“It’s been like a college around there,” says Emilio Castillo, creator, leader and sax player, about his four decades bringing the funk to audiences worldwide. With five original members still at the core, the group sees many others come and go. “Musicians join us, hang out and mature. They’re good when they get here and they’re great when they leave. Then they go on to do great things, and it looks good on the résumé.”
Castillo also has an impressive résumé. Born in Detroit, but an Oakland resident since his 11th birthday, he picked up the sax at 14 and has never stopped playing. At 16, he and the first incarnation of Tower of Power were sneaking into East Bay clubs and laying down an irresistible dance beat. This Thursday, the band stops by the Chumash Casino Resort to remind the fans that Power cannot be stopped.
“I think I work harder now than I ever did,” Castillo says, slightly amazed.
Tower of Power still tours with Castillo, Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka on alto, Francis ‘Rocco’ Prestia on bass, David Garibaldi on drums, and recently returning to the fold after many years is Mic Gillette on trumpet.
The group had a string of hits in the early ’70s, chart-toppers like “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” and “This Time It’s Real.” But before they even reached that level, the band had put in many, many hours paying its dues, with a schedule that would destroy most modern bands.
“You didn’t play a set,” Castillo says. “You played many sets. On weeknights you’d play five sets. On the weekend nine. We’d play four hours at the Warehouse in San Jose, pack up the van and drive to Fremont and play from 2 to 6 in the morning at Little Richard’s. Jim Findell would walk up, place $20 under your organ and say, play two more sets. And we’d do it.”
The equation was simple: club owners wanted bands that could make people dance. And sweaty dancers buy drinks. Legendary Bay Area promoter Bill Graham signed them to a record deal and actively promoted the East Bay sound. While San Francisco was awash with tie-dye and Day-Glo, East Bay remained gritty.
“It was definitely more a working class area,” says Castillo. “It was about soul music, not psychedelics. And even though most of us don’t live there anymore, we still have that sound.”
You can take the boy out of Oakland, he says, but not the Oakland out of the boy.
The group’s star faded in the late ’70s, and an attempt to tag along with disco was the artistic disaster that nearly ended the band. But it was also a lesson for Castillo and the others — never go chasing fashion.
In the ’80s, Huey Lewis and the News hired the band to play on the million-selling “Sports” album, which got the band back on track. They haven’t stopped since.
“We learned a long time ago to stay true to ourselves,” he says. “It makes it easy to go to work that way. And our fans like it better. We play music we love and we’re self-indulgent in that respect.”
TOWER OF POWER
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chumash Casino, 3400 E. Highway 246, in Santa Ynez
Cost: $15 to $25