Tower of Power: 50 Years of Soul, Part I

The iconic band formed by Emilio Castillo with the world’s greatest horn-section celebrates a momentous milestone with 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater, now available.

Part One: This is the introduction to our three-part series
on Emilio Castillo and Tower of Power, featuring a full interview in print, as well as a new video chat conducted days ago with Emilio from his Arizona home. 

Bob Dylan’s tower was a biblical watchtower protected by horsemen. Leonard Cohen’s was a Tower made of Song. Emilio Castillo’s was, and remains forever, a Tower of Power. And not fake power, but the real deal : authentic soul power from the heart of true musicians. It’s the power of timeless, true song, one of the oldest and most potent forces known to man.

And it’s impervious to time. It’s why now, more than 50 years now since Emilio Castillo founded Tower of Power, their music doesn’t sound old or dated in any way. It sounds new, brave, and exceedingly funky. Known to make people want to get up and dance.

50 years? Does that seem impossible? Yet it’s true. He founded the band with his brother Jack in Oakland in the early 60s- as related in the following conversation – thanks to his father’s creative parenting and invaluable appreciation of music.

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Emilio Castillo

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the band performed on two nights in June, 2018 at Oakland’s Fox Theater. Joined by other great soul purveyors, including  Chester Thompson, Lenny Pickett, Francis ‘Rocco’ Prestia, Bruce Conte and Ray Greene, it’s been preserved as 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater, a boxed set being released this week, with exclusive streaming and download also available on Qobuz.

Emilio was born in 1950,  loved rock & roll, and was drawn to all kinds of music. But as soon as he heard, and felt, real soul music–American R&B/Soul and Funk–his world changed forever. It was never about guitar or becoming Hendrix for him. He wanted to play sax. He learned guitar, organ, and how to write songs. He also learned how to take conventional rhythmic grooves and make them hip.

Tower of Power – by virtue of what Emilio calls their “less is more” approach to horn arrangements (more on that to come) – discovered the musical vibe essential for their own singular Oakland by way of Motown R&B soul music.

The early 60s of their youth was a time when rock & roll was still a novelty of sorts, with bands like Paul Revere & The Raiders dressing up in costumes. They tried that at first -becoming The Gotham City Crime Fighters and doing their Batman schtick in caped crusader costumes.

But soon they realized the best gimmick of all was not anything disguised or false, but the very opposite: genuinely great musicianship and great songwriting, punctuated by intoxicating grooves and the added dimension of the tightest, hippest horn section there is.  Instinctually, they created the perfect horn section formula, ideal for their own music, yet also remarkably adaptable to a vast stylistic range of bands and artists. Transcending generation, genre, or country of origin, the Tower of Power horns became a not-so-secret sauce that made everything sound better. They asked and answered the question in their iconic song, “What is Hip?”

It’s why the greatest musicians of our time all wanted that sound on their records. And why those who couldn’t get them did their best to find imitators who sound almost like them. But it’s never really the same. 

This isn’t the usual hyperbole behind this claim, as a fast perusal of this partial list of the  musicians who performed and/or recorded with the Tower of Power horn section affirms:

Elton John, Jose Feliciano, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Spanky & Our Gang, Rufus, Tommy James, Little Feat, America, Heart, Molly Hatchet, Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis & The News, Eurythmics, John Lee Hooker, Toto, Dave Stewart, Booker T. and the MGs, Fishbone, Canned Heat, Stevie Nicks, John Hiatt, Andrew Gold, Freebo, Aerosmith, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Poison, and even P. Diddy.

50 years used to seem like a long time. For us rock & roll kids born in a post-war boom, if we looked back 50 years from before the 1964 emergence of The Beatles, it brings us to 1914, when the big hit of the day was Harold Latimer’s version of the beloved British WWI trench song. “Are We Downhearted? No!” Compelling stuff, but lightyears away from the soul, R&B and rock & roll which emerged from America and the UK together, changing music forever. 

And once that level of hip was established – once America and the world heard and felt that groove (and those songs, and those horns) – it’s a level which has never been surpassed. It’s created 50 years of real-time soul, which is something that can’t be faked or denied. It’s a force of nature, impervious to time. It could be 50 years or five. It makes no difference, it’s the music of now. 

50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater tells the whole story in exultant musical journeys. To be released by Mack Ave Records  on March 26, it’s available as a 3-LP set, 2-CD/1-DVD package, standalone DVD and digital audio configuration, these historic performances include special guests Chester Thompson, Lenny Pickett, Francis ‘Rocco’ Prestia, Bruce Conte and Ray Greene.

The full hi-res digital album will be available for exclusive streaming and download on Qobuz starting on February 26th, 2021! 

Tower of Power, 50 Years of Funk & Soul, the new album, available now.


Track list includes:

1. Stroke ‘75
2. Ain’t Nothing Stopping Us Now
3. You Ought to be Having Fun
4. Soul with a Capital “S”
5. Stop
6. You’re So Wonderful, So Marvelous
7. On the Serious Side
8. Just When We Start Makin’ It
9. Soul Vaccination
10. What is Hip? / Soul Power
11. Do You Like That?
12. Drop It in the Slot

1. Can’t You See (You Doin Me Wrong)?
2. Maybe It’ll Rub Off
3. Don’t Change Horses|
4. Squib Cakes
5. On the Soul Side of Town
6. Diggin’ on James Brown (Medley)
7. So Very Hard to Go
8. Knock Yourself Out
9. You’re Still a Young Man
10. Souled Out

50 Years of Soul, Part II: A Conversation with Tower of Power’s founder Emilio Castillo, will be published tomorrow.

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