Tower of Power
Photo: Rob Shanahan
Tower Of Power On New Live Album '50 Years Of Funk & Soul' & Why COVID-19 Hasn't Slowed Them Down
The pandemic should have been devastating to Tower of Power for two reasons. First, there are nine of them. Second, as a horn-led band, they require a tremendous deal of breath, which tips the odds of viral transmission. But while big bands may be the last animal to rebound from this extinction event, Tower of Power has remained a fertile and thriving enterprise.
How could this be when people are afraid to stand at the same bus stop, much less exhale copious amounts of air onstage together sans masks?
"We're always busy, and we're always pretty much doing the same thing," Tower of Power's indefatigable leader since 1968, Emilio Castillo, tells GRAMMY.com. "I mean, we're doing Tower of Power. That's what we do." The band's last gig may have been 13 months ago, but they're writing at a fever pitch, recording new music and fulfilling speaking engagements.
On the heels of their new live record, 50 Years of Funk & Soul, which arrived March 26, Castillo, drummer David Garibaldi, baritone saxophonist Stephen "Doc" Kupka and keyboardist Roger Smith are having a chat at the GRAMMY Museum on April 22 viewable on the Museum's official streaming platform, COLLECTION:live.
Expect a chat about the band's half-century history, the vibrant new album and how, in Garibaldi's words, "the story is still being written." Before watching their appearance at the GRAMMY Museum, crank up 50 Years of Funk & Soul exclusively on Qobuz and read on for a GRAMMY.com chat with Castillo and Garibaldi.
The energy of 50 Years of Funk & Soul is palpable. How was the Fox Theater gig? How'd you guys feel up there?
Garibaldi: It was fun! It was good! It was a great experience, man. We worked really hard to make it happen. Emilio, the boss—he ran the whole show. It was great, you know? We survived. We can look back on it and say we really gave it everything we had.
I see here the gig happened three years ago, in 2018.
Garibaldi: It was the 50th anniversary—June shows at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Two nights. It was pretty cool.
How did it feel to come full circle, since you guys have been around since 1968?
Garibaldi: Well, we just do what we do, you know? The story's still being written, so it's kind of cool that we still are relevant today. It's a cool thing.
How about you, Emilio?
Castillo: Very exciting week. Not just the gigs. We went out there a week ahead of time. We rehearsed for, I think, three days, with the augmented band. Then, we brought the strings in on the third day. You know, people were dropping by—old friends. We rehearsed right in Oakland. The guy from Tony! Toni! Toné!, D'wayne Wiggins, let us use his rehearsal hall.
In the rehearsals, everybody was so excited. It sounded so good. The seven horns, the extra background singers, Chester Thompson, Bruce Conte, Lenny Pickett, [Francis] Rocco [Prestia] ... we felt like we were elevated off the ground or something. And then, the day after the rehearsal, we were on the news and the mayor declared it Tower of Power Day. We had this big scene in front of city hall where they gave us all these parchments. Each guy said what Oakland meant to them. It was unbelievable, you know?
And then the gig. So many people that we've known over the years coming out of the woodwork, man. And the place packed to the max. Beautiful theater. It was the most exciting gig we've done in years.
Garibaldi: Blocks away from where we started! Literally in the same part of downtown Oakland where we started there at the On Broadway [club]. Nobody used to come. Pretty amazing, man.
Tower of Power is predicated on a lot of people being together and a lot of breath. COVID has especially been difficult for horn players. I guess my question is: What have you guys been up to for the last year?
Castillo: Well, you know, we're up to pretty much the same thing every year for the last 50 years. We go out 200 days a year. We play all the time. We have a lot of fun doing it. We travel all over the world. In the last six years or so, it's a lot of recording. We recorded two albums at once and released one for the fiftieth, actually, the day of the concert at the Fox. The other one came out [chuckles] right at the pandemic. And, now, this one is out.
We're always busy, and we're always pretty much doing the same thing. I mean, we're doing Tower of Power. That's what we do.
So it didn't hamper you guys in any way, besides the gigs?
Garibaldi: Oh, it absolutely did. Our last gig was March 8 of last year, a touring gig. And then Labor Day weekend, we did a couple of those drive-in gigs down in Southern California. But, really, that's all we've done in the last year. But that being said, we have a schedule we just saw that's possibly starting in August. It looks pretty normal. It looks like a Tower of Power schedule! So, hopefully, that will happen.
Have you guys been recording during the pandemic?
Castillo: I did a lot of writing. I do a lot of interviews and a lot of speaking. Dave and I spoke at ASU and we're speaking at USC, coming up in a week or so. I spoke at the jazz school—actually, the school that's right above the Fox. I spoke there for an hour about a month ago. We did a session—a couple of sessions. I wrote a song for Lettuce. You know the band Lettuce?
Rings a bell.
Castillo: Yeah, they're kind of a jam band. They kind of had this groove and I started writing the lyrics. I called [baritone saxophonist] Doc [Kupka] and said, "Help me finish this thing real quick." And we did, and then I went over to my friend's studio and sang it and did all the background parts and sent it off to them. You know, we stayed busy.
What can viewers expect from your upcoming GRAMMY Museum appearance?
Castillo: We just interviewed for the GRAMMY Museum. We haven't played or anything. But—check out our records! Check out our new stuff! Get the DVD! It's pretty cool, you know?
Garibaldi: We did something a couple of weeks ago for them.
Castillo: Oh yeah, the Zoom interview! We did a Zoom interview. I think that was the three of us, right?
Castillo: So, it's kind of what we're doing here. They very well might be playing some excerpts from the live performance. We're doing so many of these things right now that I kind of get lost in the sauce trying to remember all that we've done! But, we did one of these. You're right, Dave.
If shows gear up again soon, what do you see the rest of 2021 and 2022 as looking like? You mentioned that you might go out in August, so I imagine it'll be full speed ahead from then on.
Garibaldi: Hopefully. [laughs]
Castillo: Yeah, that's the plan. You know, you've got to understand we're booked all the time. We've got a whole bunch of gigs that need to be replayed. People had us on their books and even put deposits down. We'll have to go fulfill those along with all the new bookings that come in. Plus, we've had two new products come out during this time. So, we've got to tour the world with all of that. We'll be pushing the envelope worldwide. I'm sure we'll be back to Australia and New Zealand and Korea. Japan. All over Europe.
We're really hoping to go farther, you know. We've never been to South America. We really want to get down there—Brazil, Chile and all around. That's what we do.
The effect I got from the live record was of energy feedback from the audience. That's something we obviously miss greatly, so I hope people will find enough comfort in the vaccine rollout to get shoulder-to-shoulder again. It made me miss that experience.
Garibaldi: We'll see. It might take some time, but people will come out. I don't anticipate it being anything but successful. People want to be entertained. They want to do this—to see music again. And Tower of Power shows are really a lot of fun. It's kind of full-contact stuff. A great band, people coming, having fun, partying with their friends … it's a good time.
Castillo: I'll have to remember that phrase. That's a good description. Going to a Tower of Power concert is a full-contact deal.
Garibaldi: There really is an important factor. On any given night, we can have a good audience, a great audience or a dead audience. Sometimes, we get hired to play the high-paying corporate gigs where people are on the fringes talking about the seminar they went to throughout the day. Those gigs can be kind of a drag.
But usually, at a regular Tower of Power gig, the crowd's really good. And then some are completely off the chain! Anything in the Northeast or Japan or a lot of places in Europe. When that energy is coming at you from them and you're putting off all this energy toward the crowd, the two energies combining just takes it to another level. It's very important—the two meeting.
I'm looking forward to the GRAMMY Museum event. I'm sure you guys will touch on your 50-year history and tell some stories.
Garibaldi: We did! We told stories. But, you know? It's pretty much what we're doing right now. You ask the questions, we answer.
Anything you'd like to add about the immediate future of Tower of Power?
Castillo: You know, I've had a lot of time to write songs, so we're acquiring a lot of material. I'm sure we'll be getting back in the studio again sometime soon. I'd like to do a gospel/praise record and a secular record simultaneously. The idea of going into the studio and recording two albums at once, it really worked. It worked out really good. So, that's my aim and we'll see how it plays out. But every facet of Tower of Power, we just want to push the envelope in every way.
Any gospel records you've been checking out lately that you'd recommend, Emilio?
Castillo: I've just been dining on Fred Hammond lately. His album, Something About Love, which came out—I don't know—ten years ago, is one of my favorites. But recently, I'd gotten an album he did with these three other singers. It's called United Tenors.
There's something about his records. When I first listened to Something About Love, I was like, "Yeah, this is cool." Then, after three times, I was like, "This is off the chain!" It's the same with this United Tenors record. I listened, I was like [muted affect] "Eh, it's good, it's very good—not as good as that one." Now, it's, like, my favorite record! I'm listening to it over and over!
So, yeah, I listen to a lot of that stuff and Deitrick Haddon and Yolanda Adams and Smokey Norful. I think all the great soul singers have gone back to the church! [laughs] I'm a vocalist guy. I know singers!
What have you been checking out, David?
Garibaldi: I listen to a lot of contemporary jazz sort of stuff, you know? Watching videos of performances, that kind of stuff. There's a gospel drummer, actually, who I'm really, really a big fan of: Calvin Rodgers. He's played on all kinds of peoples' stuff. He played on Fred Hammond's stuff. So, he's a really, really tremendous player.
But I like all kinds of different music. I keep my ears open to all kinds of different things, you know?