Although not quite a household name, it’s hard to deny just how fully representative of late ’60s, early ’70s soul-funk apotheosis Tower of Power really is. The Oakland-based group, inspired by the likes of Sly & the Family Stone and white soul band the Spyders, started out calling themselves the Motowns (named after the even-then legendary Detroit R&B label), and quickly became known for their horn section and sweltering sound. Rotating through a constantly changing set of singers, the band found commercial success in the early ’70s with frontman Rufus Miller and then Lenny Williams, crafting original hits like “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” and “What is Hip?”
And, in a way, the band has mostly stayed true (or stuck, depending on your perspective) to that sound and moment, aside from a brief dalliance with disco in the late ’70s.
“The late ’70s and all through the ’80s was a very difficult time for the band,” admits saxophonist Emilio Castillo, one of the group’s founding members. “Any band that stands the test of time is going to go through a period like that. It was a good learning period for us, a good growing period. The disco thing kind of came in. The industry was really leaning on their artists to make those kinds of records. So, we tried to please our record company, but no matter what we did we sounded like Tower of Power.”
The way Castillo talks about this period makes it clear that the band was a bit in the wilderness, deep in commercial decline, and unclear what kind of place they would have as an aging soul band.
“We got disillusioned and started to think it was a curse,” he recalls. “The industry just turned against it. After disco punk and new wave came in, they started labeling us as dinosaurs. By ’82, ’83, there was not a record company anywhere that would touch us.”
At some point, though, the band simply committed to the music they loved and had found success with at the beginning of their career, regardless of trends. It’s less of a retro approach than a vintage one, something that allowed the group to “live in a Tower of Power bubble,” as Castillo puts it.”I tell the guys, ‘Let’s just make music the way we make it. We don’t have anybody to please anyone anymore.'”
The group had always written its own material, by Castillo and others, and knew they were still capable of making that instantly recognizable and energizing sound that had a fervent fanbase, so they leaned into that. They would trade in and out musicians over the years but maintain a constant touring and recording schedule that gave them a representative role for a style and time period that casts a long shadow over popular music. As a horn section, they have been guests on records by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Huey Lewis, Santana, Aerosmith, David Sanborn and more, delivering their signature sound. Their very intractability has become a calling card.
“The only people who make it into the band understand the concept of what we’re doing,” Castillo contends. “They’ve been watching us for years; they want to be there. And it looks good on the resume to say you’ve done some time with Tower of Power.”
Castillo also speaks with pride about what the experience of playing as a group provides these musicians, calling it “Tower of Power University.” He says, “They come in, and they have a fairly good grasp of what we do, but we take them through Tower of Power 101. And then within a month, we have them locked in to the way we play.”
The ’90s and 2000s have been good to the group, and there’s a sense of contentment in Castillo’s voice that seems indicative of the band’s approach to keep on keeping on.
“We make the music exactly the way we want it to be. Not because something or other is popular, or someone had success with this. We just make it the way we want to it to be,” he says, summarizing that state of mind. “When we do that, the people who dig the band enjoy that we do that.”