A FEW MINUTES WITH: Emilio Castillo of Tower of Power

By Don Wilcock

Tower of Power, the urban soul horn band playing the Cohoes Music Hall on Thursday night (November 10), is planning to release their 50th anniversary album of originals next year. Founding member and tenor saxman Emilio Castillo says they’re recording it using the Michael Jackson method: you record 28 tracks and pick the best 12.

“You’re Still A Young Man” was the first song Castillo wrote with his songwriting partner Stephen “Doc” Kupka. Castillo was 18 in 1968 and in love with Sharon, a 24-year-old caught between loving this kid in a Bay Area soul band and being abused by a Vietnam veteran with PTSD. “We were like pinballs in a pinball machine,” Castillo explains, “just kinda bouncing off the walls. We didn’t know why we did what we did or why we were the way we were. We were just sort of driven by our emotions, and I lived that way until I was 37.”

That was the year he got sober, but he did a lot of blow before that happened, and it wasn’t all through a sax. “It’s like we grew up with blinders on, and some of us at some point took off the blinders and started to mature, and worked on ourselves, and others just continued to live that way. We live in this small encased world, especially when you start to, quote, make it.

“We never thought about what we were gonna do (when we matured) because it was all handed to us as children. Like we knew there was nothing we were ever gonna do besides play music. I mean I never thought for a second, ‘Boy, what will I do with my life?’ I mean, I knew I was gonna play music; it was gonna be the band.”

More than 60 musicians have passed through this band of funky white horned-dominated rhythm and blues masters who began their careers working for the late Bill Graham. Graham was the most volatile and aggressive major domo of the psychedelic era with Fillmores East and West and two record labels. Tower of Power’s tenure with Graham is an amazing story if for no other reason than the band didn’t fit into the type of acts Graham booked. “We were not in that clique with all the psychedelic bands: Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Big Brother & the Holding Company. We were known as a good dance band, but we played good soul music, and we were very committed to being really accurately soulful and then we became original.”

Tower of Power played a Tuesday night audition at the Fillmore West when they were at the end of their rope in 1970. They had been blackballed by the clubs after an underage bust by the Alcoholic Beverage Control, and
Castillo was running out of time on his parents’ ultimatum that he return to Detroit if he couldn’t make it as a musician on the West Coast. They were the last band of five to go on stage at the Fillmore’s weekly audition show. They’d waited a year with virtually no gigs for this

“We had velour shirts, and all the velour was worn off, and there were roach burns in all the shirts. We walked out, and people just turned around and started walking out. They didn’t know what we were, but we hit with this James Brown song called “Open the Door,” and we were doing it instrumental style. We were just drilling it, man, and it was like somebody said, ‘About face!’ Everybody turned around and started walking back in. We were about half way in, and the horns were going (he scats), and I saw this head stick out of the back room. It was Bill’s office, and he
was looking.”

Bill Graham signed the fledgling band to a publishing deal, a management deal, a booking deal and a record deal. The relationship was extremely volatile with the band nearly coming to blows with Graham over issues, some of which were clouded by the group’s drug abuse. Graham had them locked into a contract that left him holding all the cards.

“We would plead our case, and we’d start, ‘Bill, we’re really sorry. We didn’t handle it right. We were disrespectful, but please, we just want to get on with our career.’ Then, he’d go, ‘Well, boys, I hear ya, and I just
want you to know that (Castillo begins unintelligible screaming).’ And he had this office that was all glass windows, and outside were rows of desks with these girls. When he screamed at you he would stand up, and then he
would point down at you, and he’d be screaming and pointing at you at the top of his lungs, very loud. And the girls would be looking in on us, and we’d be shrinking while he’d be growing, and we’d go, ‘OK, Bill,’ and we’d leave. ‘We’ll see you next Monday, Bill.’ ‘See you, boys.’ And we did that
for almost a year.

After years of successful singles, like “So Very Hard to Go,” “This Time Is Real” and “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)” in 1981 Graham had mellowed towards the band.

“He had us play his Christmas party. When we’d done sound check and everybody had split, I was sitting there, and he walks in and sits down next to me and says, ‘I’m going to say something, and I don’t want you to talk.’

“I got nervous.

“And he says, ‘I know you guys have been having a difficult time. Let’s just say I had a good roll of the dice this year. I’m going to give you this envelope, and I want you to take it and keep it. It’s for you. You can keep it for yourself. You can split it up with the guys, whatever you
want. Don’t say a word, and I’m still paying you for the gig, and merry Christmas. And he gives me an envelope with $10,000 in it.

“Ten thousand dollars in 1981 for a starving band that was at the bottom of their career was a big deal. And the guys came back before the gig, and there was a pool table in the back room in the dressing room. I threw the $10,000 on the pool table. I said, ‘Merry Christmas, boys,’ and we all split it. And he still paid us for the gig.”

Tower of Power’s signature hit is “What Is Hip” from 1973 with the lyric, “If you think you know what is hip, the passing years will show what is hip.” The definition of hip has changed thousands of times since 1973, but Castillo is eternally hip.

He told me in 2007, “We’ve got legs because we’re not ‘in.’ We’re not following a trend. We’re not setting a trend. We’re not a trend that’s gone by. We’re just who we are. We stay true to our sound, and there’s a certain segment of the public that really relates to that kind of music.”

I asked him in our current interview if he thought he was prescient with that song. “I don’t know that we understood that. We had a gift. God gave us a gift that we were using, and there were three people on the composition. There was me and David Garabaldi, my drummer, but the main guy was Stephen “Doc” Kupka, my songwriting partner, and he plays baritone sax, and he’s the one who came up with that title.

“He said, ‘I want to write a song called “What Is Hip?’” And I go, ‘What is hip? What does that mean?’ He started to explain it. I go, ‘Oh, OK,’ and then we just sat down and hashed it out. We just kinda talked through the story, and it just happened. But I don’t know that we were completely cognizant of the fact that we needed to write to a certain level to make us different. We were just writing. We were just creating any what we could.”

WHO: Tower of Power
WHERE: The Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes
WHEN: Thursday (November 10), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $59, $69 & $79

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