Since their formation in 1968 as the Motowns, Oakland soul band Tower of Power has been known for their legendary five-piece horn section, which led to songs like “So Very Hard to Go” or “What Is Hip?” being the dancefloor gems they are. The band has been going non-stop since then, and this year celebrates their 50th anniversary with their first album of original material in nearly 15 years.
Titled Soul Side of Town, the album on Mack Avenue Records sees the band once again making songs for cruising and dancing. The instant that David Garibaldi’s drums roll on the opening of “Hangin’ with My Baby,” you know you’re in for a funky good time. The band is aided by the fact that it still features founding members and songwriting team Emilio Castillo on 2nd tenor sax and Stephen “Doc” Kupka on baritone sax.
We spoke by phone with Castillo about Tower of Power’s past, present, and future.
Modern Vinyl: A new album for your 50th anniversary is really exciting. It seems like so many bands at this marker just put out a greatest hits, but you’ve got 14 new tracks.
Emilio Castillo: New music, yeah. We actually recorded 28 new songs, and we have two new albums that are finished. So, we put this one out on June 1, and the second one will come out within a year.
MV: Is there a particular reason you decided to do two albums?
EC: Well, yeah. I was talking to one of my old managers, and he said, “You need to make the best album of your career now — the only way you do that is to Michael Jackson that, where you record way more than you need and pick the best 12.”
So, I was bound to do 25 songs, and it wound up to be 28, and they all came out so good, because I produced it with Joe Vannelli, and when we took it to the new record company, they liked it all and wanted to put them both out, so we would up mixing and sequencing both albums. They were going to put them both out at once, but we convinced them to do one at a time.
MV: How did you come to work with Mack Avenue Records? Obviously, if they wanted to put out two records at once, they have a lot of confidence in you.
EC: I think that decision came when they heard it. Honestly, they were floored by the material, because we took it to another level on this record. I’m very proud of it, and how it came out. We were sort of in a dilemma, as to which 12 songs were the best songs. I was reaching out to all sorts of people that I trust, and was sending them the tracks, saying, “Help me make this decision!”
Then we went to the meeting with Mack Avenue, and they said, “We like all of it, and we want to put it all out now.” We thought that was a little strange, but we were up for it, because then we didn’t have to fight over what songs were going to be on there. Originally, I was just trying to make the best album I could, and in so doing, record more than I need, so that I could pick the best material.
They’re just really into the band. They see us as an ongoing, vibrant, relevant band, and they’re very proud to have us on their label.
MV: I know that these are the last recordings with Ray Greene, who’s now moved on to Santana, but also the first ones with new singer Marcus Scott. Did that make the transition a little easier?
EC: Well, it wasn’t an easy transition, because we were shocked when he went on to Santana. We couldn’t blame him, because Santana’s got a lot of money and they offered him half the work, and Ray’s got kids in college, so we couldn’t blame him for going, but we loved him, and we were stunned. Plus, we had half the record recorded when he left, so I had two months to find somebody and God was very gracious.
A friend of mine named TC Coleman — who was the drummer for B.B. King — recommended Marcus, and he’s grown into the gig so, so nicely, and we’re just really proud of him. I think that he’s a greater soul singer than Ray in many, many ways. We ended up replacing the vocals that Ray did on some of the songs, but we’d already spent so much getting things recorded — and we liked a lot of the stuff Ray did — we said, “Let’s use ’em both,” and man, it came out great. We’re really pleased.
MV: Marcus has the first proper song on the album, so that’s a vote of confidence from you all.
EC: Oh, yeah, we definitely see his vocals as the star of the album. He’s a phenomenal soul singer.
MV: The thing I’ve always liked about Tower of Power is that you are, at heart, a soul band. There are funky songs, but you’re not a funk band, and you’re not playing jazz, despite having this huge backing band. A 10-piece band is an anomaly in most genres, but as a touring concern, does that offer up any difficulties?
EC: We’ve done it for so long, and it’s what we know, so we kind of got it down to a science. It’s a logistical nightmare, and we’re a money-easting machine to take it on the road, but it’s what we know, and it’s what we do, and it’s what we’re famous for and we we got it down to a science at this point.
We make original soul music — and you’re right, we’re not a funk band. We play funk — I think we make some of the most creative, advanced funk that’s out there — but that’s just a part of our sound. Soul music has funk in it. It has those ring-out-your-heart love ballads. It has those really slow [songs], it has finger-poppin’ shuffles, it has medium-tempo love songs — kind of like what Earth, Wind & Fire puts out — it has all sorts of different types of soul music.
The common thread is that it moves you emotionally. It’s an exciting music that moves you emotionally. We make it in our own, original, Oakland-style way. It’s our signature, and it’s our own voice, and we’re fortunate. We’re this huge band that has an incredible rhythm section — and, obviously, a very famous and distinct five-piece horn section — and we have background vocals, and then we have this unique writing style that’s all our own.
It’s a self-contained unit, and it’s a big unit, and it’s what we’re used to.
MV: Tell me a little more about that writing style: what makes it unique?
EC: I’d have to give most of the credit for that to my songwriting partner, Doc. When I first met him, the reason I gave him an audition was because he has a quirky personality. He’s a unique person — he’s the first hippie I ever met, and came talkin’ to me like a black guy from the street, and I was obviously part of the soul music family in the East Bay, and we just hit it off.
He always had these clever little quips and sayings and that quirky personality, and when we started to write, that evidenced itself really powerfully. To this day, he has a really clever way, and I have this way of sort of shaping a lot of those ideas in soulful ways with rhythm and chords. And, the way the vocal is presented — that’s sort of my specialty because I like, as I say, vocals to move you emotionally.
If it’s a love song, the guy should be pleading his case to the point where people are out there going, “Ooh, yeah!” It’s got to be moving like that.
Soul Side of Town is available on double vinyl LP from Tower of Power’s store.