Gary James' Interview With Emilio Castillo of
Tower Of Power
They were one of the most popular groups to emerge from Oakland, California in the late 1960s. They made their recording debut on Bill Graham's San Francisco Records in 1971. They toured with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sly Stone. They've played on albums by such artists as Aerosmith, Madonna, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart and Dionne Warwick. In the early 1980s, they backed Huey Lewis and The News.
We are of course talking about Tower Of Power.
On June 6th, 2004, the California Music Association inducted Tower Of Power with a Lifetime Achievement Award and cited their 2003 Sony Legacy Anthology "Havin' Fun" as the Soul / R&B album of the year, beating out releases by En Vogue and Raphael Saadaq.
We are pleased to present an interview with Tower Of Power's sax player - Mr. Emilio Castillo.
Q - Emilio, I actually remember seeing you and Tower Of Power in concert at the Syracuse War Memorial in July 1971, with Bo Diddley and Creedence.
A - Wow! I remember.
Q - $5.50 for a triple bill ticket like that.
A - And that was probably high priced back then too.
Q - Yeah. When those tickets went from $5.00 to $5.50 it was like, what's going on here? What are they trying to do to us anyway?
A - Right.
Q - They don't have package tours like that anymore. How did you guys get on that tour?
A - Doug Clifford, the drummer from Creedence Clearwater Revival was a huge fan of my drummer David Garibaldi and so he asked if we would go on tour with them. We had done one tour of the United States and had gone out and there were no records anywhere. We came back and were all mad at Bill Graham. We kind of got into a little fight with him. Creedence Clearwater was asking us to tour with them so we said we'll just go do this.
Q - How long of a tour was it?
A - Thirty-two dates.
Q - You probably cries-crossed the country.
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - What do you remember about that tour?
A - The thing that I remember is that they hated us for thirty-one dates and then we played Oakland. (laughs) We took it out on Creedence Clearwater I tell you. (laughs) We were so tired of getting our butts kicked every night. It was a fantastic opportunity and to this day people tell me, I saw you with Creedence Clearwater and I thought you were awesome. I'm like, you sure about that? (laughs)
Q - As I said earlier, you just don't see bills like that any more.
A - Yeah, we did I think half the tour with Bo Diddley and half the tour with Tony Joe White. It was great. It was great people and a lot of fun.
Q - There were what, ten guys in Tower Of Power?
A - Yeah.
Q - So, how does the band make any money with that many players?
A - Careful planning. (laughs) We've really got to plan our logistics carefully. Fortunately things have been good for us. We're making more money at the box office and getting better offers. All the members get supplemental money from writing, producing and such, recording sessions, clinics. We do pretty good.
Q - You performed at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York recently. How'd you like performing there?
A - It was great.
Q - How many original members in this group?
A - Five.
Q - And you're out on the road promoting a CD you recorded in 2003?
A - I think it was 2004. It's a CD called "Oakland's Own".
Q - Is that on your own label?
A - No. It was on a label called OR Music. They're no longer in business. They went out of business a few months ago. It was actually our record executive from SONY who went and started his own label and licensed it out to SONY. We were under contract to SONY up until a few months ago.
Q - You backed Huey Lewis and The News in the early 80s. Does that mean in concert or on records?
A - Both. Our horn section played with him on several of his records and we toured with him for about four years.
Q - You performed with Madonna?
A - We played with her 'live' on the Arsenio Hall 1000th Show.
Q - Who else have you performed with?
A - We did some 'live' shows with Heart, The Rolling Stones, Little Feat, The Eurhythmics and David Sanborn and also with Linda Ronstadt.
Q - Who are you aiming your CDs to? Who is the market for Tower Of Power's music?
A - Well, we don't think of it that way. We don't make CDs and aim them at a certain segment of the public. We make CDs to please ourselves. We're very selfish about our music. We find that when we please ourselves, our listening public gets into Tower Of Power and really enjoys what we do. So, we kind of stay true to that. But, I will say that in the last fifteen years, our audience has changed to a lot of young people. So now when we play Europe, it's mostly twenty and under. Same thing in Japan and then a large segment that comes to see us in the States now is also young, not the majority that is in other parts of the world, just a lot of young kids coming out to see us now. I think a large part of the reason for that is a lot of musicians over the years that were in Tower Of Power became educators and so they tell all these Jazz bands, stage bands, marching bands, if you're into the music you gotta hear these guys Tower of Power. There's a whole segment of young people that really got into us. Plus the Internet has really been a boon to the band.
Q - Now, who put this group together? Was that you?
A - Yup.
Q - You're that man!
A - I'm the guy.
Q - You put the band together in 1968?
A - Yeah.
Q - What kinds of places were you playing in those early years?
A - We were playing an after hours joint in the East Bay called Little Richards. We played from 2 A.M. to 6 A.M. on Fridays and Saturdays. We'd play The Warehouse in San Jose. We also had a Monday and Tuesday night gig at a nightclub, the On Broadway in Oakland. That's kind of what we were doing. We were playing nightclubs even though we were underage. That's what we had to do for a couple of years.
Q - So, is that where Bill Graham or one of his staff members caught your act, at one of these clubs and signed you?
A - No. What happened was, Bill Graham had a voice in the Bay Area at the time called the Fillmore West. He had what was called the Tuesday Night Audition night. He had just created two new record labels, Fillmore Records and San Francisco Records. Fillmore was distributed by Columbia. San Francisco was distributed by Atlantic. Everybody was trying to get on those labels and to get into the Fillmore. It was really sort of the first big concert venue, ever. And we got ourselves an audition and to everybody's surprise we were the ones that got signed. Bill Graham had always been a fan of horns and rhythm and he liked the band and signed us to our first record deal.
Q - How did you get that audition?
A - Well, they did it months in advance. Our night was in late November or early December, I can't remember. It was at the end of the year and we got it in January. Right about that time we got busted for being under-age in nightclubs. So, the Alcohol Beverage Control put out a notice that any of the clubs in the Bay Area that hired us were in danger of losing their liquor license. So, all of a sudden we didn't have any work because we hadn't played any high schools for years. All we did was bars. Then all of a sudden we couldn't get hired in bars 'cause we had this bust over our heads. So, all we did for a whole year was practice. And that was rough. We were starving and just about to give up when the audition came.
Q - Were you guys working day jobs during that year period?
A - Yeah, a little bit. A lot of guys lived with their parents still. I was living with my brother and we were doing just whatever we could. A lot of months we didn't even pay the rent. (laughs) When we had my sister-in-law, which wasn't my sister-in-law at the time, she was just his girlfriend, she would cook lasagna for us three times a week. We'd just eat the left overs on the other nights. Lean times. By the time November rolled around, I told the guys, "I'm going to Detroit after the audition. I'm not coming back." My parents had moved to Detroit. We did the audition and I got on the plane the next day to visit my parents and about five days later Doc called me up and said "You gotta come back. He dug it." He said, "Bill Graham". I said "Hock the organ and get me a ticket." I came back and we got signed.
Q - Since you were around in the late sixties, did you ever cross paths with Jimi Hendrix?
A - Our very first concert that we ever played was opening for Jimi Hendrix at the Berkeley Community Theatre. It was during the period he was playing the "Star Spangled Banner". I remember he made us set up in front of the curtain and perform with all the lights in the place on as the people were walking in. Bill Graham had got us this concert. When he signed us, we kind of conveniently didn't tell him about this bust happening. So, he thought he could book us in all these bars and then he comes to find out, Wow! We can't book these guys. None of the high schools knew us, so they didn't want us. So, he put us on one of his concerts opening for Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix wasn't being too nice at the time. My manager at the time; we had gotten this guy Ron Barnett to manage us. He went to Bill and he was screaming "I don't care, maybe they're just young kids, maybe no one knows who they are, but that's no way to treat them." And he agreed. He said "You're right. I apologize, but what can I do? It's Jimi Hendrix and that's what he insisted on. What I will do is put you in another concert." And then he got us another one to make up for it.
Q - Who did he put you with?
A - I don't remember that one.
Q - I guess then you didn't have a chance to interact with Jimi Hendrix.
A - Well, I went up to him to say hello, but he wasn't interested.
Q - Did you ever cross paths with Janis Joplin?
A - I remember I got a call one night. I was rehearsing the band and this was shortly after the Jimi Hendrix concert. My agent from Bill Graham's booking agency called. He said "I want you to go out and buy a couple of Janis Joplin records and learn as many songs as you can and be at the Fillmore at six o'clock 'cause you're gonna back her up tonight." I knew she had stopped working with Big Brother And The Holding Company and she started her own band. I think they were called the Kozmic Blues Band. She had a horn section 'cause I knew the baritone sax player, Snooky Flowers. Apparently she had gotten into a big fight with them and fired them all. We weren't very much into her music at all. We got the record and I started learning the songs. Plus, I didn't have any money. I was broke. The he called about five o'clock and said "Never mind. She re-hired them." I said "You owe me $20 for records. (laughs) That was my experience with Janis.
Q - You ever meet Jim Morrison?
A - On, yeah. When Bill Graham figured out he couldn't get us any gigs because of this situation, he had the agent call me one day and say's "How would you guys like to go to Mexico City for fourteen days. You'll play for ten and you'll be off for four." We were like, "are you kidding?" (laughs) So off we went to Mexico City. What happened down there is, they had had a concert with The Grateful Dead two years prior to that and there had been a riot. So, they had banned all Rock concerts there. But now it's two years later and they wanted to have Santana come down, but they were concerned about how the federals were gonna respond. So, they contacted Bill Graham and said do you have a lesser known band that we could bring down as sort of a tester so we could just see how the government is gonna react. So, that's what happened. We went down there and were supposed to play ten days and be off for four. Well, we went down there and the first night we played there were federals all around the entire venue, all around the block. I'm talking Viva Zapata guys with the two belts criss-crossed on their chests with bullets and machine guns. They just surrounded the place so nobody came. There was like two people that came to the concert. We did that for four nights. In four nights they had those federals outside and in four nights nobody came. After four nights the promoter cancelled the rest of the shows. So, we were off for ten days and only played four. While we were down there, Jim Morrison was with us, because he was a friend of a Mario; what was the guy's last name? I can't remember. Mario Bausar, something like that. At any rate, the promoter and Jim Morrison were friends, and so Jim Morrison was hanging out. This is after he left The Doors and everything and he was quite drunk. He was actually really nice if you talked to him in the daytime. Super-nice guy. But, he was already drinking screwdrivers by like ten in the morning, and then by like four o'clock... We were staying I remember at Hotel Suites in Parador right in the Zorarosa. I'm standing out in front of the hotel and I look up and you got to imagine this is like a really busy intersection where four roads sort of come to a circular intersection. It's a big intersection. Just crazy there. I was standing in front of the hotel and I look up and there's Jim Morrison hanging over the balcony throwing up onto the front of the hotel. (laughs) My most vivid memory is they had a press party for us and we all went up to this really nice nightclub. They had a band there playing. The band was called The Love Army and they were really good. They were set up on these; there were like four or five cylinders is the only way I can describe it. They were big cylinders, so that the singer was on one round cylinder and then there was a bigger round cylinder where the drums were set up and then a smaller one where the bass amp was and another one where the guitar amp was and another one where the keyboard was. There were just like five cylinders. That was the stage. After we'd been there for awhile, Jim Morrison got up on the lead singer's cylinder and grabbed the microphone and said "Let's rock", and swirled the microphone in the air. And of course in those days, mics had cords, right?
Q - They sure did.
A - And he swung it and it went around the drummer and he put the mic on the stand and then fell over and passed out and when he fell over the microphone and the cord pulled the drums off the cylinders, so everything came crashing to the floor. (laughs) It was just total insanity. You gotta imagine I was eighteen years old and this guy is a humungous star and I'm on the road for the first time and out of the country. I mean it was just amazing for us as kids. I'll never forget it as long as I live.
Q - Last name I'm gonna ask you about; Jerry Garcia. Did you ever meet or work with him?
A - Yeah, I worked with Jerry Garcia. We played with The Grateful Dead in 1987. We played with them several times, but in 1987, I remember we did New Year's Eve with them. He called us up and said they were backing Etta James at the Henry J. Kaiser Arena, which originally was the Oakland Auditorium and they had just changed the name of it. Tower Of Power was opening for the Jefferson Starship at the Fox Warfield in San Francisco. So, we said we'll do the gig, but you gotta get a limo and shuttle us back and forth between our gig and yours. It was two nights of performing and recording. That was real interesting because that was when Ethan James was also really, really out of her mind on drugs and alcohol. Of course, The Grateful Dead at that time were very actively using and drinking. I remember we were there for the sound check. The crew was there and everything was set up, but there were no musicians. We were waiting, 'cause we had to get over to San Francisco to do our sound check. We're waiting and waiting until finally one of the crew guys says "Do you want to test your microphones?" We go "yeah, sure." So we went up and they had the most incredible P.A. system. We played the introductory line to "Tell Mama", which was one of Etta James biggest tunes. We knew that song for years. It was a big horn line. So, we went up there and started playing that tune. It was huge in the auditorium. It turned out all the members of The Grateful Dead were there. They were just in sort of these little closets and cubbyholes, smoking and doing there thing. When they heard the horns they came out. I said "You know what? We gotta get this thing going because we gotta go do our own sound check. So, if we're gonna play, let's do it." I remember I got to teach them five songs at the sound check. I taught 'em how to play "Tell Mama", "Hard To Handle", "Midnight Hour", which ironically they had played for years but seemingly didn't know the tune, and "Turn On Your Lovelight". They were so excited. I think at that point they were so stagnant they hadn't learned a new tune in years. I remember Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir coming to me and sayin', "man, that was great! Let's do some more!" (laughs) I said "I gotta go to my sound check, but we'll learn some more tomorrow." Etta James didn't even show up. Then that night when we went back over there to do the show, she was backstage and she calls me in. She had a bunch of cocaine there and was snorting it. She said, "You're gonna have to tell me the lyrics to all these songs." I said, "you know the lyrics to Tell Mama. That's your song." She said "You're gonna have to tell 'em to me." (laughs) I'm standing there telling her, her own lyrics. They she says to me "you're gonna have to stand next to me onstage and tell me those lyrics in my ear." (laughs) I was like, "you're out of your mind. I'm not doing that!" She said "you're gonna have to do that" and we started getting into this big fight. Long story short, eventually The Grateful Dead said "you know what? If she don't want to do it, we'll do it anyway. We'll sing it." (laughs) They were just so excited to play these new songs. They're some trippy people. I have the utmost respect for that band because for one, they take chances. I don't think of them as a great band musically, but I think they're great music travelers. They take chances. They have a super following. They just kind of got their own thing. Obviously they're horrendously popular. I was very sad when Jerry Garcia had died because over the years I'd run into him. I got clean and sober in 1988. I know that he tried several times and one of the times that I thought he was clean and sober, we were at a concert. I think it was an AIDS Benefit and I saw him smoking pot. My experience was, when you want to get clean and sober, you have to abstain from all mine-altering chemicals. If you try to hold onto any one or a couple of drugs and abstain from others, eventually it does take you back...and that's what happened with him. He wound up going back to the hard narcotics and then it was very sad. He actually found his way to a treatment facility right before he died, but he was already too far gone. We used to have the same sort of addictions, he and I. Here I had been sober for years at that point. It was sad to see that happen (to Jerry Garcia). I don't think the band (The Grateful Dead) ever recovered. They did a big tour and it was very successful, but they never were really the same. He was the heart and soul of that band.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock, "Tower Of Power reached it's commercial peak between 1973 and 1975 when Lenny Williams sang lead." Is that true and where is Lenny Williams today?
A - I would say that's basically true as far as success in terms of commercial recordings making the charts. We had some other commercial successes and we were on the charts but that was certainly the highest point. Lenny Williams was the singer on most of the songs that charted the highest. We had one song, "You're Still A Young Man" that also charted very high and was sung by a guy named Rick Stevens. But, people identify with Lenny because of "What Is Hip", "This Time It's Real" and "Don't Change Horses In The Middle Of The Stream" and certainly "So Very Hard To Go" is one of our biggest hits and he sang that. I pretty much wrote that song with his voice in mind. And Lenny's doing well. He recently came into a lot of money because there was a Rap song out a couple of years ago that sampled him and sped up his vocal. He's got this like pleading thing in his voice and so, one of these rappers took that and sped it up like The Chipmunks and had it on his song. It was like a Top Ten Rap song. Lenny came into like hundreds of thousands of dollars from that sample. Also on the Kings Of Comedy Special with Steve Harvey and all these Black comedians, Steve Harvey played a segment of one of his tunes and talked about old school Soul music and said "Now this brother is testifying. This is old school." He did like ten minutes on Lenny and that kind of rejuvenated his career too. He performs and does a lot of our songs. He's not quite as established as we are, but he still performs and does well. We talk every so often. He's a good friend of mine. I love him and he's a great singer.
Q - What's ahead for Tower Of Power?
A - Well, we're getting ready to go back into the studio. We're gonna start rehearsing our new record at the end of the year. But, we're gonna do a re-make record this time, old Soul music. And, we've also written a whole bunch of new material, so we'll probably do an all original record as well. And then, we have a new 'live' DVD coming out soon, that we recorded in Germany. It's taken forever to get the contracts settled on this thing. Hopefully it'll be out in the next three months. And just more touring. We go all over the world. We've kind of expanded in our world-wide travels in the last year or so. We got down to New Zealand. We got over to Indonesia. We're getting ready to go to Bangkok. We're looking at Australia. We go regularly to Europe and Japan. And we're looking to get down to South America soon too.
Q - Sounds like you've got a great life there!
A - Oh, yeah. I've got no complaints at all man. I've got the greatest job in the world. Travel. See the world. I'm home anywhere from 165 to 215 days a year. And when I'm home, I'm home 24 hours a day. So, I got a lot of time with my family, more than most men. I get so see the world and play music I love with people I love doing it with and make a pretty darn good penny doing it, so no complaints.