Emilio Castillo of
Tower of Power,
The TVD Interview

A year in quarantine lockdown can be overwhelming, especially for a band that is so used to being on the road as Tower of Power, the mighty soul outfit from out of Oakland, California. “I’ve toured 200 days a year for the last 53 years, so yeah, it’s difficult,” band co-founder Emilio Castillo says.

But they’ve used their time wisely to put finishing touches on their new release 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater, Oakland, CA – June 2018, a three-LP set due out March 26 from Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Music Group that includes versions of its biggest hits from “What is Hip” and “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)” to “So Very Hard to Go” and “You’re Still a Young Man.”

The Vinyl District caught up with Castillo in his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he’s lived for 26 years but never so much as in the last 12 months.

Has Tower of Power played at all in the past year?

We did one gig in September where it was a drive-in gig. We did two shows with Los Lobos and it was very successful.

How does a drive-in concert even work? Do people have to stay in their cars?

No, they could get out and be in front of their car, and the mix was broadcast on an FM frequency so it went to the radio. We played in Ventura [at the Ventura County Fairgrounds], and got a lot of lowriders up in there so they came in with those big sound systems in their trucks and in their cars, It was sort of like a tailgate party. They’d be in front of their vehicles, booming it really loud, and we were on a stage, and there was an LED [screen] on all four sides of the stage, and they were all around us in a circle, spread out.

It sold out, and it was a huge parking lot, because it was a fairground. The turnout was successful. They were pleased, and two more gigs were booked immediately. It was like, all right! But then as it got closer, three days before the gig they canceled because the pandemic was spiking.

Do you have things on the calendar for this year?

Yeah we do, and then we got all these dates that we’ve got to make up. Every time we have a Zoom meeting with the band, our new manager Ivory Daniel, says, “To start the meeting right off, I want you to know: You’re booked completely all over the world. So as soon as this thing opens up, get ready to go.” So yeah, we’re booked.

There’s people that had gigs on the books that just cancelled, they’re like “We want you.” They’re opening Jazz Alley in Seattle. I’m sure we’re going to be one of the first ones back there. People in Japan, they want it. Europe. It’s going to fly.

It’s hard to know how it’s going to play out. But I know this: People are jonesin’ to get to concerts, man. They’re dying, dying to get out there and go to venues again. I hope it all just opens up completely and we let all this stuff go.

After they hear the live album they’re going to want it more.

I believe so!

It must have taken a lot to plan to record and film these concerts for Tower of Power’s 50th anniversary.

There was a lot of planning ahead of time—choosing the songs and then talking about arrangements of the songs and the time of them. We did a few things that were connected. So there were musical things that we did and then also we wanted to pick the venue. We wanted to make sure what the look was going to be like, and how many cameras are going to be there. There were certain things we wanted those cameras to catch. So yeah, a lot of planning.

A week before, we went into a rehearsal studio owned by Tony Toni Toné in Oakland, and we rehearsed the band for a couple of days, and then brought the strings in and rehearsed with the strings. And then we had a day on the town, where the mayor declared Tower of Power Day and we were on the news and everything. Then we went into the venue on the day of the gig and did a long soundcheck with the full band. So it was just just a lot, lot of work.

And post-production, too?

When you do a live show, especially with that big a band, there’s so many microphones, you have to go in and clean up any extra dirty sound. That means on every single microphone on every single player on every single song—through the whole thing. Doing all that cleanup work, tuning the guy who’s out of tune here, just going through with a fine tooth comb. Then you got to mix it and do the video editing. So it’s a long, arduous process. And then you have to do all the stuff for the product, the liner notes and the credits. It’s endless, endless, endless.

I’ll say this, it helped me through the pandemic. It kept me busy and I was always working so that was good, you know.

You had a lot of Tower of Power alumni come in to join you on the album, Lenny Pickett, Chester Thompson, and Bruce Conte among them. How do you feel about so many people coming through the band over the years?

I think as we got older it became something that we were comfortable with. People come in, it’s kind of like going to college. They come in, put some time in here, they graduate, go on to do some things for themselves, or maybe just to make a name as a musician with other famous artists.

I think at first in our career, it was like, “Oh no, he left!,” you know. But we soon figured out that God always provided somebody that was going to not only fill the bill, but to bring new creativity into the band, and that’s a good thing.

Fifty years is a long time. How do you keep a band together that long?

My patented answer these days is God did it, I just showed up.

The first 20 years of my career, we made very mistake known to man. We were all strung out on drugs, we made bad business decisions, fired people we shouldn’t have fired, hired people we shouldn’t have hired, and then I bottomed out on drugs and alcohol in ’88 and sobered up, and shortly after that started a spiritual path, and Doc [Stephen “Doc” Kupka, the band’s co-founder], he did the same about a year later. We started praying, and pretty soon the band started praying together. So it was a process.

The other thing that really made it easy to go to work all these years is that we make the music the exactly the way we want it to be. We don’t try to chase trends or try to do what’s popular now; we don’t try to reinvent ourselves. We realized that no matter what we did, we still sounded like Tower of Power so we just embraced that and we just keep chipping away at the sculpture.

It seemed like horns were going to be replaced in rock by guitars, and then by synthesizers. But you guys stuck to your guns. You didn’t even do a disco album, did you?

Well, we had an album called Back on the Streets where they were urging us to redo a Motown song disco style. You can can hear hints of it, but no matter what we did we kept sounding like Tower of Power. Pretty soon we lost our record deal, and couldn’t get a new one. It was like, what’s wrong with us? We don’t sound like other people. And then God woke us up and said, no that’s the blessing, brother. You don’t sound like other people, that’s the ballgame.

Where did you grow up?

I lived in Detroit until I was 11, then I went to the Bay Area. I went to high school in a little suburb called Fremont. That’s where I auditioned Doc there and he joined the band and we immediately moved into Oakland and Berkeley. The East Bay was our turf.

Did you bring some Detroit with you when you moved west?

I came before the Motown thing happened. But my dad was a bartender, and my parents were nightlife people and they loved music. They weren’t musicians but they played records all the time. So I was really into music already as a little kid. And very soulful music: Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, The Platters, Bill Doggett, Elvis Presley, stuff like that. So I came to the Bay Area that way.

Then I missed all my friends in Detroit so the radio became my friend. As soon as I got there, they started playing Motown music. I’d listen to the radio and I’d miss Detroit. So it had a big influence on me. And it still does today.

Wasn’t the original name of the band The Motowns?

When we got into soul music, we changed our name to the Black Orpheus, and we didn’t like that name. We were going to look for a new name. And my brother was the drummer, so my mother said “You boys are from Detroit, if you’re going play soul music you should call the band The Motowns.” So we did that.

But when I met Doc, he was the first hippie we ever met. People were growing their hair long, and starting to dress like hippies and all that and the Fillmore was started to happen. And we wanted to get into the Fillmore, and knew we’d never get in there wearing suits and being called The Motowns, So we changed our name.

Was the horn your first instrument?

The horn was my first instrument, but I quickly tired of it and went to organ. Then I quickly tired of that and went to the guitar, then I wound up getting back on the horn and the organ. When Doc came in and I started hiring more horns, it just became clear to me I wanted to play the tenor in the section, because I wanted a lead singer. I was singing lead for a lot of years. But I wanted a really good lead singer, so I just stayed on the tenor.

Tenor has a nice voice of its own.

Yeah. I started on the alto; on the first album I played alto, but I wanted a sadder sound, so I went to the tenor.

Who were your influences as a horn player?

Sax players like Hank Crawford. I remember early in my career we went to Texas and I saw a fabulous jazz player named Arnett Cobb. I liked Junior Walker, King Curtis, Maceo Parker—the more soulful guys. I wasn’t really a jazz guy. I dug guys who played jazz but they were more soulful.

Is vinyl still important for the band?

I do think so. I’m happy to see so many of the youth really into vinyl. And fortunately for us our record company is, too. This is a new label for us, for the last couple of years—Mack Avenue—and they’re kind of famous for their quality vinyl. They have their regular vinyl, and then they have that super high quality vinyl. They’re very well known for their vinyl releases, so it’s good for us.

Seems like younger kids have also gotten into horns, too, in ska especially.

I’m all for it. I taught a class yesterday by Zoom at the Oakland School for the Arts and there were 300 kids. Man, they were eating it up. I love that, and I was thinking to myself—man, I would have given my left arm to have someone like me show up at my high school and talked to me for an hour and a half. But it’s cool. We do clinics. We expose ourselves to kids all the time. I’m all for them playing music, it helps them in every other area of their schooling, too.

Did you have music in your school growing up?

No. I had a music department, and unfortunately for me it was a new high school and it was really a lousy music department. One day there’d be a clarinet, a guy who played piano, and the next day he played trumpet. As soon as I got hit by music, I just hit my garage.

What are your favorite places to play?

I love playing Japan, because it’s such a departure. The fans are just off the chart. I love going to Europe just because I love Europe. In the States, I love playing Connecticut for some reason. From the first very first moment we played Connecticut, we’ve always been golden there. Any city there in Connecticut is always a really live gig. And for that matter anywhere in the Northeast, they love Tower of Power there.

I like going to South, because, over the years, we haven’t been there as much as the other areas, and they’re jonesin’ for it down there. And I like the West Coast, because we’re a West Coast band.

Is there an Oakland sound, or have you helped develop an Oakland sound?

I think all of the above. There’s an Oakland sound, we definitely represent Oakland very well. We’re a part of the sound that’s come out of Oakland.

How would you describe it? What makes it different than other places?

We’re a soul band. And some of the most famous soul music comes out of Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, but also down in Florida, it has a Southern twang to it is what I’ll say. There’s a Southern vibe to it, whereas Motown music, Chicago soul, New York soul, Philadelphia soul, has an urban sound to it. And I think Oakland falls into that category. It’s very urban, blue collar.

Tower of Power’s 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater – Oakland, CA – June 2018 arrives in stores on March 26, 2021 via Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Music Group—on vinyl.

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