Originally published by Phoenix New Times 1999-04-08
2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Horns of Plenty
Tower of Power leader Emilio Castillo puts together a live album while Rhino reassembles his past
By Gilbert Garcia

It's been said that part of the reason the Beach Boys fell out of favor with the hippie counterculture of the late '60s is that the band made the unforgivable mistake of being from Southern California. See, at that time, the command center for both the underground and its new mouthpiece Rolling Stone magazine was in San Francisco, and almost anything that reeked of Los Angeles was reflexively branded as frivolous fodder for bubbleheads who were too busy surfing to notice that there was a revolution happening.

As a young music fan, Clarke Rigsby was on the opposite end of the L.A.-S.F. mutual-hatred equation. The Tempe producer grew up in Southern California, learning at an early age to loathe the Bay Area. So it's only natural that when San Francisco's much-hyped psychedelic rock of the '60s began to emerge, he was decidedly underwhelmed.

"We hated all that San Francisco rock stuff," Rigsby recalls. "We thought it was crap."

Nonetheless, even a Frisco hater like Rigsby couldn't help but respect one musical product of the Bay Area: the massive, horn-driven, soul-funk band Tower of Power. Leading San Francisco's second wave of bands, after the Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Quick Silver Messenger Service axis had exhausted itself, Tower of Power brought a sense of musical precision to a community that, with few exceptions (Sly Stone, Creedence), had been getting by for years on radical-chic rhetoric and acid-induced euphoria in place of virtuosity.

Rigsby estimates he's seen Tower of Power about 25 times over the band's three-decade history, and all the bands he played in would cover at least a couple of TOP songs ("We'd always do 'em badly"), so it's been more than a small thrill for him to spend the last couple of weeks mixing a new TOP live album with band leader Emilio Castillo. "The best thing for me about this is that I finally know what the words to the songs are," Rigsby says. "I've been singing along with them for years."

Castillo has actually lived in the Valley for the last five years, moving from Los Angeles to Scottsdale with his wife after the horrendous 1994 L.A. earthquake.

"My wife was six months pregnant when that earthquake happened," Castillo says. "She was deathly afraid of earthquakes before it happened, and that was the last straw. She was actually moving here when I met her, so the earthquake caused her to resume her plan. She said, 'I know I've got no right to ask you to move, 'cause your business is in L.A.' I said, 'What do you mean, my business is in L.A.? What do I do in L.A.? I drive to the airport.' So I came here, and it's been a total blessing. I really love it."

Castillo and Rigsby met two years ago, when Rigsby engineered a project that Castillo was producing. Castillo came out of the project impressed by Rigsby's mixing skills, and enlisted him to work on an album called Dinosaur Tracks for Rhino Records' new online-only Rhino Cyber label. The album is a collection of recordings from the early '80s that were never released. Six of the album's 14 tracks had never been mixed, so Rigsby is handling that task.

The period documented by Dinosaur Tracks was a commercially fallow period for the band, when Castillo believed that the press had indeed written off TOP as a dinosaur act. "We'd been around about 12 years," he says. "After about 15 or 20 years, they start calling you 'legends.'"

Tower of Power has been around so long, and played so many gigs, that it's easy to forget how fresh their horn-driven R&B sound was in the early '70s. The yearning sweet-soul ballad "You're Still a Young Man" was one of the AM-radio highlights of its period, on a par with the best of the Chi-Lites and Delfonics, while upbeat fare like "Don't Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)" served as a blueprint for practically every song Average White Band ever cut.

The band arrived at a time when antiseptic horn-heavy juggernauts like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears were tearing up the charts, but TOP was always closer to what those bands were shooting for: an ensemble that blended pop hooks with funk grooves, jazz musicianship and an overriding soulfulness.

TOP's history will be celebrated in August with a Rhino boxed-set anthology. Though the band's lineup has seen more changes than the Phoenix Suns (both drummer David Garibaldi and sax man Doc Kupka have left for lengthy periods, only to come back), the TOP sound has remained remarkably consistent. A featured attraction of the live album being mixed at Tempest is the sterling trumpet work of Valley favorite Jesse McGuire, who joined TOP a year ago.

The band's roots can be traced to Castillo's early years in Detroit, where he lived until moving to the Bay Area at 11. As a teenager, Castillo formed a "nightclub soul band" called The Motowns. Shortly afterward, he met Kupka, who became his longtime musical partner and frequent songwriting collaborator. "He was kinda the first hippie that came into my life," Castillo says. "We all kind of went to bad seed after that."

The Motowns eventually metamorphosed into Tower of Power, with Castillo on second tenor sax and backing vocals. Though his immaculate sense of rhythm helped build a horn section that was the envy of the pop world (and one that played such memorable sessions as Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back"), Castillo downplays his own instrumental skills. He tends to think of himself more as a fan of songs and great vocalists than an aficionado of sax players.

The band's saving grace might have been the fact that it was always a bit of an outcast on the trendy San Francisco scene. Castillo recalls the band's big break as a Tuesday night audition at the Fillmore Auditorium when the hip crowd saw TOP in ugly velour shirts and ratty bell-bottoms and started walking out en masse, but the band made the audience turn around with a smoking version of James Brown's odd-metered "Open the Door." At that point, the door to Fillmore impresario Bill Graham's office flew open. The hungry band of fashion-challenged musos from Oakland had been accepted by the hippie crowd.

"We were a slick soul band that kinda went to bad seed, went to the Fillmore," Castillo says with a laugh. "It was just kind of the right time for us, the butterfly came out of the cocoon. It blossomed into this hip kind of soul band, and there weren't many of those around."

--Gilbert Garcia

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