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A Tower Still Standing

Tower of Power put Oakland's funk scene on the map. Fifty years later, they're getting their due.

Then and now: Founding Tower of Power members (from left) David Garibaldi, Stephen “Doc” Kupka, Emilio Castillo, and Rocco Prestia

 

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


Whenever Emilio Castillo
is back in Oakland, where he founded the funk-soul titans Tower of Power, the sax player takes a drive out to his old house. It’s on Hayes, near Seminary in East Oakland. He remembers his 21st birthday party there: Stephen “Doc” Kupka and MicGillette, both part of the band, lived with him. So, too, did Tower of Power’s first tour manager. The group’s earliest publicity photos were shot on the front stoop.

“I just stand there and look at the porch,” says Castillo, 67, during a short break before heading out on the road for yet another tour. “And I remember what it was like.” Fifty years ago this summer, Tower of Power got their start. The band will mark the milestone with a pair of anniversary shows June 1 and 2 at Oakland’s Fox Theater and the release of a new album, Soul Side of Town, the group’s first new work since 2003 (excepting a series of live releases and compilations). The day before its release will be the first official Tower of Power Day in Oakland, announced at a special ceremony at city hall.

The half-century celebration has Castillo thinking about the old days. While the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and Jefferson Airplane were defining the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, across the bay a different sound was bubbling out of the clubs. Tower of Power played a gritty, funky strain of soul with Latin influences, designed to highlight the five-man horn section. They were tight but adventurous, working their crowds into a frenzy.

They also worked their asses off. “We would play for four hours at the Warehouse in San Jose, then pack up, drive to Fremont, unload, set up, and play from 2:30 to 6:30 in the morning at Little Richard’s,” Castillo recalls. At the time he was 17, not even old enough to be inside the clubs he was playing.

Just a year later, Tower of Power was opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Berkeley Community Theater. “We were told to set up in front of the curtain and play with the lights on as people were still walking in,” Castillo recalls of the less-than-glamorous gig. “People stared at us like we were aliens.”

To make it up to them, Bill Graham organized the band’s first tour ever, two weeks in Mexico City, where the group hung out with Jim Morrison. Within two years, both Hendrix and Morrison were dead.

Tower of Power retained that kind of proximity to pop music’s brightest stars, although outside of a few years in the early 1970s, mainstream and commercial success eluded them. But their influence was undeniable. Their collaborations alone could fill a book: Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Diamond, Elton John. Prince spoke often of his admiration for Tower of Power, covering their best-known single, “What Is Hip?,” in concert. Backstage at an Eric Clapton show once, Castillo met Sting, who told the bandleader he’d been in a Tower of Power cover band before founding the Police. Along with Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power helped establish Oakland as the epicenter of a new funk-and-soul sound, one that could be heard decades later in the R&B and hip-hop that poured out of the area from groups like Tony! Toni! Toné! and Digital Underground—and that still clearly influences up-and-coming acts like Monophonics and Con Brio.

Famously, the band almost didn’t make it to 50. In January 2017, minutes before a show at Yoshi’s, drummer David Garibaldi and fill-in bassist Marc Van Wageningen were struck by a train while crossing the street. A police officer had to show Castillo Garibaldi’s wallet to convince him the injured man was his drummer. “I said, ‘They’re going to die,’” he recalls.

Thankfully, he was wrong. For Garibaldi, recovery has been slow but steady. Van Wageningen was placed in a coma for eight weeks after undergoing an esophagus procedure that helped him turn a corner. Both men are, remarkably, back with the band today: Van Wageningen is set to become a full-time member. The brush with death serves to make the upcoming celebration of longevity all the more poignant—and, of course, it’s that much more meaningful to have it in Oakland. “Down-to-earth, working-class people,” Castillo says. “That’s the type of people that dig our kind of music.”

Well, them and everyone else: Turn on the radio and you’re likely to hear Tower of Power disciples in the Top 40. “When Bruno Mars came out with ‘Uptown Funk,’ people said, ‘Oh, he ripped you off,’” Castillo says. “But no, he didn’t. He made a great song. We inspired that. Have you heard the new Jus- tin Timberlake, with all the horns?”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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