Tower of Power

by Barbara Flaska


Soul with a Capital ‘S’: The Best of Tower of Power

U.S. Release Date: 26 March 2002

Imagine the old days as the San Francisco rock palaces were beginning to find shape and form in the City. Neighborhoods scattered throughout the small cities surrounding the Bay, and in each of those hamlets an amenable low-rent district in the more “dangerous” zones where lived a small intimate club. While the festivities therein took place at night, these were not in any way nightclubs. Nightclubs were fancier venues where people arrived and departed in taxicabs, where jazz was likely to be played, and bartenders in vests poured hard liquor drinks. Those were upscale, classier sorts of places, usually with a martini glass in the neon sign.

The places I’m talking about were clubs, though sometimes referred to as nightclubs by people who knew they weren’t. Despite the slightly sour stale beer smell, these were not bars where people went to drink, although wine or cheap beer was served to make a few extra bucks to help keep the doors open. The wine was generally lousy and the beer sudsless, although some of the seamier places were rumored to serve beer with plenty of head. The floors despite repeated moppings were always tacky as shellac from the spilled booze, as if the beer had forever permeated the linoleum. Occasionally, there would be found scattered flecks of paint that had separated from the ceiling or walls when the amplified music hit a certain resonance. These places were generally not considered important enough to even be graced with a pay phone on the premises.

They weren’t the Cow Palace; they weren’t the nightclubs; they were clubs. Often funky, but always unpretentious, and they knew who they were, sometimes poking fun at themselves while mirroring other people’s snooty behaviors. When discos were the craze yesterday, their elaborate sound systems broadcasting recorded dance tunes seemed to threaten the turf of the working musician. When the first new bright and shiny discotheque unveiled in San Francisco as “Dance Your Ass Off”, a club with live entertainment in the East Bay immediately reopened under the new name “Dance Your Butt Off”. So you know now I’m not talking about rock palaces and discotheques, I’m talking about clubs.

All these clubs differed one from the other depending on the personality of the owner and finances. Some were okay, while others were charmless joints, others just holes-in-the-wall, or absolute dives. By day, some were the seedy taverns where alcoholics go to drink in the morning. Some didn’t even open the doors until 10 P.M. A few didn’t open until the other clubs closed at 2:00 A.M., serving breakfasts with live music after hours and claiming they were restaurants. These are not the juke joint photographs of metal roofed shacks you see on album covers that want to peddle authenticity. These were the clubs. They lived and breathed and were already quite authentic enough.

Within these small clubs, occasionally, the crowds inside surpassed the fire marshal’s posted capacity limit of 73 on certain weekend nights. The doorman perched on his high padded bar stool and collected as much as five dollars per head for the evening’s entertainment if an out-of-towner like Muddy Waters showed up or L.C. “Good Rockin’” Robinson was back in town. If it were out of season and no touring headliner available, onstage would be one of the local bands that kept the whole local scene glued together. There were a lot of clubs back then, where the local bands determined to give it a shot (and once they got good enough) could work onstage in different clubs four or five nights a week while still honing their chops.

Tower of Power came into their own in clubs pretty much like that. While they soon went on to steadily play at the Fillmore, they also seemed to be always onstage somewhere in the Bay Area. If they weren’t playing their own gigs as TOP, they were zigzagging their way from venue to venue, lending an instrumental hand to other local groups, and the clubs and the community of musicians and patrons all combined to center an incredibly rich local music scene. Tower of Power lent a hand onstage to the soul-based groups that played their absolute best live in clubs, groups famous forevermore to the local clientele like Cold Blood and the Hoo Doo Rhythm Devils. Maybe they even lent some horns to the Loading Zone, seems likely. There was a bit of a turf thing attached to the Tower of Power, too. Now, the Bay Area had their very own soul-based horn group. Stax, Motown, and Mussel Shoals had nothing on us anymore.

In those heady days of yesteryear, when record company talent scouts actually left their offices and listened to music, combing the clubs for prospective new talent, the Tower of Power soon continued their catapult from the small clubs to the larger rock palace stages into the big world of the recording studio. Their early records for Warners are still regarded as some of their finest, cementing their ongoing reputation as musician’s musicians, but the Tower of Power soon fell into providing the backing for a multitude of recording artists.

Tower of Power is still regarded as being musician’s musicians. Their popular website (a million or so hits counted in the last few years) contains a forum that is not the usual fan discussion fare, but conversations about music, instruments, and equipment. After thirty-five years, the Tower of Power has built a huge fan base and it seems many of their fans are themselves musicians. So you’re invited to ponder this rhetorical question I was asking myself based on my own experiences and observations. Assuming the Tower of Power hadn’t had clubs to grow up in musically: Do you think the Tower of Power would have been able to provide the background music for everybody else and still be around if someone had found them as stage-struck teenagers and draped them in sarongs for sell-out-gigs of the moment?

Such caffeinated thoughts as these were swirling in me as I dialed Emilio Castillo’s number bright and early that Monday morning. He was just back from a month-long European tour with the Tower of Power, their final date in Capetown, South Africa for the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Castillo admitted he likes the new record, Soul with a Capital ‘S’. The compilation material was selected from recordings the band made during their time with Columbia in the late ‘70s and with Epic in the ‘90s. Castillo said the record is surprising how good it was. “Over the years,” he explained, “Everyone referred to our Warner Brothers years as the classic years, and so did I.” But he said he was pleasantly surprised when he finally found time to sit down and listen to the record. He realized that all their material in the intervening time actually held together fairly well throughout the span of years. It was “all pretty good, I liked it,” as he modestly pronounced. Castillo has been known to also say more poetic things: “Like the sun and the moon and the stars above, soul music is eternal.” Or to philosophize: “I see music as nourishment. I need it—like most of us need it—to survive a toxic world.”

What I always liked about Tower of Power was everything mentioned in those many paragraphs above. Just that, but of course mixed with the palimpsest of their Back to Oakland album cover, with their giddy-up song “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of the Stream)” playing in memory as I even think about that album. Or thinking of my own disbelieving glee in the early ‘70s of finding one of their records placed on the juke box at the very funky Believer’s Drive-In. For those reasons, unique perhaps to me, I liked them. That and of course Doc Kupka’s baritone sax is always pretty good and the fact that Emilio Castillo on sax always reminded me of some of the early Pachuco R&B groups who played in the Southern California area where I was raised. All that, and of course their music, which as Castillo reminded me, was made by a band. “If we were a horn section, we would have been just horns, but we weren’t. We were horns based around a rhythm section of bass and drums.”

All the above then plus their playful sense of humor. All put to good example with “Diggin’ on James Brown”, which is not just a song about James Brown, but composed in the style of, talking about why some people in spite of changing styles still dig R&B and soul music. “You know the more things change / The more they stay the same / It may be a different age / But I’m still on the same page”. Which leads quite naturally to their concluding cut on this compilation, their cynical twist on the big, big showpiece, “What Is Hip?”

Soul with a Capital ‘S’ did a very nice job connecting me with my past and allowing me also to comment on some current perceptions.

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