed us to do that.
And then East Bay Grease came out, we started really getting hot in the area. We were playing the On Broadway and it was packed. Santana and those guys used to come in, Sly and the Family Stone, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop, all the rock hierarchy in the Bay Area were coming to sit in with us. Then Santana took us on tour.
Songfacts: Hendrix made you play in front of the curtain?
Castillo: With the lights on. While people were walking in.
Songfacts: What was his reasoning?
Castillo: I don't know what his reasoning was. He wasn't speaking to us. We were nobody.
Now I look back and I can imagine, here's Jimi Hendrix, the biggest star in the entire world, and they say, "We got a 10-piece band to open for you." That's a nightmare to him. He probably just said, "Put them in front of the curtain, make them play while the people are walking in."
And I remember after the concert, my manager, Ron Barnett, he read the riot act to Bill Graham. He says, "I don't care that they're nobody. That's disrespectful, it's not right."
And Bill's going, "I know! Jimi made me do it! I'll make it up to them."
And he did. He got us some other concerts. It was definitely a formative time.
Songfacts: I take it because your mother got you your fake IDs that she approved of all this?
Castillo: Oh, yeah. Both my parents were very much into the band. My mother managed us when we were teenagers. She and Rocco [bass player Rocco Prestia]'s mother, Bobbie, they'd take us all over the Bay area.
My dad got me every instrument I ever wanted. I started on saxophone, and in three months I was like, "I want to play organ, Dad." He bought me an organ - I got a Farfisa. But then, the Animals had the Vox organ and that was cooler. I said, "Dad I want a Vox." He got me a Vox. Three months later I wanted to play the Vox guitars, the teardrop models that were really popular. I said, "Dad I want to play guitar," he got me a guitar. Got me teachers for all these instruments.
I had total support from my parents. And also my dad was the one that made me be the leader. I didn't want to be the leader. My brother Jack was the drummer when we started out. And he was 10 months older than me so he was the leader. My dad came to me after we'd had the band for a little while and he said, "You have to be the leader." I was like, "I don't want to be the leader."
He said, "No, you have to be the leader."
I said, "Why is that?"
"Because you're the one that has the musical talent and you're the one telling these guys what to do musically." And he forced me to be the leader.
Songfacts: When you started out, was there a distinctive Oakland sound?
Castillo: Yes. Very much so. When we started out, the main soul station was KSOL, and the most popular DJ on this station was Sly Stone. This is before he had a band. Everybody in the East Bay and San Francisco listened to Sly Stone. He was the king.
There were acts like Freddie Hughes, Jesse "Mr. Soul" James, Marvin Holmes and The Uptights. They were soul acts and they primarily played in the East Bay. There were also San Francisco groups like The Whispers and The Ballads that were like The Temptations.
But there was a definite sound of Oakland. And also at that time, before Sly started his band, he was producing, and he produced a Merseybeat-sounding band called The Beau Brummels. They had several hits, including "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just A Little." They sounded just like the British Invasion, but they were from the Bay Area. He produced them on Autumn Records, where he was sort of a house producer. And he also produced a really famous song called "C'mon And Swim." It was about a dance called The Swim, and Bobby Freeman was the artist. All of that was an Oakland sound.
Songfacts: You have a track on Soul Side Of Town with some incredible grooves. It's called "Butter Fried," and it made me think of your track "Oakland Stroke," which has these amazing rhythms going on. How did you get that groove going?
Castillo: That's kind of an ironic choice that you made, because that song was written by my keyboard player, Roger Smith. It was slow funk, and the head sort of went over and over and we had all these solos that were all sort of meandering. When I brought the tracks to [producer] Joe Vannelli, that was the one song that didn't seem to hold up to the others. Joe was saying, "We've got to do something about this song. The other ones are grooving so hard and the ballads are so great."
Then one day I went in and Joe says, "I want to play something for you." He took the track and he sped it up. He took everybody's parts and made them glued to the track, and he brought Roger in and had him redo his part. We brought Jerry [guitarist Jerry Cortez] in and we just started working to the uptempo track, which is a lot more exciting.
Then we took the head, the arrangement, and we just made it do a whole lot more than what we originally had. It just came out really exciting. And then Joe wrote the bridge, which is a complete departure from the tune. So now the songwriting credit is Roger Smith, Joe Vannelli and [trumpet player] Adolfo Acosta.
Songfacts: Tell me about the track "On The Soul Side Of Town" and how that came together.
He came to me and said, "Would you let me produce a track on your record?" I said, "No." He was kind of taken aback, and said, "Why not?" I said, "Because if I'm going to have anybody help me produce, it has to be someone that's musical, and you don't know anything about music."
That's just the way I am. The kind of producers I'm looking to work with are like Quincy Jones. That's why I worked out so well with Joe Vannelli. He's a magnificent musician.
And I said, "Leo, I'll write a song with you." He said, "But I don't know how to write songs." I said, "Well, I'll teach you."
I brought him out to my house and we wrote a couple of songs. And then another year went by and he came out again and wanted to write some more. We sat down and we wrote that song "On The Soul Side Of Town."
It's about that area of town, the dark-side-of-the-moon area of the town where all the barbecue joints are and where the drug dealers are and where the down-to-earth, blue collar people are. That was the vibe we were going for.
We sat down and wrote it, and then that song sat there for 10, 12 years. When I started working on this record, I pulled it out, and I'm so pleased with the way it came out. It's got a real vibe to it. And the vibe really relates to the title, so that worked out really well.
Songfacts: Once you got past that initial stage, what was the most challenging era for the band?
Castillo: Oh, late '70s. No question.
In the late '70s, disco came in, and plus, we had started really abusing drugs and alcohol. Me in particular - I was a real narcotics addict by that point. So quite naturally things weren't going well for us. We weren't a disco band.
We signed to CBS Records in 1976 and we got a ton of money from them. I didn't know this then, but I read the book Hit Men, and what I realized is that Walter Yetnikoff just signed us to stick it to Mo Ostin and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. There was a lot of cocaine going on and a lot of competition. They would just throw money around and say, "You can't have these guys. I'm getting you."
And they got us. They gave us all this money. We had a great offer from Warner's to re-sign. We were happy there, but the offer that CBS gave us was so big that there was no question whether we would take it or not. Then we got there and they didn't know what to do with us. They didn't sign us for our music. It was like a vendetta.
We made our first record and all of a sudden the suits got involved. They were trying to tell us what to do.
And then the disco thing happened and they were saying, "Why don't you redo a song disco style? So and so did that and they got a big hit." And, "If you could sound like so and so, we could get more airplay for you." They looked at us as a problem to be solved. Right there we already lost the battle.
They're giving us all this money so we're trying to please them, and every time we did what they suggested, we sounded like a bastardized version of Tower Of Power. At that point we're getting all discouraged and thinking we're cursed. We don't sound like the other bands, it's a curse.
And then eventually everything completely dried up. We got re-signed to Warner's and dropped by Warner's and nobody wanted to touch us. That's when all the punk and new wave bands were coming: The Knack, The Motels, Devo. They wanted bands that were only together a year or so. They looked at us and said, "Their music will never be popular again. They're a bunch of dinosaurs."
And we were still making the music, still recording, but when everything dried up, I told the guys, "Let's just quit trying to sound like anybody else." And we never chased trends again. We just made our music the way we made it. As soon as we did that, everything started to get better.
And our horns also did a big tour with Huey Lewis & the News. I made a deal with Huey that we would go out with him and he could use our horns if he promoted Tower Of Power at every turn. He was a man of his word and he did that. That helped resurrect our career.
So we came out of that abyss. Then in 1988 I got sober. In '89, Doc got sober.
This guy that we knew in New York named Michael Caplan who used to come around, "I'm your biggest fan! I'm going to be in the record business!" He'd come around every year and say, "I'm working at CBS, I'm in the mail room!" And well, by this time he was vice president of A&R at Epic, Sony, and he was sober three years.
Things were getting tough because we couldn't get signed, so I told my manager to call Michael Caplan, and tell him if he doesn't do something his favorite band's going to be defunct. Caplan said, "I can't just sign you and tell my company, 'get behind these guys.' I've got to make sure they're behind you, so I'm going to do a little campaign, I'll get back to you."
He wrote a memorandum and sent it throughout the company. It was "10 Reasons Why You Should Never Sign a Band Like Tower Of Power."
#1: They're a bunch of drug addicts
#2: They're a bunch of dinosaurs
#3: Their music will never be popular again
On and on, 10 reasons why you should never sign a band like Tower Of Power. And then the next day he rebutted all those 10 reasons, sent out "10 Reasons Why You Should."
He told us, "I want you to take a gig at The Bottom Line for seven days and each night I'm going to bring five or six people from the company. If they rally behind me with this, I'll sign you."
And we were about five days in and he called me up and said, "I want you to get the guys together tomorrow afternoon, we're going out to lunch. We're going to celebrate." I go, "What are we celebrating?" He goes, "I'm signing you to a seven-album deal."
We got signed and we recorded all those songs. We did Monster On A Leash [1991 album]. It had been a while since we'd had any product out, so it did pretty well. And then we did I think six records with them over the next 10 years.
Songfacts: When Chicago made their transformation in the '80s to balladry, what was that like for you?
Castillo: What year was that?
Songfacts: That was about '82.
Castillo: Oh, yeah. In '82 I wasn't in good shape. It was a low point emotionally for me, and then our biggest rival in the horn category started making hits, but they were definitely slower. It didn't affect me in any way other than it's not something I would have done. But I understood it. They were clearly in the business to make hits and make money, and they did that, so I respect them for it.
They're still around today, and they've still got a great horn section and a great band. I got a lot of respect for those guys.
Songfacts: Did you feel any pressure to do something like that?
Castillo: Oh, no. Never. But I never thought of us as anything like them. We're a soul band. I don't think of Tower Of Power as a horn band, per se. It's not like Chase and Blood, Sweat & Tears, where it was all about the horns speaking out, making the sound. The horns are really important in Tower Of Power, but for me it's about the singing and the songs and the rhythm and the horns, the way it goes together.
But really, it's about soul. I'm all about soul music. That's what I want to make. I just happened to make it with a band that has a great rhythm section and a world-class horn section.
Songfacts: You've been at this for 50 years now. How is it different making an album today, than it was making Bump City, for instance?
Castillo: Bump City we did it a lot quicker. We had a record deal, we were young, we had lots of energy, there was lots of money. Now we're all older, we're a working band, we're not rich. We're not independently wealthy like Carlos Santana, so we have to find ways to record. I started recording at a studio in Sacramento where the guy was giving me the time for free, so I obviously want to make use of that time as much as possible and I want to get in as much as possible. But I've got so many people in my organization. To keep them all paid, we have to work all the time. I also have to make sure I make time for my family and for a life for myself.
So that's one of the challenges that's different. When we went in to make Bump City, we had been in a feud for a year with Bill Graham and then we settled and we were all back friendly again. But we had all those songs under our belt. We not only had written them, we knew them and performed them nightly. So we went in and we laid them down. We recorded with Steve Cropper and Ronnie Capone was his engineer. It went down quick and it went down good.
And I learned a lot, because I was watching the way they produced. There was a lot of things that they did that I would have done differently. I did the next record, and after that, pretty much I had been the producer of the records.
So in that respect it's different. Technology-wise, we used to punch in a lot of stuff. I remember being with Steve Cropper and something would not be quite right and Ronnie Capone would press a button, "We'll just punch it." We were, like, "What?"
We took that to the next level on the next record. I was always looking to fix mistakes. I never liked mistakes. That's one of the things that bugged me about our first record: There was things on there that I would have fixed, and David Rubinson didn't allow that. And there were things on Bump City that I would have fixed or done differently. We weren't able to do that.
So after that we really got into putting a microscope on things and really fine tuning our sound, our signature.
Nowadays, though, you want to do anything, it's all possible digitally. We take that to the Nth degree, but we try to keep it sounding like Tower Of Power. We're not looking to be a-ha.
Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the Tower Of Power catalogue?
Castillo: We have so many songs I feel like that about. I'll just pick one. There's a song we do, we wrote it in the mid-'70s. It's called "Only So Much Oil In The Ground." When I wrote it, I thought it was the best recording I'd ever done: the best song I'd ever written, the best lyrics, the best rhythm, the best chords, the best solos, the best singing. Everything about it. I remember raving to my manager, Ron Burnett, "This is the best thing we've ever done." I thought it was going to be a smash hit, and it never sold anything. I don't even think it broke the Hot 100. And yet we've played it all these years.
When we wrote it there was an oil spill in the Bay Area. It was one of the first oil spills ever. And there were all these seagulls that were covered in oil and they were trying to rescue them. That's what spurred this conversation that Doc and I had. He was telling me that he got called into the principal's office when he was about eight years old. They were concerned about his behavior or something. The principal said, "Stephen, is there anything troubling you?" And he looks at the guy and he says, "Yes, there is. What are we going to do when we run out of oil?" And the principal says, "Stephen, go back to class."
He was telling me this story and we were laughing about it, but we started to think about it: It can't last forever. What are we going to do? We should write a song about that. So we wrote this song, "Only So Much Oil In The Ground."
Well, after that, the energy crisis took hold and the message became more and more pertinent. I still feel the same way about the music. Every night we play it. I think that song is like barreling down the highway: the rhythm, the soloing, the singing, the tenor solo, the organ solo, everything about it is just burnin'. To me the only thing that can be better is if I got Sting. I met Sting backstage at a Eric Clapton concert in the '80s. Robert Cray introduced me to him. He says, "This is Emilio, he's the leader of Tower Of Power." Sting goes, "Oh, I had a Tower Of Power clone band before I had the Police. We did 'Only So Much Oil In The Ground' and 'Don't Change Horses.' 'Only So Much Oil In The Ground,' that's a great song."
I always thought it would be just great to redo that song with Sting.
Songfacts: Soul Side Of Town is such a blast. You did such a great job on that, Emilio.
Castillo: We're very proud of it. My whole mission the entire time we did it was, We've got to make the best record of our career. We have to. We're at that point now. This ain't the time to just throw together a bunch of tunes and put it out. We're overdue. So we recorded 28. We actually have two records. The follow-up record, which is going to come out probably within a year after this one is also phenomenal. I'm so proud of all of it. Every single track came out great, including "Butter Fried."
May 31, 2018
Get Soul Side Of Town at towerofpower.com.
In our 2004 interview with Emilio, he told the stories behind their most popular songs, and explained how it works when they do horns for other artists.
You also might enjoy our interview with longtime Chicago member Bill Champlin, who had a Bay Area band in the '60s called Sons Of Champlin.
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