By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
With the Monterey County Fair in full swing this week, don’t forget to check out the Fairgrounds if you are looking to hear live music by some top names. One of these names is Tower of Power, a legendary Bay Area band with over 30 years of recording and touring to its credit.
Tower of Power has its roots in Oakland in the late 1960s, where vocalist and saxophonist Emilio Castillo, a transplant from Detroit, formed a band called The Motowns. The band, unsurprisingly, played Motown soul music around the Bay Area’s clubs. After a couple of years, baritone saxophonist Stephen Kupka joined the band, and he and Castillo immediately hit it off. The pair decided to change the band’s name to Tower of Power and to go into direct competition against the Bay Area’s psychedelic rock bands.
Castillo and Kupka began writing their own songs, and Tower of Power ditched its repertoire of soul covers in favor of the new material. The band continued to play shows around the Bay Area, often with as many as 10 members, and gained a strong following for their jazz and funk-influenced R&B music. By 1970, the band had signed a recording contract with San Francisco Records and released its debut album “East Bay Grease.”
The first album was not a huge commercial success. That came with 1972’s “Bump City,” which launched the band into the big time. Tower of Power enjoyed a string of hits throughout the 1970s, including “What is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man,” and became an in-demand backing band, appearing on albums by Elton John, Smokey Robinson and others. Towards the end of the 1970s, battles with alcohol and drug addiction began to take their toll on Castillo and Kupka. After several uninspired album releases, Tower of Power disbanded in 1980.
Tower of Power reappeared in 1988, and signed to Epic Records. The band released “Monster on a Leash” in 1991, which was heralded by fans and critics as a return to form. Since then, Tower of Power has released several strong albums, including a greatest hits package, and is engaged in almost non-stop touring around the world. Castillo stresses the important role the music of Tower of Power plays in his life. “I see music as nourishment,” he said. “I need it like most of us need it to survive a toxic world. Music intoxicated me as a young man. Chemicals excited and confused me. I abused my body and, just as sadly, abused my music. But music is a constant friend, a loyal lover, a partner of unswerving integrity. When I came back and brought the band with me music accepted my amends and inspired me, as it always has, to better myself and my art.”
First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, August 18, 2005
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