He's Got to 'Funkifize'
Sessions with the founder-saxophonist of Oakland's Top Brass
By Cristofer Gross – As 2016 dawns, Tower of Power, the ten-piece soul-funk band out of Oakland, California, is driving its way through its 48th year. Ray Greene, the latest in a long line of lead singers has two years with the band as they work on their first release of new material since 2008.
All four remaining members from the 1968 line-up are back on the stand and in good health. Drummer David Garibaldi returned late in 2015 after hip replacement surgery, and bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia has the new kidney he sought for many years. Stephen "The Funky Doctor" Kupka still unloads frenzied runs of syncopated funk like automatic bazooka fire, and the band's leader, second saxophone, and, with Kupka, principle songwriter Emilio Castillo continues to sing lead on several popular numbers.
In January 2013 I spoke with Castillo after seeing the band in Wilmington, Delaware the previous October. It was a performance, coincidentally, taped by a PBS affiliate and currently online here. In January 2014, right before attending a performance in Riverside, California, we spoke again. Those two conversations have been woven together into the following Intermission.
In the late 1960s, pop, rock, soul, and R&B groups, who previously had used studio musicians to add horn parts to their recordings, began including sax, trumpet, and trombone players as band members. It meant bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears could better incorporate jazz, while soul and R&B groups like Sly and the Family Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire had even more firepower.
In Oakland, California, the ten-piece Tower of Power went even further. With half its weight in brass, the five-piece horn section did more than add fills and flourishes. They laid down rich bars of fat, five-note chords made up of two trumpets – which could also include trombone or flugelhorn – and three saxophones – two tenors (one of which could switch to flute or soprano) and Kupka's baritone.
Three of the most important singers in Tower of Power's history were hot topics as 2014 began. The first is Rick Stevens, who sang back-up behind Rufus Miller on the debut album, East Bay Grease, and sang lead on Bump City and back-up again, behind his replacement, Lenny Williams, on Tower of Power. The second, Williams, who was front man for the peak albums of Tower of Power, Back to Oakland, and Urban Renewal. Third is Larry Braggs, the longest-running lead singer who left the band this past New Year's Eve.
EMILIO CASTILLO. Yeah, that's him. He's sat in with us several times already and was here Tuesday night at Yoshi's. He just finished a new record out, which our old guitar player Jeff Tamelier produced, and it has a new version of "Sparkling in the Sand" that they sort of rearranged. On the original version Skip Mesquite sang the B section, it was really pretty. He passed away shortly after we did our DVD and his son is singing that part on Rick's new EP. He sounds just like his dad, only a little more soulful, but really great.
But Rick's doing well. He's playing gigs all over. He still has a restriction on his travel because of his incarceration, which will come off at some point, but he plays all over the Bay Area and has a little band that he works with pretty regular. Sometimes he works with people from Cold Blood, including lead singer Lydia Pense. So he's doing well.
THEATERTIMES. What can you say here at the end of the Larry Braggs' era?
CASTILLO. Well, you know Larry's tenure in the band was the longest of any singer, and of all the singers he was the most powerful. I think he lost his voice two times, maybe three, and I'm talking about completely lost his voice, and still did the show and encored. It was amazing. The other guys – all the other guys, every one of them – at different times had to bow out, you know. They'd say "You need to do an instrumental, I can't do this one tonight." He never did that. He is an amazing instrument. He can sing high and long and hard, more than anyone I've ever worked with. And he was a really good member.
THEATERTIMES. But he did leave amicably.
CASTILLO. Well, we didn't want him to leave. But, you know, I understand it. He's of an age where if he doesn't try to do something on his own now, he never will and he'll probably regret it. And I think he had second thoughts before he split. But that's only natural. He's in there with a hot band and we're doing really, really good. He wondered whether he was doing the right thing. But, we had already made plans with Ray [Greene] and so towards the end it was everybody just doing what they were going to do and we just enjoyed each other out. I just hope he's very successful, because it will be great for him and it will reflect well for us. And he deserves it. And I have no doubt he'll be dropping in as a guest now and then.
THEATERTIMES. Another favorite man from the past was Lenny Williams, and he, coincidentally, is the lead singer on your most recent release, a radio concert from 1974 released this November under the title Hipper Than Hip. How's that CD doing?
CASTILLO. The reaction has been really good. A lot of favorable reviews. We keep on running out and having to print new ones. So that's a good sign. As far as Lenny, you know we had an instance where Larry had taken a gig back in September in the middle of the tour and we were sort of stuck without a singer. And we had been using Brent Carter to sub for Larry. And Brent is with AWB and they were in Vegas during that time so he couldn't do it. And I called Lenny Williams up and he wanted to do it really bad. And he said he felt that he could do it but he had promised he would be the guest of honor at a golfing tournament, but thought he could get out of it without any problem. But he wasn't able to do it, which was too bad because we were all looking forward to that.
Coincidentally that was the same gig that Ray was coming to do his audition at sound check. And so we were in a jam, and I told the guys, I got a good feeling about this guy Ray Greene. I said why don't we tell him to learn six more songs and tell him he's got to do the show, or ask him if he'd help us out. And he was very gracious, you know. He said, yeah, he would do it and I told him, you know, this doesn't mean you get the gig, you're just helping us out in a jam. He says, yeah, I understand. I said, well I really appreciate it. And he came and, man, he really brought it, really seriously. Everybody knew that night that we wanted him, but we still had to try five or six more guys, and he had to think about it too, because he was making quite a bit of money himself, he's sort of a wedding singer up there in the northeast coast where all that money is. But, he told me, you know I'm not fooling myself, I don't want to be a wedding singer all my life. This is a great band and I really enjoyed the gig, but I'll tell you something, it's not the gig, it's the people. He says I just really got a sense of family when I came there, I liked everybody and he said, yeah I'm going to do it.
Castillo was born in Detroit in September 1950, but soon moved with his parents and older brother to Oakland. Looking back, it's clear that his father instilled qualities in Castillo that have helped keep Tower of Power going. After his father caught him stealing, he was told to stay in his room until he had a way to keep 'off the street.' He chose music.
CASTILLO. My dad was in the culinary industry, as a bartender, bar manager, and then a restaurant manager. Whenever I visited him at work, I'd hear, "Oh Mr. C, man, he's the greatest." They always loved him even though he was the boss. It was just the way that he sort of laid down the law. He was a good leader. And I guess I learned that part from him.
He also had good taste in music. He's not a musical person, but he grew up in Detroit, and there was a lot of great music in the '50s in Detroit and we had Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, the Platters, the Ink Spots, Count Basie. He loved all that stuff. As I came into music at the time of the British Invasion and soul music and all that, we would watch stuff together. He'd say "I need you to go and see this band," and made arrangements for me to go to a nightclub. He sent me to see Sly and the Family Stone and Roger Collins. He was a trippy guy. He still is.
When a teenage Castillo was auditioning musicians for his band in July 1968, it was "Mr. C" who called him into their kitchen and said, "Hire that guy. He's got something." It was Kupka. Within a month, Tower of Power had been created. Rounding out the sax section was lead tenor Skip Mesquite, with Greg Adams and David Pedron on trumpets, with Mic Gillette and Ken Balzell sitting in. Mesquite would leave his mark on the band's first two albums, perhaps most indelibly on "Knock Yourself Out," the opening track of the debut East Bay Grease. It set the standard for the great lead sax players who would follow, including longtime fixture Lenny Pickett (now a longtime fixture on "Saturday Night Live"), who joined Castillo, Kupka, Adams, and Gillette to form the five-piece Tower of Power horns that rose to prominence for most of the '70s.
CASTILLO. Skippy was a big star in our band. Unfortunately, he fell pray to the drug scene, got really strung out on heroin, and I had to let him go. For a lot of years we just had resentment for each other. But over time as our hearts softened and we came in contact with each other more I saw the change in his life. The beautiful thing about Skip was that he got saved, came to Christ, and his life completely turned around. His wife, too.
He came to see me at the Nugget in Sparks, Nevada, and he claims I asked him if he was playing and he said no, "Because I don't have my teeth!" I thought he looked fine. He said, "These are all false." I said, "So what man! Doc's only got like two teeth in his whole body." He called me a couple months later and said, "I need to thank you. Because of what you said I got a tenor the next day and I'm playing again." Then we got in the habit of just bringing him in to sit in and just really encouraging him. And we got real close. And then he got sick. And we actually prayed for him a lot and he actually beat the cancer thing twice. But then it came back. And we knew it wasn't looking good, when we did the 40th. But we were all just enjoying ourselves so much and there were so many people that we were seeing that we hadn't seen for years.
It wasn't surprising when shortly after that we learned it was back and it wasn't going to be beatable this time.
THEATERTIMES. And you dedicated the 40th Anniversary DVD to him, which was a great tribute and very generous of you.
CASTILLO. Yeah, that turned out really great. As a matter of fact, our Blu-Ray version has an extra bonus feature with a bunch more rehearsal and back stage stuff. There are extra shots from somebody's video of Skip in there. When I was approving those Blu-Ray extras I got an email from his wife, Nancy, that read, "I was just thinking about you and wanted you to know that I'm so proud of you guys and doing so well."
Forty-five years ago, a Bay Area band could have no greater friend than Bill Graham, the Berlin-born impresario who ran two San Francisco venues, including the Fillmore West where Tower of Power got its first major exposure, and two record labels, including San Francisco Records which released East Bay Grease. Graham proved to be another inspiring mentor.
CASTILLO. He signed us to a great deal. We did our first record and went on tour, but there were no records in the stores, which is the story for every group that goes out on their first tour. We came back and Atlantic was trying to get us to do something. [Lead singer] Rick Stevens was in his cups, and he talked us into going with some drug dealer up on the hill.
We went down and made complete fools of ourselves and accused Bill of not doing his job and it was almost a physical fight between Rick and him. I remember walking away from that and telling the guys "We made a huge, huge mistake today and we're going to pay for it." For the next year and a half, we had this record out and were hotter than ever, but we couldn't record.
East Bay Grease did pretty good for a first outing. People wanted us to record another album but we couldn't because Bill had our contract. So we had to humble ourselves. Me and Doc would go visit him once a week when we were home and make our apologies and he would sort of start at a very low level and say, "Well, boys you know I love the band, but. . ." And then he'd start screaming. He'd been screwed by Santana early in Carlos' career when Bill was managing him. They had no paper, because it was on a handshake. But with us he had paper and he said, "If you think you're getting out of this you're dreaming."
We did that for about a year and finally the thing with the drug-dealer-manager ran its course and he went to jail, and we went back to our old manager, Ron Barnett. He went right into Bill and said, "Okay, what do you want?" And Bill screamed for about ten minutes and said he wanted a point on our next record deal and $40,000. We already had a deal at Warner Bros, who wanted to sign us, and they took care of it. After that we were good friends with Bill.
Graham's Fillmore glories were celebrated in July 1971 when he gathered many of the Bay Area bands he helped launch for a closing week of shows. Among them were Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cold Blood, Boz Scaggs, Santana, and Tower of Power. A documentary and three-disc album were released in 1972. TOP is on the Rhino CD, but are missing from the DVD.
CASTILLO. To his credit, even though we were fighting he wanted us to be part of the Closing of the Fillmore because he knew it was the right thing to do. But he didn't include us in the film [Laughs.]
He used to call us every year and have us play at his private Christmas party, 'cause we were like his favorite band. He loved the horns, he loved the rhythm, he loved the soul. One year we were playing, it was late '70s, and we were all strung out and were broke and were starting to pay the price for our sins. Things were not going well, and so to get that gig with him was just heaven-sent. And I remember we were doing our sound check and I was there at the club by myself and he came in and he looked at me and said "Let me talk to you in the dressing room." And I thought, oh man, what happened? Somebody was caught shooting up in the bathroom or something. And I go in there and I'm all nervous you know and he says, I'm going to talk to you and I don't want you to say a word. And I'm like what the . . . ? And he says I know you guys have been struggling and let's just say I've had a good roll of the dice this year. I'm going to give you this envelope, and this is for you. And you can do with it whatever you want. There's $10,000 in there and you can keep it for yourself, you can split it with Doc, you can split it with all the guys, that's up to you. But I don't want you to say anything, just know that I appreciate you guys. And he got up and walked out. Gave me $10,000.
There was a pool table in the dressing room, and after the gig I called all the guys in there and I threw the money down on the pool table and I said "Merry Christmas guys, from Bill Graham." He gave us that money and he still paid us for the gig.
In early March, four months before the Fillmore closed, Aretha Franklin recorded her Live at the Fillmore. Graham invited TOP to open the whole weekend. "That was the time of the fight and he felt it was the right thing to do and that was a huge deal."
Graham would die 20 years later, at the age of 60, in an October 1991 helicopter crash while flying home after a Huey Lewis and the News concert he promoted.
In the late '80s, the Tower of Power Horns were on tour with Lewis and the News. The brass still had cache, but the band itself was suffering as Castillo and Kupka had also fallen victim to drugs and alcohol and their creative juices drained. The quality of the discs diminished as the dismissals by the critics piled up over these years and it was not until Castillo got sober and drug-free that things began to turn around. He still gives a shout-out to all the friends of Bill W at concerts, often in the introduction to "You're Still a Young Man." Castillo provides details on his lost decade from 1978 to 1988, as well as much more, in this INTERVIEW with Gary Chappell.
The resurgence would begin in May 1991 with the release of Monster on a Leash. It featured a title track by Kupka, Lewis, and Castillo, and cover art of a saxophone player with a demon in his brain but the light of inspiration still shining. It seemed illustrative of the light and dark sides that must be balanced for a creative artist.
CASTILLO. Yeah, you know. We were touring with Huey Lewis and the News. The three of us were talking about the concept for some time. Doc was still struggling with alcohol, and of course being the leader of Tower of Power, which had been hired by Huey Lewis and the News, I was responsible for Doc and so I'm trying to lay down the law a little with him. Huey was a good friend and so we became advocates in trying to help Doc to get it together. One of the ways Huey explained it to Doc was that it's okay, "Because you have to take your monster out for a walk once in a while. But then you have to put him back on the leash." And that's what gave Doc the idea for the song.
When Huey'd get drunk he'd say, "Oh, George came out." And he'd say to Doc, "I had to take George out for a walk and let my hair down." [He laughs.] Huey didn't know too much about recovery. Me and Doc, we don't have that luxury. So we just stay clean.
In a reverse way, drugs marked the end of Tower's run of hits with lead singer and solid songwriter Lenny Williams. It was the period of 1972-1975, and included songs like "So Very Hard to Go" "Don't Change Horses," "What is Hip?" and "Only So Much Oil in the Ground." The reason Williams quit, as he explains to DJ Soulswede in a 2012 INTERVIEW, was an incident that happened on a world tour Warner Bros. organized in 1974.
That was also the tour, according to Castillo, that TOP got close to Little Feat and its main creative force, Lowell George. That would lead to one of the Tower of Power Horns greatest recordings, Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus, considered by many critics to be, along with The Band's Rock of Ages, one of the best live recordings of the era.
CASTILLO. We played on several Little Feat albums. We had done "Spanish Moon" in the studio with Van Dyke Parks producing. And we started sitting in with them to play "Spanish Moon," We really got to know them on a personal level when we did this famous 1974 Warner Bros Music Show tour of Europe with the Doobie Bros as the star, and Little Feat, Tower of Power, Graham Central Station, Montrose and a Doobie Bros protégé called Bonaroo.
So when they were planning the live recording they called us. We recorded in Washington DC for three nights and at the Rainbow in London for three nights [in August 1977]. And we knew them really well by then. There were a lot of rehearsals and the six concerts and a lot of days off where we were together. We all sort of thought the same in terms of music. They approached things from a soulful place.
That's another band that was really affected by drug abuse. We were all in our cups at the time and so we did a lot of craziness together. [Beat.] It's unfortunate. It makes me really grateful that I lived through all of that. Lowell was kinda like me, you know he was . . . more is better, . . . more is better. He would do all of his and most of yours. That's just kinda who he was. But the guy was a wonderful guy, his singing, his playing, his writing, his personality. Everything about him was a joy to be around. But we were all just caught up in that thing. And you know fortunately after we did that record and they shot right up. They were huge. And the next thing we know, he did a solo record, and he's going on tour, and that's when it happened.
George died on June 29, 1979 at the age of 34.
CASTILLO. They had a big concert for him at the Forum in Los Angeles, and we played with everybody there, you know, and worked with everybody all night. That was a lot of fun. I think the high point though was Emmylou Harris. She came out and her husband at the time Brian Ahern played guitar, and she sang "HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE" by The Beatles and I'm telling you man there was not a dry eye in the house.
Today the band is as strong as ever. Braggs is a powerful singer with great range and a commanding onstage presence that engages audiences. A recent addition who impressed us and is sure to do the same for veteran TOP-fans is guitarist Jerry Cortez, who joined in January 2010, after the 40th Anniversary DVD.
CASTILLO. We had considered asking him to join the band and for some reason I got the impression that he was retired from the road and had gone out to Salt Lake City to teach high school and give private lessons. I had a line on this guy from Vegas who I'd seen play at a wedding, and he was very good. And at the time I was sort of frustrated by my guitar player and I thought "Here's a band playing at a wedding and their guitar player is better than mine." [Laughs.] I wanted to bring him in, and told the guys. To his credit, Tom Politzer said I think we can call Jerry Cortez. I had to step back and go with the crowd. So we scheduled some auditions. And Jerry came in literally stole the gig. He played three songs with us and I stopped the audition process and we hired him.
And he's so good at what he does. He's very meticulous. He dedicates a lot of time to work on the songs we're going to do. And it's not only his soloing, which is amazing, but his rhythm is impeccable, his tone, everything about the way he approaches his gig is just absolutely the best thing for Tower of Power. He sings great, and to top it all off, he's the nicest guy I've ever known, and he's always like that. Never seen the guy lose it. And for a bandleader that's just a blessing.
Cortez and trumpeter Sal Cracchiolo are the last members to join in the Larry Braggs era, if one divides history by lead singer. (See 'A Singers Timeline,' at left)
CASTILLO. We're currently doing a new Tower of Power record and we just recorded all 14 new songs in the past few months. It takes a long time, with all the dates we play each year. And we're notoriously slow anyway. But I have 14 basic tracks recorded, and I brought in some girls and put background vocals on 11 of them. They sound really good, and my plan is to do probably 12 more and then take 12 out of 25. I want to make the best record I've ever made. My old manager came to see us recently and he said you know I think it's a point in your career when you need to really document the band and you need to make the best record you've ever made, and to do that you need to do the Michael Jackson method. Record like 25 or 26 songs and take the best 12. So that's my plan. Whether or not I get to do that, we'll see, but that's the plan.
THEATERTIMES. This new CD can come out in 2013?
CASTILLO. I hope so, you know. We'll see. We're working faster than we ever have before. We used to rehearse for days on end and then we'd go in the studio and do take after take after take and now we go right to the studio, I teach them a song, within an hour we've got it recorded, I do the fixes and we move on to the next song. We'll do three, maybe four or five songs a day.
THEATERTIMES. Well, on behalf of a lot of friends who won't get the chance to say it personally, thanks for all the years of great music. From 'East Bay Grease' to 'Souled Out,' to the '40th Anniversary' CD, I must have covered more than 100,000 miles with you guys playing on my car stereo.. It's been a good long run together.
CASTILLO. All right, man. God bless. Good-bye.