By Jim Morrison

From the beginning, Tower of Power co-founder Emilio Castillo grooved to a different beat.

Growing up in Oakland, Castillo formed his first band with his brother. They did covers, but obscure covers. 

Rather than James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” they did his “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself).” He favored Howard Tate for his baritone and the horn section on his records. They loved the soul standard bearers — Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd, Gladys Knight. And the Bay Area was rife with soul bands including a young Sly Stone who was a DJ with a band. They’d sneak into a local club on weekends to watch. 

“I always had this sort of thing about rhythm. And about melody and ways to mess up the music,” he says in a call from Scottsdale, where he lives now. “I would make up these weird beats, and I would dictate them to my brother. And we would go over them for hours and hours until he got it down. ”

They played Wilson Picket’s “Ninety Nine and a Half” but their way. “Right from the beginning, we’re doing soul music,” he adds. “We didn’t do the popular songs all the other bands are doing. We always chose the cool songs from the albums that we particularly gravitated to. ”

Then co-founder Stephen “Doc” Kupka joined the band and suggested they start writing songs. “We sat down, and we wrote our first song which was “You’re Still a Young Man”,” recalled Castillo, who is a young 73.

It’s been more than 50 years since that first song. The enduring band is still on the road although Castillo and Kupka are the only original members. They bring their funk to Williamsburg Live with the Virginia Arts Festival on June 22.

With such a huge catalog, Castillo says the band changes it up every night although there are hits they have to play. 

“I want to start with some heavy up-tempo funk and definitely want to end up on a high note with a really exciting song,” he says. “We got to play ‘What is Hip,” ‘So Very Hard to Go,’ tunes like ‘Squib Cakes,’ ‘Down to the Nightclub’ and ‘You Got to Funkifize’ and ‘Soul Vacation.’ They want to hear those things, but then we got all these songs we want to do.”

Castillo says he learned long ago that his instrument isn’t so much the sax he plays, but the band he leads. He’s a bandleader. And when a new member comes aboard, they understand the Tower of Power sound. 

“We literally can’t play any other way.” he says, remembering a singer who joined decades ago and said the band could play the Yellow Pages and it would sound like Tower of Power. “We cannot sound any other way. And so, when new members come in, usually it’s because they know the concept. They understand it and then we give them what we call Tower of Power 101. That takes about a week and a half to two weeks. We’re just letting them know this is how it goes.”

Over the years, he figures TOP has had more than 50 members, including an ever-changing list of lead vocalists. Their latest is Jordan John. He came aboard after his predecessor joined Santana’s band. Castillo auditioned singer after singer, many with the chops, but not the right fit. 

The band had a gig in 13 days and no lead singer. Its manager put out a call on social media. John, who lives in Toronto, saw it, and sent a long email. His father, a bass player, used to sit in. As it happened, the band was playing one of its last gigs with their lead singer in Niagara Falls. Castillo asked John to sing at soundcheck. He prepped him for a week long distance. “Usually, we’ll do an audition and I’ll say, ‘Okay guys, let’s go talk.’ And we’ll make a decision. I didn’t even have to do that,” Castillo says. “I looked at everybody. They looked at me and I go, ‘You guys good?’ They went, Yeah.”

After two dozen albums, what’s the secret to the band’s longevity?

“God did it. I just showed up,” he says. “The first 20 years we made every mistake known to man including drugs, alcohol, and assaulting Bill Graham and ruining our career practically, and nearly dying, and then I sobered up in ’88. And Doc got sober in ’89. We started praying together. And it’s been better ever since.”

“The other thing I tell people is that we learned a long time ago not to chase trends,” Castillo adds. “Because no matter what we do, we sound like Tower of Power. For a while, we were lured into thinking that was a curse. And finally, we realized it’s a blessing when you have your own signature voice.”

When he started the band as an Oakland teen, he says he had no idea it would become a career. His parents were supportive. His father bought him every instrument he wanted, starting with a saxophone, then a Farfisa organ, and then a Vox organ. He sprung for lessons on all of them. He made the fledgling band a rehearsal space in the garage with a small stage. 

Still, Castillo didn’t envision himself leading a band. “No vision whatsoever. All I knew is I dug the band,” he says. “I didn’t even realize my real instrument is the band. You know, I’m not a sax player. I play parts. I can’t even solo. You know, I’m not a great singer. I sing one or two songs. You know, I write songs pretty decently but that really wasn’t my thing. My instrument is the band.”

He idolized a local band called The Spiders who got a gig in Sacramento. “They were a soul band, and they were so tight and had great background singing. They were really exciting, and they got a gig in Sacramento. I thought, man, if I could get a gig in Sacramento that would be the end of the world.”

He’s gotten a little farther than Sacramento. 

Castillo will be 74 later this year. Why does he keep hitting the road after all these years?

“I love it. I love it. This is my baby,” he says. “This is what I do. It’s all I’ve ever done since I was 17 years old.”



Tower of Power

Presented by Virginia Arts Festival

June 22

Lawn of the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg