An Interview with Tower of Power's Emilio Castillo

Paul Caparotta
Tower of Power (Photo: Tina Abbaszadeh)
The Tower of Power are back in Oakland celebrating fifty years of keeping soul alive in the Bay Area and are being honored by Oakland's Mayor, Libby Schaaf, declaring May 31st Tower of Power Day! The day after the declaration, the band will celebrate with two shows at the Fox Theater on June 1st and 2nd, augmented by some pretty special guests! You won't want to miss this and as of this writing, only a few tickets remain for their Friday, June 1st show -- act fast before Friday's show sells out too -- tickets can be found here.

We had a chance to catch up with Tower of Power's founding member, Emilio Castillo, to discuss their new single and their musical legacy just last week which you can find in its entirety below. Fifty years of Tower of Power—that’s a pretty impressive achievement.

Emilio Castillo: It’s amazing to me!

SFBAC: With that much history, every release is a building block—a statement. How does Soul Side of Town (iTunes) factor in to the TOP legacy?

Emilio: We have a lot of songs with 'soul' in the title—that’s certainly part of our legacy. We have a song called "Souled Out", "Soul Vaccination", "Soul with a Capital S", "Sexy Soul"—we are definitely a soul band! When we wrote the song, "On the Soul Side of Town," I wrote it with a guy out of New York named Leo Sax. I had that sort of vibe with that minor chord and I thought, it’s about that dark side of the moon that every city has—the place where all the soul food joints and rib restaurants are.

SFBAC: Listening to it brings to mind the classic Tower of Power sound, but it has a sleekness, a sharpness to it. I hear how you’re peering into some of the more hidden parts of town.

Emilio: It’s 'vibey'—that’s what we were going for.

SFBAC: It reminds me of some of your more classic releases like, "What Is Hip?" This song feels more timely than ever. People are obsessed with 'fakeness'; looking for authenticity. How does the song feel to you this many years out?

Emilio: Just to be able to say that you wrote, or recorded, a song like "What Is Hip?", that you have that in your legacy—that’s a godsend. We had no idea that we hit the mark so well when we wrote it. Doc had an idea—he said: 'I want to write a song called, What Is Hip?' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' He said, 'Everybody’s trying to be hip, and as soon as they get hip, they’re not hip no more.' I loved it. We sat down with David Garibaldi, not usually much of a writer, who had all these rhythmic ideas. He came up with that ferocious baseline, that ferocious drumbeat; they fit perfect with the lyrics. It’s just one of those where all the planets aligned right. I remember touring in the '80s with Huey Lewis & The News and they were big fans of ours; we toured our horn section with them for about four years. They would gush all over us all the time about that song. Then they wrote a song called “Hip to be Square” which was inspired by our song “What is Hip?” I remember when the song came out he made the cover to People Magazine. Quite promptly, his career ended. He said, 'I made a mistake!' I said, 'What’s the mistake?' He said, 'I wrote it in the first person! You wrote it in the third person! You didn’t take the blame—I had to take the blame! Everybody thinks that I think it’s hip to be square!' You have to understand something: There I am, at a low point in my career. And I’m touring with the number one artist in the world at the time, and he’s telling me that he made a mistake—he didn’t do it like us! To have a song like that in your catalog, it’s a godsend.

SFBAC: It’s not just the lyrics and the melody—the rhythm in that song is killer. The breakdown at 3:15, all the syncopation, kills it.

Emilio: Very few bands can lay down that blistering of a groove. It’s a special thing.

SFBAC: You guys seem to have a gift to write songs that hold up very well. “You’re Still A Young Man” still feels bracing—and the version on 40th Anniversary is on point.

Emilio: That quality in our music [laughs]—that’s another blessing from God. I wrote that song when I was eighteen—I wasn’t quite nineteen. I had a girlfriend who was 24. She broke up with me, then we got back together, and then we broke up again. She was always telling me, 'You’re too young for me—you need to be with girls your own age.' And I’d say, 'No, no, no—I want to be with you.' That was the basis for the story behind the song. If you had told me that this song would be a hit for my band, a timeless classic (since that’s what it’s turned out to be)… We still have to play that song every single night. I don’t know what makes certain bands music timeless… I guess it doesn’t fall into a timeframe category. When you hear it you don’t go, 'Oh sixties, seventies, eighties…' It’s just—'wow, great song!'

SFBAC: It works just as well now as it did then.

Emilio: It’s not like we said, 'Let’s sit down and write a timeless song.' That’s the first song we ever wrote, ever. I tell people it’s been downhill ever since [laughs]!

SFBAC: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that’s the case!

Emilio: We were listening to Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions and they had this one song on the This Is My Country album (iTunes) that started with a really high trumpet ["My Woman’s Love"]. Beautiful trumpet intro. We had Mick Gillette—he had great range. We said, 'Let’s write a trumpet intro and make Mick play really high.' Then we thought we’d write about a guy who’s broken hearted because his older girlfriend thinks he’s too young.

SFBAC: Listening through 40th Anniversary (iTunes), listening through Great American Soulbook (iTunes), obviously you guys are still creating some great music. Now with the 50th coming up you have a lot to look back on. Are there any insights you can share with fifty years under your belt?

Emilio: One thing about doing it this long, you start to realize that any moment can be the moment you look back at in twenty years and say, 'Man, remember that?' Any season of your life—let’s say the first six months of 2018—could be that in 2028 I’ll be looking back and saying, 'Man, what a time.' When you’re in it, you’re not thinking that. I’m just sitting in my car, I’m in the market—I’m not thinking about that. You start to realize that all the great times, the “good ol’ times,” they could all be happening right now. You don’t realize it when you’re in it. People ask me: 'in the early seventies when you were just hittin’ it, did you realize it?' I was just a young guy out there doing it! It all went by, and then ten years later we thought it was the high point of our career. Then when we were at a low point of your career we didn’t think of it that way—we were just doing our best to make music we liked. Ten years later we looked back and said, 'We made it out of that.' There’s always something to look back on. But when you’re in it you’re not thinking that way. You’re just doing your best to get by.

SFBAC: Obviously there’s some big stuff going down for you guys in Oakland shortly—congratulations for that! How pivotal was the Bay in terms of impacting your sound?

Emilio: It was integral. In the sixties there was Sly Stone—before he ever had his band he was the hottest disc jockey in the Bay Area. He was on KSOUL Radio—everybody listened to Sly, and soul music in the Bay Area was off the charts. Plus radio was off the charts! We had great radio—even still! I notice how much more interesting radio is there compared to other cities. That’s not to say that they don’t have good radio elsewhere—they do—but there’s something about the Bay Area radio and soul music, especially the East Bay, that is very unique. Soul music to me is about emotions. It moves you emotionally. That type of music was coming out in droves in the Bay Area. That music shaped our lives, it shaped our musicianship, and it made us who we are. I’m from Detroit, and that shaped me, but my formative musical years were in California—the East Bay in particular. It was a soul scene man! San Francisco was psychedelic, but we looked at that as something different. We were about soul music—still are!

SFBAC: The shows you have coming up should be fantastic—glad you were able to add an extra show into the mix.

Emilio: We’re looking forward to it—we’re gonna augment the band. We are adding two extra background vocalists: Tony Lindsey, the former singer for Santana, and Melanie Cracchiolo is our trumpet player’s wife who sang several background vocals on the new album. We’ll have a ten-piece violin section. We’ll have Chester Thompson on B3 and Lenny Pickett on tenor saxophone. Our former singer, who now sings lead for Santana, is going to be playing trombone. We’ll have Bruce Conte play a couple of songs, and Rocco’s gonna play four songs. Our horn arranger is going to play some synth parts—it’s going to be an augmented band and a really great show. We’re going to play for an hour, groove into an intermission and then play another hour. We’ll film it, make a documentary and do the whole thing!

SFBAC: Can’t wait for you to bring the Power to Oakland in just a couple of weeks!

Emilio: Thanks! God bless!

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