Tower of Power (or TOP for short) is an American R&B-based horn section and band, originating in Oakland, California, that has been performing since 1968. They are best known for their funky soul sound highlighted by a powerful horn section and precisely syncopated bass-guitar lines. There have been several lead vocalists, the most famous being Lenny Williams, who fronted the band between early 1973 and late 1974, the period of their greatest commercial success. Their biggest hits include "You're Still a Young Man", "So Very Hard to Go","Soul With a Capital S", "Soul Vaccination", "What Is Hip?", and "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)."
In the summer of 1968, tenor saxophonist/vocalist Emilio Castillo met Stephen "Doc" Kupka, who played baritone sax. Castillo had played in several bands, but Castillo's father told his son to "hire that guy" after a home audition. Together, they became the backbone of Tower of Power. Within months the group, then known as The Motowns, began playing various gigs around Oakland and Berkeley, their soul sound relating to both minority and rebellious listeners.
Castillo really wanted to play Bill Graham's Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, but he realized he would never get in with a name like The Motowns. So, on a break from recording in a little studio in Hayward, Castillo was sitting on the studio owner's desk, and right in front of him was a long list of weird band names. He looked through it and saw Tower Of Power and thought "Yeah, that describes us." The band agreed so the name stuck.
By 1970, the now renamed Tower of Power (including trumpet/arranger Greg Adams, first trumpet Mic Gillette, first saxophone Skip Mesquite, Francis "Rocco" Prestia on bass, Willie Fulton on guitar, and drummer David Garibaldi) signed a recording contract with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records and released their first album, East Bay Grease. Rufus Miller performed most of the lead vocals on this debut album. The group was first introduced to the San Francisco Bay area by radio station KSAN, which played a variety of artists such as Cold Blood, Eric Mercury and Marvin Gaye's album "What's Goin On" in its entirety before the bay area's soul and R&B stations became aware. Dusty Street of the Flying Eye Radio Network's Fly Low show and Sirius XM radio was a DJ there in the late 1960s/early 1970s. The single "Sparkling In The Sand" received airplay on famed Bay Area soul station KDIA.
Augmented by percussionist/conga/bongo player Brent Byars, Tower of Power was released from their San Francisco label contract and moved to Warner Brothers Records. With Rick Stevens now singing lead, 1972's Bump City gave the band their first national exposure. This album included the hit single "You're Still a Young Man", which peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Stevens' pinnacle vocal performance before leaving the band. Emilio Castillo, who, along with Stephen Kupka, co-wrote "You're Still a Young Man," told Songfacts that the song was based on a true story concerning a former girlfriend who was six years older. Though not a big hit single "Down to the Nightclub" received heavy airplay on West Coast FM stations and several AM stations. Both songs still get substantial airplay on oldies radio and remain fan favorites.
Tower of Power, released in the spring of 1973, was the third album for the band. It featured Lenny Williams on lead vocals and Lenny Pickett on lead tenor saxophone. Bruce Conte replaced guitarist Willy Fulton and keyboardist Chester Thompson also joined the band during the recording of the album. This was the group's most successful album. It peaked at #15 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and was RIAA certified as a gold record (for sales in excess of 500,000 copies). The album also spawned their most-successful single "So Very Hard To Go". Although the single peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, it landed in the Top 10 on the surveys of many West Coast Top 40 radio stations, hitting #1 on many of them. The album also charted two other singles on the Billboard Hot 100, "This Time It's Real" and "What Is Hip?" The latter is possibly their most enduring song.
1974's Back to Oakland spawned another hit, "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)", that reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Time Will Tell", which charted at #69.
On some of their releases in the mid-1970s, such as Urban Renewal (1974), the band moved more toward funk than soul; however, they continued recording ballads as well. Williams left the band in late 1974, and was replaced as vocalist by Hubert Tubbs. Though the band remained popular, their days of chart radio airplay declined. During the late 1970s they briefly tried recording disco-sounding material. Leader Emilio Castillo said in an interview that the band's brief foray into quasi-disco was at the request of Columbia Records, who had the band under contract at the time.
Tower of Power still tours extensively today, although there have been many changes in personnel over the years. At least 60 musicians have toured or recorded with the band over their 40-plus-year existence. These include current Saturday Night Live musical director/saxophonist Lenny Pickett, drummer David Garibaldi, bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia, organ master Chester Thompson, saxophonists Richard Elliot and Euge Groove, and guitarist Bruce Conte. Conte's cousin, BALCO founder Victor Conte, also played bass guitar in the band from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Former lead vocalist Rick Stevens (real name Donald Stevenson) was sentenced to life in prison on three counts of first-degree murder for crimes committed after leaving the band. Stevens was paroled on July 20, 2012 after 36 years in prison. Bruce Conte rejoined the band in 2006, replacing veteran guitarist Jeff Tamelier. He departed after slightly more than a year, citing personal recording projects and health issues. Following Conte as guitarist was Charles Spikes (while auditions for a permanent player were held), then Mark Harper. The band's current guitarist is Jerry Cortez.
§Collaborations with other bands
Tower of Power appears in the lead single off the band Heart's fifth album, "Bebe le Strange", released in 1980. The lead single off that album, "Even It Up", was a commercial success for the band and peaked at number 33 on the Billboard. They played the backing horn sections in the song. Tower of Power has made guest appearances on other major recording solo artists' albums. They guested with Little Feat. In 1993 the band was featured on Luis Miguel's Aries, in a cover of "Attitude Dance" titled "Que Nivel de Mujer". More recently, Tower of Power has been featured on Josh Groban's Awake, during an instrumental break in "Machine". Roger Smith is featured on Dave Matthews Band's song "If Only" from their album Away from the World.
§Horn section collaborations
The Tower of Power horn section has gained renown as a separate entity to much critical acclaim. They have appeared on a number of other artists' recordings, including one of the most highly regarded early live albums: a performance with Little Feat in 1977, one of the three inaugural acts to perform at the newly opened Rockpalast studios on the song, "Rocket in my Pocket".
Other performers supported by the Tower of Power horns include innovative electric slap bass guitarist Larry Graham's Graham Central Station, The Monkees, Grateful Dead, Santana, Elkie Brooks, Cat Stevens (on his Foreigner Suite), Luis Miguel, Elton John, Linda Lewis, rad. (Rose Ann Dimalanta), Jermaine Jackson, John Lee Hooker, Helen Reddy, Rufus, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship, Mickey Hart, Heart, Damn Yankees, Huey Lewis and the News, Frankie Valli, Spyro Gyra, KMFDM, Lyle Lovett, Poison, Phish, Toto, Pharoahe Monch, Brothers Johnson, Sam The Band, and Aerosmith, among many other acts. Their early song "So Very Hard To Go" was featured in the soundtrack of the 2002 film City of God, as well as Will Ferrell's Semi-Pro.
Tower of Power has been recording and touring continuously since 1968, and the band maintains a very busy tour calendar. In 2008 they celebrated their 40th anniversary with shows in San Mateo, California, in August, and at the Fillmore in San Francisco on October 18, 2008. At the Fillmore many former band members made onstage appearances. The entire event was recorded and released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Tower of Power has released 19 albums over the years (compilations and regional variations not included), the latest being 2009's homage to classic soul songs The Great American Soulbook.
Tower of Power's horn section has become the good-luck charm for most championship-bound San Francisco Bay area sports teams, having played The Star-Spangled Banner at championship playoff games at AT&T Park, Candlestick Park, HP Pavilion at San Jose, O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena, among other venues.
Emilio "Mimi" Castillo (born September 24, 1950, Detroit, Michigan) is a saxophone player and composer and is best known as the founder of the band. After he was caught stealing by his father, who told him he could stay in his room until he thought of something to keep himself off the street, Castillo chose music. He took lessons in saxophone, piano, guitar, and also in music theory from one-time Dave Brubeck bass player Norman Bates. His first musical endeavor was as a keyboard player in a British Invasion style group, The Gotham City Crimefighters. After seeing the Bay Area soul band The Spyders, Castillo switched to saxophone and formed The Motowns, which played soul music covers.
After meeting baritone sax player Stephen Kupka, Castillo switched, on Kupka's suggestion, to performing original material and the band changed its name to Tower of Power. Castillo has been with the band ever since, as leader and 2nd tenor saxophonist. He and Kupka are also responsible for writing many of the band's best-known songs.
Stephen Mackenzie "Doc" Kupka (a.k.a. "The Funky Doctor") (born 25 March 1946, in Berkeley, California) is a baritone saxophone player and composer, and is a founding member of the band.
In 1968, Kupka met Emilio Castillo and joined his soul music cover band, The Motowns, which was based in Oakland, California. Kupka convinced Castillo to start performing original songs, and they changed the band's name to Tower of Power. Kupka has been with Tower of Power ever since, and is also responsible for co-writing (with Castillo) a majority of the band's songs.
"Doc" plays a Yamaha YBS-62 baritone saxophone, Berg Larsen 130 facing metal mouthpiece, and Rico Plasticover 1.5 strength reeds. Kupka has also recorded with numerous other artists, including The B-52's, Chicago, Dan Fogelberg, Heart, Elton John, Huey Lewis and the News, Little Feat, Elkie Brooks, and Bonnie Raitt.
In 1998, Kupka founded Strokeland Records along with Andy Ebon, CEO of Soul, as a platform for his own songwriting. Strokeland Records has since grown to include numerous other soul, jazz, and funk artists.
In 2006, Steve Finch took over as director of operations for Strokeland Records as Kupka began work on two new releases: Doc Goes Hollywood (a collection of his songs written in the Great American Songbook style) and Bumped Up To First Class (a new collection of Kupka's classic soul songs in the early Tower of Power style).
David Garibaldi (born November 4, 1946 in Oakland, California) is the drummer of the band. He began playing drums in childhood while living near San Francisco, California.
In January 1998, David Garibaldi rejoined Tower of Power and continues touring with them. He is also featured as a traps player on the Mickey Hart/Planet Drum album Supralingua. Garibaldi was inducted into the Percussive Art Society Hall Of Fame, Class of 2012 during the Percussive Art Society's annual convention in Austin, Texas on November 1, 2012.
§Francis "Rocco" Prestia
Born in Sonora, California, Prestia started playing electric guitar as an adolescent. When he auditioned for Tower of Power, Emilio Castillo persuaded him to switch to electric bass.
In 2001, having recorded and toured with the band for three decades, Prestia became seriously ill. His fans and friends created a foundation in order to help pay his medical costs, and on December 5 Rocco underwent surgery to receive a donated kidney transplant. As of January 2015, he is recovering well. He has recorded parts for the band's upcoming album but is currently unable to tour, but hopes to rejoin the band soon.
Mic Gillette (born 1951) is a brass player raised in northern California's East Bay area. He is famous for being a member of Tower of Power, Cold Blood, and The Sons of Champlin. Mic rejoined Tower of Power in August 2009 after a 25 year absence, and left the band in March 2011. Gillette's association with the band began in 1967 as Emilio Castillo's bandmate in the Gotham City Crimefighters, Black Orpheus, The Motowns, and ultimately Tower of Power.
Greg Adams is a trumpet/flugelhorn player and music arranger, best known for his arrangements and playing with the band Tower of Power, over a 25-year span.
Adams grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and while attending Westmoor High School in Daly City he established his reputation as a musical prodigy. He had made plans to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but instead accepted an invitation to join Tower of Power for their first album, East Bay Grease (1970). He remained with the band for 25 years and was responsible for many of their distinctive horn arrangements, including "What Is Hip?" (1973) which earned him a Grammy Award nomination.
In 1995 Adams recorded his first solo album, Hidden Agenda (Epic), which reached #1 on the U.S. smooth jazz charts. His subsequent albums include Midnight Morning (Ripa, Blue Note) (2002), Firefly (215) (2004), Cool To The Touch (Ripa) (2006), East Bay Soul (Ripa) (2009), and East Bay Soul 2.0 (Ripa) (2012).
Adams has recorded with and/or arranged for numerous other artists, including Chicago, Heart, Elton John, Huey Lewis and the News, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, and Carlos Santana. In 1989 he was nominated (with Paul Shaffer) for an Emmy Award for his arrangements for the Late Night with David Letterman 7th anniversary special.
Lenny Williams (born Leonard Charles Williams on February 6, 1945, in Little Rock, Arkansas) was the lead vocalist for Tower of Power from 1972–1974 and appeared on three of the group's most commercially successful albums: Tower Of Power, Back To Oakland, and Urban Renewal. Williams left the group to pursue a solo career and made several hit recordings, including "Cause I Love You" and "Choosing You."
Lenny Pickett (b. Las Cruces, New Mexico, April 10, 1954) is a saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist, composer, arranger and music director. He was a member of the Tower of Power Horns from 1972 until 1981, and since 1985 has been the tenor saxophone soloist with the Saturday Night Live band. He has served as the Saturday Night Live band's musical director since 1995. He is known particularly for his skill in the altissimo register (executed by using a combination of embouchure control, air stream control, and alternate fingerings), which can be heard during the opening credits of each episode of Saturday Night Live.
Pickett grew up in Berkeley, California. He has no formal musical training, did not attend high school beyond the ninth grade and did not attend college. Except for a brief period of study with the jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson (another player known for his facility with the altissimo register) after dropping out of high school in Berkeley, he is completely self-taught in the saxophone. While with the Tower of Power Horns, which he joined when he was 18 years old, he performed with Elton John and many other rhythm and blues and soul groups. He has also worked as a saxophonist and an arranger for artists including David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson. As a composer, he has written for his group, the Borneo Horns, and has received a number of commissions to write works mixing classical and popular idioms for a variety of musical ensembles, including the New Century Saxophone Quartet, as well as music for theater and collaborations with dancers, poets and filmmakers.
He is a professor of jazz saxophone at New York University.
Bruce Conte was born in Sanger, and grew up in Fresno, California. Prior to joining the band, Conte was a guitarist in various Bay Area groups, including The Loading Zone, who shared rehearsal halls with, and regularly opened shows for Tower Of Power. Conte joined Tower of Power in 1972, at the beginning of the recording sessions for the band's third album, and remained with them until 1979. He briefly returned for live work from 2006-2007. In addition to playing guitar, Conte also contributed backing vocals and wrote a number of songs for the band. Bruce was also the guitarist on TOP's latest release, The Great American Soulbook.
Jerry Cortez joined Tower of Power in January 2010 as guitarist. Being raised in the San Francisco Bay Area allowed Jerry to experience firsthand some of the greatest music from the best bands of the sixties and seventies. Raised in a family of musicians, his father a jazz saxophonist and his brother a drummer, led to musical opportunities at an early age playing clubs seven nights a week before he was old enough to be admitted. His early influences include the Beatles, Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Greene and James Brown. Jerry's father brought home Tower of Power's first album and ToP became a family favorite.
Jerry rounds out one of the most unique rhythm sections in the music world. Filling the shoes of former guitar players like Willie Fulton and Bruce Conte, who created many of the signature licks the band is known for, proves challenging as he brings his own flavor to the songs while still honoring the past.
Ray Greene is the current TOP's lead vocalist. Ray Greene replaced Larry Braggs as TOP's lead vocalist on December 31, 2013. Ray grew up in Georgia listening to his father sing Gospel music. He was exposed to the recordings of Sam Cooke, James Brown and Otis Redding at a young age. This music would leave an indelible mark on Ray throughout his life and career as a musician. When Ray came to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music as a trombonist, one of his first exposures to performing in horn bands was getting to play a significant portion of the Tower of Power playbook. "Needless to say, when I received the call from Mr. Castillo to join the group, I was excited, thankful and completely filled with joy. I have a profound respect and admiration for all of the great vocalists that have preceded me, especially Mr. Larry Braggs, who is the longest tenured singer ever to grace the Tower of Power stage. I look forward to carrying on the legacy and becoming a part of the ToP family. I cannot wait to share the gift I have been given with each and every one of you!"
§Tom E. Politzer
Tom E. Politzer, born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised in Palo Alto, California, is currently TOP's lead tenor sax player. Tom fills that role totally, not only as an outstanding soloist, but also as a part of the five-piece Tower of Power horn section.
Politzer contributes to the band's complex sound with his first tenor sax, alto sax, flute, and clarinet. Tom, who started playing clarinet at an early age, has an extensive classical music background, joining school bands and local youth orchestras. While in Junior High, the Jazz Band needed someone to fill the baritone sax chair. He switched from playing clarinet to baritone sax (inspired, in part, by Tower of Power's song, "Squib Cakes").
Brent Carter A native New Yorker, Carter attended the Performing Arts High School of New York, where he studied acting and voice. Early on he landed the role of Gabriel in Broadway's Shenandoah. He later attended the State University of New York at New Paltz.
In 1995, Carter became lead singer for Tower of Power. Tower of Power recorded three albums/CDs during Carter's 5½ year tenure with the band—Souled Out, Rhythm & Business, and Soul Vaccination: Tower of Power Live. When they were not in the studio, Carter toured the world with Tower of Power. Brent continues to record and is the voice on several jingles and performs in the US and abroad. Since 2011, Carter has been appearing regularly with the Average White Band.
In 2011, Carter made several brief appearances with the band singing "I Like Your Style".
Herman Matthews (born December 28, 1960 in Houston, Texas) was the drummer for Tower of Power for four years, Matthews is also credited with works for Tom Jones, Richard Marx and Kenny Loggins.
Drummer, vocalist and composer Herman Matthews replaced drummer Russ McKinnon. Matthews is featured on the albums Souled Out (1995), and Rhythm & Business (1997). From the Rhythm & Business album, Matthews co-wrote the songs, "So I Got to Groove", "Rhythm and Business" and "Spank-A-Dang". Matthews is the lead vocalist on the title track, "Rhythm and Business". "So I Got to Groove" is also featured on several tribute and greatest hits albums: What Is Hip?: The Tower of Power Anthology (1999), Soul Vaccination: Tower Of Power Live (Europe 1999), Soul with a Capital "S": The Best of Tower of Power (2002), and 40th Anniversary (2010).
On his departure, Matthews made way for David Garibaldi's return to Tower of Power in 1998.