Tower of Power

Fifty Years of Oakland soul and East Bay funk

When sax player Emilio Castillo put together the band that would evolve into Tower of Power in 1968, he had no grand expectations. “We were hoping to get good enough to play the Fillmore,” Castillo said. “I started the band in Fremont, at John F. Kennedy High, with my brother Jack, who was the original drummer. We called ourselves the Motowns and played covers, leaning heavily on the sound of Stax and Hi—Otis Redding, James Brown, Sam and Dave, and other soul acts.”

The band moved up to Oakland and took off, packing clubs with their horn-driven sound. “Oakland is our sound,” Castillo said. “I always say, ‘You can take the boy out of Oakland, but you can’t take Oakland out of the boy.’ Everywhere you went, soulful music was playing in Oakland. There were excellent soul radio stations there, going back to when Sly Stone was a DJ at KSOL. Everybody listened to the radio in those days, before streaming. When I traveled from city to city, Oakland always struck me as more soulful than anywhere else, even Detroit and Memphis.”

David Garibaldi soon replaced Jack Castillo on drums. When Emilio Castillo hired baritone sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka to fill out the band’s horn section, everything clicked. “Doc told me the covers were solid, but said we should start writing our own tunes. I said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’” The first song they wrote together was “You’re Still a Young Man,” still a crowd favorite and one of the tunes featured on 50 Years of Funk & Soul – Live at the Fox Theater. The just-released album is the band’s 34th, and celebrates their longevity by recreating 23 of their hits, alongside an excursion into four James Brown obscurities. “Brown was a huge influence on our sound,” Castillo said. “We have always, from the beginning, tried to do the lesser known and obscure tracks when doing covers. I’ve been told that JB once remarked something to the effect that, ‘Tower of Power is the only band out there that does justice to my sound.’”

As they approached their 50th anniversary, they made plans for a celebration. “We looked around for a venue and thought the Fox, in Oakland, was perfect,” Castillo said. “We started talking about the gig six months in advance. Once we had a plan, we rehearsed for five days. We brought in some alumni, expanded the horn line and added a string section, which we’ve never used before. Since we had seven horns, we expanded the charts. Some of the arrangements were significantly different from the originals. We still have a tight approach, but there’s always room for solos and improvisation, especially on the ride out at the end of the tunes.”

50 Years of Soul & Funk is impressive. The package includes extensive liner notes, two CDs and two DVDs. The songs sound as fresh as they did when they first hit the streets. The horns sparkle, the vocals are full of soulful fervor and the grooves laid down by bass player Marc van Wageningen and drummer David Garibaldi in the rhythm section are deep enough to engulf the entire city of Oakland. Garibaldi’s grace notes and percussion accents are particularly notable. “Dave is amazing,” Castillo said. “He’s always inventing new ways to approach the music. He’s never stagnant.”

When the pandemic hit, they had to recalibrate. “We’re usually out on the road 200 days a year. Some are travel days, but we play a few gigs every week,” Castillo said. “A lot of young bands can’t do that, but that’s what keeps us tight. We’re doing a lot of Zoom interviews and putting stuff up on social media. PBS will be playing our special all over the country for about a year, so that helps. We’re still writing songs and recording demos, and can’t wait to get back to touring. We hope to get down to South America. It’s the only continent we haven’t won over with our live shows yet.”

Looking back on the band’s history, Castillo said he’s satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. “We’re not a band that reinvents itself every time we go into the studio. We sound like Tower of Power and there’s nothing we can do about it. At first, I thought it was a curse but, as we kept evolving, I realized it was a blessing. We kept chipping away at the sculpture we were creating. The aim is to arrive at a masterpiece. You have to tell us if we’ve succeeded.”

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