The Top 5 Tower of Power Horn Riffs

by Roger Catlin

Group leader Emilio Castillo picks the five top Tower of Power horn riffs, including songs by Elton John, Little Feat and Linda Ronstadt.

Tower of Power formed in 1968, and just two years later their horn section started playing on tracks for other artists. They're on "Jaded" by Aerosmith, "The Bitch Is Back" by Elton John, "The Power Of Love" by Huey Lewis & the News. We asked group founder Emilio Castillo, who plays sax in the band, to name their Top 5 horn riffs on tracks for other artists. None of those aforementioned songs made the list, but Emilio provided a thoughtful and well-annotated list from a wide array of artists.

On March 26, 2021, Tower of Power release 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater, recorded on their home turf - Oakland, California - in 2018. Following Emilio's list is a Q&A where he names his favorite horn licks by other artists and talks about how they got through their dry period to carry on their remarkable run.
1. "Everybody's Everything" by Santana (1971)
album: Santana III
This is the second session outside of ToP that we did (the first was Big Brother And The Holding Company, "Funkie Jim"). By this time Greg Adams had joined the band and, although we were still doing head charts, meaning "making up parts on the fly," you can start to hear the change in the horn voicings.

I think the rhythmic horns on the verses really made the song bounce, since Santana was such a rhythmic band. You can tell how excited Santana was by how loud the horns are in the mix. Carlos had called us in the middle of the night saying, "We recorded this song and we think it would sound good with your horns on it. Would you guys come over to the studio?"

We were all hanging out partying and thought that would be a lot of fun, so we drove right over and quickly made up some parts. It was mixed and released within one week and everyone was marveling that Santana had these cool horns on his new single.  All the DJs were saying, "That's Santana's new single with Tower of Power horns!!!"

The sessions started rolling in after that. We did a lot of recording with Santana over the next few years and played live with him as well, but "Everybody's Everything" is the song people always remember about our collaborations with Carlos.

2. "Stinker" by Elton John (1974)
album: Caribou
Elton John's Caribou in 1974 featured Tower of Power Horns prominently on several tracks. Everybody always talks about "The Bitch Is Back" because it was a big hit and you could really hear the horns on the ride-out answering Elton yelling "Bitch" (Pow!) "Bitch" (Pow!) with those horn section falls, but the song that really shows off the horns is a song called "Stinker."

By this time Greg Adams had come into his own as the Tower of Power horn arranger and "Stinker" showed off his talents spectacularly. The opening horn riff totally stands out in the mix but does NOT get in the way of Elton and his band. That became a signature for ToP horns: The arrangements never got in the way. We had perfected the "less is more" concept and that allowed the artists to mix us high up in the mix without taking over the song.

There's a horn riff just before the second guitar solo where we do unison falls on all four beats going up the chord and then a big fall on the first beat of that solo. That became a sort of Tower horns signature. We've used that riff many times over the years with lots of famous artists and people always know that it's Tower of Power horns.

We had been playing the Roxy at night during these sessions and Elton's producer, Gus Dudgeon, came to see us and wound up asking our fabulous organist, Chester Thompson, to play on "Stinker" as well. After that Elton came to see us in London and we wound up using his quote from a Creem magazine article he had done where he stated, "Tower of Power horns not only play great but they look great as well!" We put that quote in a nice glossy booklet and mailed them out to everyone in the music industry and got a lot of sessions because of that.

3. "Spanish Moon" by Little Feat (1974)
album: Feats Don't Fail Me Now
"Spanish Moon" was the first song we ever recorded with one of my favorite groups, Little Feat, in 1974. They were on the same label as us and I'd heard of them but had no idea what they sounded like. We walked into the session and met the producer, Van Dyke Parks, who was an extremely esoteric cat. One of the first things he said to us was: "I want the horns on this track to sound the way it does when the cow pie hits the side of the barn." We just looked at him in amazement and said, "No problem."

He played us the track and I heard Lowell George singing for the first time along with that slow funk groove and it was mesmerizing. We were all immediately captivated by The Feats.

In my opinion, the horn arrangement really took the track to another level. The introductory riff is priceless in that it sets the vibe for the whole song before you even hear the first verse and from there it just gets better and better with all these sneaky-sounding horn riffs appearing throughout the track. We wound up sitting in at live gigs with them later on and "Spanish Moon" always brought the house down. ToP Horns played on several Little Feat albums but "Spanish Moon" was always my favorite track.

I should mention though that the most famous album we ever did with The Feats was Waiting For Columbus, which was a live recording done in London. We were prominently featured on the whole recording, but "Mercenary Territory," to me, was the highlight. The tenor solo by Lenny Pickett, playing off of Lowell George's searing guitar is completely off the chart!

4. "Doing It All For My Baby" by Huey Lewis And The News (1986)
album: Fore!
In the early '80s we met Huey Lewis and started a long recording and touring relationship with his band The News. We played on several of their albums and toured live with them extensively from 1982 till 1989. As was the case with Little Feat, we saw eye to eye with them musically on every level: great musicianship, songwriting, vocalizing, and super-exciting live performance. The horns fit in perfectly with them and it was some serious fun making music together.

We recorded a lot of great songs with Huey but the one that really stands out to me, horn-wise, is "Doing It All For My Baby." The song was written by Mike Duke, who also wrote "Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do" for them and was the first song we'd ever recorded with them. Mike's songs are super soulful and Huey and the guys were tailor-made to make them hits.

We recorded this song in 1986 and by then we had really become an integral part of their sound. Once again the introductory horn riff is the perfect intro to this soul shuffle and the horns go in and out without ever once getting in the way while still remaining at the forefront. At the tail end of the song, our baritone sax player, Doc Kupka, starts playing these great low scoops that take the song out with a special flair. It's ToP Horns at their best.

5. "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville (1989)
album: Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind
In 1989 we went into Skywalker Sound, a recording studio owned by George Lucas in Northern California, and recorded an old Sam & Dave standard called "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" for a duet album with Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville.

The producer was Peter Asher, whose fame and reputation preceded him. It was an absolute pleasure recording with such a professional but what really stood out to me was how "hands-on" Linda Ronstadt was. She knew exactly what she wanted and was also very clear about what she didn't want, and I really respected her for that.

The horns on the original were done by the fabulous Memphis Horns and we basically just expanded upon their original arrangement, which only had two horns. We revoiced the arrangement for five horns and added a few signature ToP horn riffs on the ride-out.

Right out of the gate we did a horn chord that swelled out of nowhere, which was not on the original recording. That announced that ToP Horns were in the house. The song just built and built from there and the horns complemented the incredibly soulful vocals that Linda and Aaron had put on all along the way until a reprise at the very end of the song with a blistering guitar solo where the horns were featured all the way out. The song wound up winning a Grammy that year.

Q&A

Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Tower of Power has certainly carved a distinctive sound over the years.

Emilio Castillo: That's been a blessing for us, for sure. People hear certain acts, they go, "Oh, that's Tower of Power horns." They know it. That's a cool thing. And also with the band itself, there's something about the rhythm and the way we make our recordings. They hear it and they know it's Tower of Power.

Songfacts: Is that something you wanted to do from the beginning?

Castillo: When I was a young kid, I didn't have that kind of vision. I just wanted to make music. I had a passion for soul music and I wanted to make it as good as I could: really tight, great background vocals, crafty horn parts. Then I started writing later. So it wasn't like it was a planned-out thing.

Songfacts: It must be gratifying to have created something as a band that is distinctly your own.

Castillo: It is now. I remember at the low point of our career,1 the record company used to say, "If you could try to sound like other bands on the radio, we could get you more airplay." And we would try, but we always sounded like Tower of Power.

When we were trying to sound like somebody else, it was a bastardized version of ourselves, and then finally when things dried up, I said, "Let's just make music the way we make it." And as soon as we did that, everything got back on track. We realized it wasn't a curse that we don't sound like anyone else - it was a blessing.

Songfacts: Your new album is coming out March 26. Listening to it, it must have been quite a night.

Castillo: It was fabulous. It was the first time we ever played with strings. We had 10 strings. First time we had two extra background singers too. It was great.

We beefed up the horn section. It's usually pretty fat, but instead of five, we had seven horns, it was just great. And then we had some of our key players from the past, really special alumni: Chester Thompson, Lenny Pickett, Bruce Conte. That was just wonderful.



Songfacts: Aside from the Top 5 list you provided, can you think of some great horn riffs from other bands?

Castillo: Well, of other artists, James Brown - when I go "I feel good!" what do you do? Da-da da-da da-da-da. Everybody knows that horn lick.

Then of course Sam & Dave - ba-dat da da, da-da; ba-dat da da, da-da, "Hold On, I'm Comin'." Everybody knows that one.

And years ago, there was a band called Ides of March and the song was called "Vehicle" - Daa! da-dat da da-da. Everybody knows that.

A recent Tower of Power horn section appearance is on the 2020 Jon Anderson song "Makes Me Happy." The track also features Rick Derringer on guitar and Michael Winslow from the Police Academy movies on sound effects.
Songfacts: What ever happened to that band?

Castillo: I don't know, but we were thinking of calling our new project Last Band Standing, and I looked up the title and they had the same one, and it said they were celebrating 50 years together. [The Ides of March: Last Band Standing - The Definitive 50-Year Anniversary Collection] I was thinking I had never heard them over the 50 years. Maybe they were playing the Holiday Inn in the round in Poughkeepsie.2

Songfacts: Were there contemporary horn bands you admired?

Castillo: We used to listen to the Blood Sweat & Tears album with David Clayton Thomas when it first came out. We were just about to get signed by Bill Graham, and the CTA, the Chicago Transit Authority album, we listened to that. Sons of Champlin, they put out an album called The Sons and we were listening to that.

And yes, we were very competitive. We wanted to be the best horn band out there and we didn't want to sound like them. Our thing was always soul music and that sort of separated us out. And we had bigger horn sections, too.

Songfacts: Was it soon into the life of the band that you began being sought out by other acts for the kind of backing that ended up on your Top 5 list?

Castillo: It happened pretty quick. As soon as we got signed and did our first record, Santana took notice of us, and Big Brother And The Holding Company, just after Janis [Joplin] had left them. Nick Gravenites was their singer and he called us for our first session. Then we did Santana after that.

March 25, 2021
More on Tower of Power, including how to hear the album, is at towerofpower.com

More interviews:
Emilio Castillo from 2018
Peter Asher
David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears
Bill Champlin

Photos: Brian Rachlin & Lisa S. Johnson (1), Haze Photography (2)

Footnotes:

  • 1] Tower of Power's nadir was the disco era. Horn bands like Earth, Wind & Fire flowed seamlessly into the sound, but ToP couldn't swing it. This was also a time when some band members, including Emilio, were having problems with drugs and alcohol. (back)
  • 2] The Ides of March have quite a following in Chicago, where they're known for much more than their one national hit, "Vehicle." They're led by Jim Peterik, who formed Survivor and co-wrote "Eye Of The Tiger." They claimed their 50th anniversary in 2015 with the 5-disc compilation. (back)

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • John from N.c.Is there a typical horn voicing for T.O.P. that can be shared?
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