Tower of Power

Tower of Power
Tower of Power

Tower of Power, Buffalo, NY November 11, 2008
Background information
Origin Oakland, California, U.S.
Genres Soul, funk, R&B, jazz
Years active 1968–present
Labels Warner Bros., Columbia, Epic, SPV
Associated acts Cold Blood, Sons of Champlin, Santana, Doobie Brothers
Emilio Castillo, Stephen 'Doc' Kupka, Francis 'Rocco' Prestia, David Garibaldi, Roger Smith, Lee Thornburg, Adolfo Acosta, Larry Braggs, Tom Politzer, Jerry Cortez
Past members
Michael "Iron Mike" Bogart, Greg Adams, Lenny Lee, Skip Mesquite, Brent Byars, Lenny Williams, Herman Matthews, Lenny Pickett, Mic Gillette, Ken Balzell, Michael Jeffries, Chester Thompson, Carmen Grillo, Jeff Tamelier, Tom Bowes, Brent Carter, Ron E. Beck, Mark Harper and others (also see body of this page)

Tower of Power (or TOP for short) is an American R&B-based horn section and band, originating in Oakland, California, that has been performing for over 43 years.[1] They are best known for their funky soul sound highlighted by a powerful horn section. There have been several lead vocalists, the most famous being Lenny Williams, who fronted the band between early 1973 and late 1974, the period of their greatest commercial success. Their biggest hits include "You're Still A Young Man", "So Very Hard To Go", "What Is Hip?", and "Don't Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)."



The roots of the band go back to the summer of 1968, when tenor saxophonist/vocalist Emilio Castillo met Stephen "Doc" Kupka, who played baritone sax. Castillo had played in several bands, but it was Castillo's father, who told his son to "hire that guy" after a home audition. Together, they would become the backbone of Tower of Power. Within months, the group, known as the Motowns at the time, would begin playing various "gigs" around Oakland and Berkeley, their soul sound relating to both minority and rebellious listeners.[2]

By 1970, the now renamed Tower of Power (including trumpet/arranger Greg Adams, first trumpet Mic Gillette, first saxophone Skip Mesquite, Francis "Rocco" Prestia on bass, Willie Fulton on guitar, and drummer David Garibaldi) signed a recording contract with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records and released their first album, East Bay Grease. Rufus Miller performed most of the lead vocals on this debut album which included the single Sparkling In The Sand, which received airplay on famed Bay Area soul station KDIA.

Augmented by percussionist/conga/bongo player Brent Byars, guitarist Bruce Conte and keyboardist Chester Thompson, Tower of Power moved to Warner Bros. Records. With Rick Stevens now singing lead, 1972's Bump City would give the band its first national exposure. This album included "You're Still a Young Man", which peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. Emilio Castillo, who co-wrote and sang lead on "You're Still a Young Man," told Songfacts that the song was based on a true story concerning a former girlfriend who was six years older than him.[3] Though not released as a single, "Down to the Nightclub" received heavy airplay on West Coast FM stations and several AM stations. Both songs still get substantial airplay on oldies radio and remain fan favorites.

Tower of Power, released in the spring of 1973, the third album for the band, now featured Lenny Williams on lead vocals and Lenny Pickett on first saxophone. This was the group's most successful album. It peaked at #15 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and was RIAA certified as a gold record (for sales in excess of 500,000 copies). The album also spawned their most-successful single "So Very Hard To Go". Although the single peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, it landed in the Top 10 on the surveys of many West Coast Top 40 radio stations, hitting #1 on many of them. The album also charted two other singles on the Billboard Hot 100, "This Time It's Real" and "What Is Hip?" The latter is possibly their most enduring song.

1974's Back to Oakland spawned another hit, "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)", that reached #26 on the Billboard Hot 100, plus "Time Will Tell", which charted at #69.

On some of their releases in the mid-1970s, such as Urban Renewal (1974), the band moved more toward funk than soul; however, they continued recording ballads as well. Williams left the band in late 1974, and was replaced as vocalist by Hubert Tubbs. Though the band remained popular, their days of chart radio airplay declined. During the late 1970s they briefly tried recording disco-sounding material. Leader Emilio Castillio said in an interview that the band's brief foray into quasi-disco music was at the request of Columbia Records, who had the band under contract at the time.

Tower of Power still tours extensively today, though there have been many changes over the years. At least 60 musicians have toured or recorded with the band over its 40-plus-year existence. These include current Saturday Night Live musical director/saxophonist Lenny Pickett, drummer David Garibaldi, bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia, organ master Chester Thompson, saxophonists Richard Elliot and Euge Groove, and guitarist Bruce Conte. Conte's cousin, BALCO founder Victor Conte, also played bass guitar in the band from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Former lead vocalist Rick Stevens (real name Donald Stevenson) was sentenced to life in prison on three counts of first-degree murder for crimes committed after leaving the band. Bruce Conte rejoined the band in 2006, replacing veteran guitarist Jeff Tamelier. He departed after slightly more than a year, citing personal recording projects and health issues. Following Conte as guitarist was Charles Spikes (while auditions for a permanent player were held), then Mark Harper.

Collaborations with other bands

Tower of Power has made guest appearances on other major recording solo artists' albums. They guested with Little Feat. In 1993 the band was featured on Luis Miguel's Aries, in a cover of "Attitude Dance" titled "Que Nivel de Mujer". More recently, Tower of Power has been featured on Josh Groban's Awake, during an instrumental break in "Machine".

Horn section collaborations

The Tower of Power horn section has gained renown as a separate entity to much critical acclaim. They have appeared on a goodly number of other artists' recordings, including one of the most highly regarded early live albums: a performance with Little Feat in 1977, one of the three inaugural acts to perform at the newly-opened Rockpalast studios on the song, "Rocket in my Pocket".

Other performers supported by the Tower of Power horns include The Monkees, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Elkie Brooks, Cat Stevens (on his Foreigner Suite), Elton John, Linda Lewis, rad. (Rose Ann Dimalanta), Jermaine Jackson, John Lee Hooker, Rufus, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship, Mickey Hart, Heart, Damn Yankees, Huey Lewis and the News, Spyro Gyra, KMFDM,[4] Lyle Lovett, Poison, Phish, Toto, Pharoahe Monch, Brothers Johnson, and Aerosmith, among many other acts. Their early song "So Very Hard To Go", was featured in the soundtrack of the 2002 film City of God, as well as Will Ferrell's Semi-Pro.

Recent work

Tower of Power has been recording and touring continuously since 1968, and the band maintains a very busy tour calendar. In 2008 they celebrated their 40th Anniversary with shows in San Mateo, California in August, and a huge show at the Fillmore in San Francisco on October 18, 2008. At that show many former band members appeared onstage, and the entire event was recorded for a DVD to be released in mid-2010.

Tower of Power has released 19 albums over the years (compilations and regional variations not included), the latest being 2009's homage to classic soul songs The Great American Soulbook.

Band members

Emilio Castillio

Emilio "Mimi" Castillio (born September 24, 1950, Detroit, Michigan) is a saxophone player and composer and is best known as the founder of the band. After he was caught stealing by his father, who told him he could stay in his room until he thought of something to keep himself off the street, Castillo chose music. He took lessons in saxophone, piano, guitar, and also in music theory from one-time Dave Brubeck bass player Norman Bates. His first musical endeavor was as a keyboard player in a British Invasion style group, The Gotham City Crimefighters.[5] After seeing the Bay Area soul band The Spyders, Castillo switched to saxophone and formed The Motowns, which played soul music covers.

After meeting baritone sax player Stephen Kupka, Castillio switched, on Kupka's suggestion, to performing original material and the band changed its name to Tower of Power. Castillio has been with the band ever since, as leader and 2nd tenor saxophonist. He and Kupka are also responsible for writing many of the band's best-known songs.

Stephen Kupka

Stephen "Doc" Kupka (a.k.a. "The Funky Doctor") (born 25 March c.1946, in Berkeley, California) is a baritone saxophone player and composer, and is best known as a founding member of the band.

In 1968, Kupka met Emilio Castillo and joined his soul music cover band, The Motowns, which was based in Oakland, California. Kupka convinced Castillo to start performing original songs, and they changed the band's name to Tower of Power. Kupka has been with Tower of Power ever since, and is also responsible for co-writing (with Castillo) many of the band's best-known songs.

According to his bio on the Bump City site, the "Doc" plays a Yamaha YBS-62 baritone saxophone, Berg Larsen 130 facing metal mouthpiece, and Rico Plasticover 1.5 strength reeds. Kupka has also recorded with numerous other artists, including The B-52's, Chicago, Dan Fogelberg, Heart, Elton John, Huey Lewis and the News, Little Feat, Elkie Brooks, and Bonnie Raitt.

In 1998, Kupka founded Strokeland Records along with Andy Ebon, CEO of Soul, as a platform for his own songwriting. Strokeland Records grew to include numerous other soul, jazz, and funk artists.[6][7][8]

In 2006, Steve Finch took over as Director of Operations for Strokeland Records, as Kupka began work on two new releases: "Doc Goes Hollywood", a collection of his songs written in the "Great American Songbook" style; and "Bumped Up to First Class", a new collection of Kupka's classic soul songs in the early Tower of Power style.

Francis Prestia

Francis "Rocco" Prestia (born March 7, 1951 in Sonora, California) is the bassist of the band and a prominent musician on his instrument.

Prestia started playing electric guitar as an adolescent. When he auditioned for Tower of Power, Castillo persuaded him to switch to electric bass. Prestia remembers an "immediate and incendiary" connection with the band's drummer, David Garibaldi, with whom he would establish one of the most original and influential rhythm sections of all time. The drummer's fast, nervous style blended perfectly with the bassist's dry, percussive approach. The resultant combination, along with the band's powerful horn section, defined the band's distinctive sound.

Prestia worked with the band until 1977. He later rejoined and remained with the band until he became seriously ill in 2001. His fans and friends created a fund in order to help pay the artist's medical costs. In 2002 Prestia underwent successful liver transplant surgery and since then he has gradually resumed his professional activity and remains the Tower of Power bass player.

David Garibaldi

David Garibaldi (born November 4, 1946 in Oakland, California) is the drummer of the band. He began playing drums in childhood while living near San Francisco, California.

In January 1998, David Garibaldi rejoined Tower of Power and continues touring with them.[9] He is also featured as a traps player on the Mickey Hart/Planet Drum album Supralingua.

Mic Gillette

Mic Gillette (born 1951) is a brass player raised in northern California's East Bay area. He is famous for being a member of Tower of Power, Cold Blood, and The Sons of Champlin. Mic rejoined Tower of Power in August 2009 after a 25 year absence, and left the band in March 2011. Gillette's association with the band began in 1967 as Emilio Castillo's bandmate in the Gotham City Crimefighters, Black Orpheus, The Motowns, and ultimately Tower of Power.[1]

Greg Adams

Greg Adams is a trumpet/flugelhorn player and music arranger, best known for his arrangements and playing with the band Tower of Power, over a 25-year span.

Adams grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and while attending Westmoor High School in Daly City he established his reputation as a musical prodigy.[10] He had made plans to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but instead accepted an invitation to join Tower of Power for their first album, East Bay Grease (1970). He remained with the band for 25 years and was responsible for many of their distinctive horn arrangements, including "What Is Hip?" (1973) which earned him a Grammy Award nomination.

In 1995 Adams recorded his first solo album, Hidden Agenda (Epic), which reached #1 on the U.S. smooth jazz charts. His subsequent albums include Midnight Morning (Ripa, Blue Note) (2002), Firefly (215) (2004), Cool To The Touch (Ripa) (2006), and East Bay Soul (Ripa) (2009).

Adams has recorded with and/or arranged for numerous other artists, including Chicago, Heart, Elton John, Huey Lewis and the News, Little Feat, Bonnie Raitt, and Carlos Santana. In 1989 he was nominated (with Paul Shaffer) for an Emmy Award for his arrangements for the Late Night with David Letterman 7th anniversary special.

Lenny Williams

Lenny Williams (born Leonard Charles Williams on February 6, 1945, in Little Rock, Arkansas) was the lead vocalist for Tower of Power from 1972–1974 and appeared on three of the group's most commercially successful albums: Tower Of Power, Back To Oakland, and Urban Renewal. Williams left the group to pursue a solo career and made several hit recordings, including “Cause I Love You” and "Choosing You."

Lenny Pickett

Lenny Pickett (b. Las Cruces, New Mexico, April 10, 1954) is a saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist, composer, arranger and music director. He was a member of the Tower of Power Horns from 1972 until 1981, and since 1985 has been the tenor saxophone soloist with the Saturday Night Live band. He has served as the Saturday Night Live band's musical director since 1995. He is known particularly for his skill in the altissimo register (executed by using a combination of embouchure control, air stream control, and alternate fingerings), which can be heard during the opening credits of each episode of Saturday Night Live.

Pickett grew up in Berkeley, California. He has no formal musical training, did not attend high school beyond the ninth grade and did not attend college. Except for a brief period of study with the jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson (another player known for his facility with the altissimo register) after dropping out of high school in Berkeley, he is completely self-taught in the saxophone.[11] While with the Tower of Power Horns, which he joined when he was 18 years old, he performed with Elton John and many other rhythm and blues and soul groups. He has also worked as a saxophonist and an arranger for artists including David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson. As a composer, he has written for his group, the Borneo Horns, and has received a number of commissions to write works mixing classical and popular idioms for a variety of musical ensembles, including the New Century Saxophone Quartet, as well as music for theater and collaborations with dancers, poets and filmmakers.

He is a professor of jazz saxophone at New York University.

Bruce Conte

Bruce Conte was born in Sanger, and grew up in Fresno, California. Prior to joining the band, Conte was a guitarist in various Bay Area groups, including The Loading Zone, who shared rehearsal halls with, and regularly opened shows for Tower Of Power. Conte joined Tower of Power in 1972, at the beginning of the recording sessions for the band's third album, and remained with them until 1979. He briefly returned for live work from 2006-2007. In addition to playing guitar, Conte also contributed backing vocals and wrote a number of songs for the band. Bruce was also the guitarist on TOP's latest release, The Great American Soulbook.

Larry Braggs

Larry Braggs is the current TOP's lead vocalist. "LB" is referred to by Emilio Castillo as "Pound for pound, the baddest cat in the land". Larry's high energy vocal range allows the band to pull virtually 40 years of songs out of their "trick bag". A native of Chicago, Illinois, Larry got a scholarship to the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, where he was awarded the honors of Most Valuable Player and Best Actor of the University's Drama Department and received the B.A. degree in Music.

The lead and background vocal artist's first performance with the band was at Reno, Nevada in 1999, and soon he was offered the gig, to which he responded, “thanks, but no thanks.” Of course, he was kidding, and up till today remains the longest lead vocalist the band has ever had. Braggs did the lead vocals for TOP's latest album The Great American Soulbook.

Tom E. Politzer

Tom E. Politzer, born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised in Palo Alto, California, is currently TOP's lead tenor sax player. Tom fills that role totally, not only as an outstanding soloist, but also as a part of the five-piece Tower of Power horn section.

Politzer contributes to the band's complex sound with his first tenor sax, alto sax, flute, and clarinet. Tom, who started playing clarinet at an early age, has an extensive classical music background, joining school bands and local youth orchestras. While in Junior High, the Jazz Band needed someone to fill the baritone sax chair. He switched from playing clarinet to baritone sax (inspired, in part, by Tower of Power’s song, “Squib Cakes”).

Brent Carter

Brent Carter A native New Yorker, Carter attended the Performing Arts High School of New York, where he studied acting and voice. Early on he landed the role of Gabriel in Broadway's Shenandoah. He later attended the State University of New York at New Paltz.

In 1995, Carter became lead singer for Tower of Power. Tower of Power recorded three albums/CDs during Carter's 5½ year tenure with the band—Souled Out, Rhythm & Business, and Soul Vaccination: Tower of Power Live. When they were not in the studio, Carter toured the world with Tower of Power. Brent continues to record and is the voice on several jingles and performs in the US and abroad. In 2011 Carter made several brief appearances with the band, singing "I Like Your Style".


Studio albums

Live albums

  • 1976: Live And In Living Color
  • 1981: Direct (Studio Live)
  • 1997: Direct Plus (reissue of Direct with alternate takes)
  • 1999: Soul Vaccination: Live
  • 2008: East Bay Archive Volume 1 (recorded at K-K-K-Katy's, Boston, MA; April 1973)
  • 2011: 40th Anniversary (Live)


  • 1974: Funkland
  • 2001: The Very Best of Tower of Power: The Warner Years
  • 2002: Soul With a Capital "S": The Best of Tower of Power
  • 2003: Havin' Fun
  • 2003: What is Hip & Other Hits
  • 2006: What is Hip


  • 1972: "You're Still a Young Man", No. 29 (The Billboard Hot 100) (R&B No. 24)
  • 1972: "Down to the Nightclub", No. 66
  • 1973: "So Very Hard to Go", No. 17 (R&B No. 11)
  • 1973: "This Time It's Real", No. 65 (R&B No. 27)
  • 1974: "What Is Hip?", No. 91 (R&B No. 39)
  • 1974: "Time Will Tell", No. 69 (R&B No. 27)
  • 1974: "Don't Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)", No. 26 (R&B No. 22)
  • 1976: "You Ought To Be Havin' Fun", No. 68 (R&B No. 62)

Videos and DVDs

  • 1986: Credit (The band's only music video, to date)
  • 2003: Tower of Power in Concert (1998, Live at Ohne Filter, after return of Garibaldi)
  • 2007: Live from Leverkusen (2005 November Show)

Note: Over the years, there also have been many Television performances of ToP aired though not released for sale. One worthy of mention took place in 1991, also part of the German TV live performance series 'Ohne Filter, Musik Pur', which included Tom Bowes and the other then-current members.


  1. ^ a b "Tower of Power Home". Tower of Power. 1968-2009. Retrieved 2009-07-03. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "You're Still a Young Man". Retrieved 2009-05-27. 
  4. ^ Fortunato, John (1996). "KMFDM Ready to 'Xtort'". The Aquarian Weekly (Arts Weekly, Inc.). Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  5. ^ "Tower of Power - Home". Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  6. ^ "Tower of Power". Tower of Power. Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  7. ^ "Strokeland Records". Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  8. ^ Un. "Strokeland On Myspace". Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  9. ^ "Tower of Power - Home". Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  10. ^ "San Mateo County Genealogy - Westmoor High School, Faculty and Class of 1970". Retrieved 2007-08-10. 
  11. ^ "Rich Halley - Jazz Forum review". Retrieved 2011-07-20. 

External links

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