Tower of Power celebrates 50 years

A talk with the founder of the classic funk/R&B band

When Bay Area-born R&B ensemble Tower of Power plays at the Mountain Winery this week (editor’s note: its Aug. 29 Stern Grove show got canceled due to flooding), it will be touting two releases: 2020’s studio set “Step Up” and a new live album that summarizes its history in the title: “50 Years of Funk and Soul: Live at the Fox Theater, Oakland, CA.” To tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo — who founded the band in 1968 with baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka — five-plus decades have flown by. Early on, the group wrote and recorded only original material, which led to catalog classics such as 1973’s “What Is Hip?” and “Squib Cakes” and “Don’t Change Horses” in 1974. But to Castillo, 1965 seems like only yesterday; it was when his father caught him and his brother stealing T-shirts from a Palo Alto store, and grounded them until they came up with a plan for avoiding more trouble that summer. Inspired by groups they saw at Nero’s Nook, a colorful hotel bar where their father worked, they decided to try music. They were driven to Allegro Music, where Castillo chose sax, his sibling drums. “We went home and started banging and squeaking, and I’ve had a band ever since,” he says.

Looking back over 50 years, were you amazed when Drew Carey transformed “What Is Hip?” to an elaborate cast-choreographed dance number on his TV show?

Yeah! He’d come to see us at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, and he had a really good time there and was gushing all over us. And the next thing I knew, he’d worked up this big routine that opened his show! When I first heard about it, I thought he’d just incorporated a little snippet of the song. But then I actually saw it on an airplane, being used as part of another promotion, so I guess they not only used it on the show but farmed it out a little bit.

What other serendipitous stuff like that occurred?

With things like that, it was weird. Even on the same night that Drew Carey came to see us, Sinbad came. We have this song called “You’re Still a Young Man,” and it’s a ballad, but it’s really well-known, so we often do it for an encore because it brings the house down. So that same night, Sinbad came up to us and said, “Who closes with a ballad? You guys are amazing!” And the next thing I knew, he hired us for this series of live soul shows he was doing in Jamaica, and he flew us down there.

Did you get to visit the famous ska and reggae studios?

No. I was really uncomfortable down there. It was the worst humidity I’d ever experienced. I remember I took a shower, dried off and put on a new shirt, then walked 10 paces in my room, and I looked like a Rorschach test — it was unbelievable. And at the time, I was also overweight, and I was wearing these big suits. In the summer. In Jamaica. So I did not have a good night, and it wasn’t our best show. But we did get the gig!

Who are musical peers you’ve met who influenced you?

Well, I don’t know about influencing, but I remember when I met Sting in the mid-‘80s. Robert Cray — who used to open for us before he had his hit “Smoking Gun” — was playing with Eric Clapton at the Forum in L.A., where I was living at the time, and he introduced us. But this was at a time when Tower of Power was just trying to scratch its way back up from obscurity — we had done some “Letterman” shows, but we had fallen from grace, as it were. And when I met him, Sting said, “Oh, you know before I had The Police, I had a Tower of Power cover band, and we used to do ‘Don’t Change Horses’ and ‘Only So Much Oil in the Ground,’ which was a really great tune!’ And ever since then, I’ve always wanted to re-record a new version of ‘Oil’ with him, but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s sad that your original bassist, Francis Rocco Prestia, passed last year. He created a pretty influential percussive playing style.

He was an enigma. He was without a doubt the most famous member of the band, ever, and nobody could play like him because he wasn’t a schooled musician. He played from the gut, not from the mind. But he had some serious addiction problems, and eventually he needed a new liver, and then six years later, a new kidney, and he always got ‘em at the last second. I can’t remember all the times we’d gotten together and prayed and cried and accepted the fact that he was going to die. And then he didn’t. But yes, he finally passed, and it was definitely hard — I was the last person he spoke to, and he died about eight hours later.


Tower of Power

With Con Brio featuring Sarah Clarke

Where: Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3

Tickets: $44 to $244

Contact: (408) 741-2822,

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