[15 April 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
For more than four decades, Tower of Power has defined soul music on its own terms.
That has meant promoting its own sound, which employs a five-man horn section to energize vintage funk and R&B grooves. The better part of its lengthy career also has been spent promoting the band’s own tunes, such as “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “What Is Hip.” All three helped Tower of Power forge an international audience for its soul-savvy, brass-fortified music beginning in the early ‘70s.
So when Tower of Power was approached about recording an album of soul music classics, the signal it initially gave off was weak.
“Tower of Power has never been one to do the okey-doke,” said band founder and tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo. “We try to make choices that are unique. So we were a little hesitant about doing what was really a cover record.
“Then we ran the idea by a bunch of worldwide promoters that we work with. Everybody said, ‘Of all the artists that have tried to make that kind of record, you’re the one that should do it.’ So we decided to give it a try. Reluctantly.”
The idea for the album, released last week as The Great American Soulbook, was twofold: It would let TOP interpret hits by such iconic soul names as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and others; and it would allow TOP to enlist a variety of guest vocalists, much in the same way that one of the band’s oldest musical allies, Santana, did on its mega-hit 1999 album “Supernatural.”
“Once we got about a third of the way through recording it, we started to realize, ‘Boy, this is going to be really cool,’” Castillo said. “Even with all the guests, we really got to put our own stamp on it. It stills sounds like a Tower of Power record.”
Of course, it helped that the guest list was a mix of musical heroes and longtime friends.
Among the former is the ageless Sam Moore of the ‘60s soul duo Sam & Dave. While TOP covers Sam & Dave’s breakthrough 1968 hit “I Thank You” on “The Great American Soulbook” with Tom Jones and the band’s own lead vocalist, Larry Braggs, Moore turns in a jubilant, gospel-fied version of Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful.”
“The actual day we recorded that, it was just the two of us in the studio,” Castillo recalled. “I mean, there I was in a studio hanging out with Sam Moore. For a guy like me who was such a fan of soul music, it was a dream come true. I mean, I was on the moon. And Sam was just killing it. He’s an incredible vocalist. Always has been. I’ve been a fan from the time I was 15 years old. I just love the guy.”
In what seems a less obvious invitation, Huey Lewis teams with Braggs to perform the Wilson Picket classic “634-5789.” But the careers of Lewis and TOP have been closely linked for decades. Both hail from the San Francisco Bay area (technically, Oakland was the starting point for TOP) and both have used soul music as the foundation for their pop success.
But when Lewis and band, the News, began to catch fire in the early ‘80s, TOP’s fortunes were drying up. As a longtime fan of TOP, Lewis enlisted the band as a touring partner and recorded several of his hits with its horn section. Today, Castillo credits Lewis with resurrecting TOP’s career.
“Oh, he absolutely did,” he said. “Huey helped save Tower of Power. We were at a low point in our careers back in the ‘80s. We were really struggling. But when he asked us to go on tour, I said, ‘Well, I can use the money most certainly. But the only way I’ll do it is if you promote the band at every turn.’ Huey agreed to that and was a man of his word.
“He talked about us, literally, in every single interview he did. He would feature us prominently in his show. Tower of Power would also do these midnight concerts in some of the local clubs in the bigger cities we played. Huey would announce them during his show, saying how he and the News were going to the club afterward to sit in. So these places were just besieged with fans. So, yes, he literally resurrected our career.”
Then there is the matter of material. Yes, “The Great American Soulbook” is a covers album and, indeed, familiar groove tunes of the past get the TOP treatment. But so do some real surprise picks, including Wonder’s often overlooked 1968 hit “You Met Your Match” and the 1973 Bill Withers obscurity “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?” But “Soulbook” digs especially deep when it honors the long-neglected Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and their 1970 gem “Loveland.”
“The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band had a lot of great hits,” Castillo said. “We were big fans of their sound. But ‘Loveland’ was really a different sort of hit for them. For one, their drummer (James Gadson) sang it. And it was very melodic whereas the band was known for groove stuff. I just thought it was incredibly soulful. We wanted to record the song for this album really bad.”
Ultimately, though, TOP, like the songs on “Soulbook,” has managed to outlast myriad pop fads to keep its hearty sound intact.
“I don’t think our sort of music has ever been a trend, even though there was a time when soul music was very, very popular,” Castillo said. “The type of soul music we play is still very uniquely ours. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to be in or out. We kind of own the concept. That’s a large reason why it has that timeless factor to it.
“But the only way you can get it is to come to the source.”