Sax players, composers and founding members of the R&B-based Tower of Power band, Kupka and Castillo talk about their 40+ years in the music business.
Tower of Power’s Stephen “Doc” Kupka & Emilio Castillo
Tavis: Tower of Power started as a cover band in Oakland, California back in 1968 when tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo met baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka. They became the backbone of the driving horn sound that came to define Tower of Power. Their latest CD is a double disc set called “Hipper Than Hip.” Here’s a taste of their great sound. This is from the 40th anniversary CD. It’s called “What is Hip?”
Tavis: [Laugh] Still sounding good, man.
Emilio Castillo: Thank you.
Tavis: Still sounding good. What ever happened to all the bands with the great horn sections?
Castillo: Well [laugh], I don’t know. You know, were there that many really?
Tavis: Well, there were more than there are today.
Castillo: That’s true, that’s true. I don’t know. I guess they gave up.
Stephen “Doc” Kupka: Less music in the schools.
Kupka: So there’s less horn players coming out. Guys want to play guitar and, you know, synthesizers and stuff like that these days.
Tavis: I think that link, Doc, is – I think you’re right about that and that’s a serious indictment. And what kills me is the data is so clear on what music education does for children all the way around, not just for their tone, you know, not just for their ear, but what it does for their performance in all of the other key subject areas. So you’ve drawn this line now. That’s a real connect.
Kupka: Yeah. Math and science particularly, and we can use some mathematicians and scientists.
Castillo: I saw clearly in my children – my wife home schools, you know, and we got our kids into music and immediately all their other subjects got better. And when we do clinics, we always preach that message because it’s so true, you know. And, unfortunately, with the economy and everything, one of the first things to go is the music program.
Tavis: Since you went there right quick, give me some sense, Emilio, of why you and your wife chose to home school.
Castillo: Well [laugh], we’re church people.
Castillo: We’re believers, you know, and we wanted to make sure that our children were specially guided with a firm foundation in the Bible. And, unfortunately, you don’t get that in schools. And, plus, my wife is very good at it. I don’t think home schooling is for everybody, but if you’re not very good at it, you can also hire other people to help you do it, you know.
But it’s paid off in a big way for us. You know, my boy – they told us he was gonna struggle. In kindergarten, they told us that. They were getting ready to label him back then, you know. Now he’s in the engineering program at ASU.
My daughter’s a high school student at Community College. You know, she home schooled all the way until she was 17 and now, as a high school student, she’s at Community College. It’s just really paid off for us in a big way and they have a firm foundation in God’s word.
Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of proficiency, Doc, how did you – take me back and tell me how you started first getting so proficient at this horn.
Kupka: Well, I started out as an oboe player and there was good music in the schools where I went at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. So I was an oboist and I went off to college. But it was right around the time when I heard “Hold on, I’m Comin” by Sam and Dave.
Tavis: Oh, yeah [laugh].
Kupka: You know, I heard Otis Blue, “Otis Sings Soul,” that whole album. I wanted to play R&B. I wanted to play rhythm and blues and you’re not going to do that on the oboe.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Kupka: I switched over to sax and there was a lot of good tenor players around, but nobody played bari. So I took a year or two and learned how to play the baritone sax. I was self-taught. And just about the time I was ready to go, I met Emilio at the Pleasanton County Fair, the Alameda County Fair, the Pleasanton Fair, on the July 4th weekend in 1968.
Tavis: Yeah. How did you end up not just being proficient? Where did all that soul come from? A guy starting out playing the oboe doesn’t necessarily have a soulful career in front of him. It’s one thing to make the switch to the instrument, but then that soul that comes through in your playing came from somewhere.
Tavis: That’s not just practice.
Kupka: Well, Berkeley is a very integrated town and I was very fortunate. So once I got interested in it, I had the musical training to be a good musician. I mean, I’m self-taught on sax, but not on oboe or music. So I had that training and I could translate it into, you know, the funky doctor.
Castillo: You got to understand too, you know, soul music in the Bay Area, it was a major thing. Sly Stone was the most popular disc jockey in the Bay Area.
Tavis: Absolutely, yeah.
Castillo: And soul music was very popular there and Berkeley was one of the most soulful cities in the Bay Area, Berkeley, Oakland, you know. So that was…
Tavis: This argument cuts both ways, though, Emilio. Given that it was such a soulful town and you got Sly and a bunch of other folk out there doing their thing, what gave you the courage to think that you and this band could cut into that, could find a space for your own creative outlet?
Castillo: And now you’re saying ’cause we’re a white band [laugh]?
Tavis: Well, I was gonna go there [laugh]. So the most soulful white folk I know are in Oakland. I mean, I love Oakland for that. But you had to have, though, some sort of chutzpah to make you believe that you guys were good enough or could be good enough to play.
Castillo: What happened for me is I saw it. I saw it personally. There was a band in the Bay Area called The Spiders and they were an all-white soul band. They had a 6’3″ Black girl named Trudy Johnson that sang. She was very good, but the band was what really blew everybody’s mind. And I saw them play and it was like I put blinders on.
After that, soul music became my life. And so I had this band. We called it The Motowns and we patterned ourselves after them and that’s who we were when I met him. And he came and I wanted to borrow – he was a roadie for The Loading Zone which was like a hippie soul band. But we were like a slick soul band. That’s what we were.
And I wanted to borrow the organ and they sent him over to interview me to see if I was okay to use their organ. He asked me what we were like and I said, “You ever heard of a band called The Spiders?” And The Spiders had just kicked The Loading Zone’s butt a week earlier at the Berryessa Bowl. He goes, “Yeah, they were amazing.”
But The Loading Zone was famous, but The Spiders took it to them, you know. He said, “Yeah, you can use the organ” and then he comes to me afterwards and he says, “You know, that band of yours is pretty good. Only one thing wrong. Your horn section, it needs a little bottom. By the way, I play the baritone saxophone.” [Laugh]
Tavis: [Laugh] Just kind of just dropped that in there, huh? Just kind of weaved that in there.
Castillo: Yeah. But I saw this great band doing it and I knew that that was what I’d do too.
Tavis: So how and when, then, did you switch to Tower of Power?
Castillo: Well, he came in the band and he was the first hippie I ever met, you know. And he came in and we all sort of wanted to, you know, change our lifestyle, grow our hair long. I mean, that’s what was happening in the Bay Area at the time, you know. And we wanted to get in the Fillmore and we knew we weren’t gonna get in there with a name like The Motowns, you know, wearing suits.
So I was at this recording studio in Hayward, California and this guy had put a list of potential band names on his desk. I was on a break and I saw it and it was all those weird names, you know, 13th Floor Elevator, you know, that kind of name. And I saw that name, Tower of Power, and I went up to the guy and said, “What about Tower of Power?” He goes yeah, and that was it.
Tavis: And the rest is history. Since you mentioned the Fillmore, everybody who’s anybody then and now still want to play the Fillmore. And you guys first got in there winning a contest? Did I get that right? You won a contest to play the Fillmore?
Castillo: No, we auditioned.
Tavis: You auditioned, yeah.
Castillo: They had Tuesday night auditions where you had to like get your spot a year ahead of time. So we got our spot around…
Tavis: That’s how famous the Fillmore was.
Castillo: Yeah. I mean, everybody all over the nation was trying to audition at the Fillmore West.
Tavis: That’s what I’m saying, yeah.
Castillo: And we had got our spot around January. That’s when we got it, but the audition wasn’t until November.
Castillo: And right about that, we got busted for being underage. We’d been playing clubs for years underage and the alcohol and beverage control put out a letter saying, if you hire these kids anymore, we’re gonna take your liquor license away. So we had no work from January to November.
So by the time the audition rolled around, I told the guys, “If nothing happens with this audition, I’m going back to Detroit to be with my parents and the band is over.” So we literally played like, you know, our lives depended on it when we did that audition.
Tavis: Well, they did.
Castillo: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: And that all worked out, obviously.
Castillo: Well, you know, we came out there. There was like five bands before us and then we walked out. And they weren’t used to big horn bands and stuff, so the five bands before us all had three guitars and, you know, they were the usual psychedelic bands, you know. Then we walk out with all these horns. The first thing we did, we hit a James Brown tune.
And it was like everybody was walking out and they heard that and they made like an about-face and started walking back in, you know. And we saw this head pop out in the back and it was Bill Graham. He stuck his head out. He always liked rhythm and he always liked horns, you know.
And I flew to Detroit the next day. I said, you know, “If nothing happens, I’m not coming back.” He was devastated and then he called me about three days later. He says, “You gotta come back, you gotta come back. He dug it, he dug it.” I go, “Who dug it?” He says, “Bill Graham.” I said, “Hock the organ and send me a ticket.” [Laugh]
Tavis: Let me ask you to set your modesty aside, Doc. Set your modesty aside just for a second and tell me what you think the contribution over these 45 years of this band Tower of Power has been to the business.
Kupka: Well, for one thing, real people playing real music.
Kupka: And literate lyrics, good lyrics, musical songs and a high performance level through the years. Even at our lowest configurations, it was very good and we got a great configuration right now. So just all those things and trying to serve our fans and do what we do.
You know, there was trends through the years like disco, you know. We thought it was disco that was ruining our careers. It was actually, you know, drugs and alcohol, but we blamed it on disco.
Tavis: [Laugh] Blame it on disco, yeah.
Kupka: Then Rhythm Nation kind of machine songs and then smooth jazz. Whenever we deviated from the Tower of Power formula which we tried a few times – it never worked out for us. So, you know, we stick to our guns now and keep a high level of musicianship and good songs and here we are.
Tavis: The flip side, Emilio, of that lowest configuration that Doc references, I guess, would have to be the Lenny Williams years. You tell me, but I know a whole lot of Tower of Power fans who you ask them, over the 45-year run, what’s the high point? They say the Lenny Williams years.
Castillo: The Lenny Williams years was definitely the high point. But we also – you know, right before Lenny, we had Rick Stevens and he sang “You’re Still a Young Man” and that’s like our biggest hit. That and “So Very Hard To Go” were our two biggest and then “What is Hip?” you know. But, yeah, Lenny was definitely in the peak.
Tavis: How does a band – and I suspect over 45 years, for a lot of different reasons, this is to be expected – but how does a band keep its signature sound over 45 years, Emilio, when the players are changing, say nothing, as Doc referenced, when the times are a-changin’? How do you keep that signature sound over almost 50 years?
Castillo: Well, I think that, you know, the nucleus of the band has always been me and Doc. And then the sound nucleus, though, a great portion has to give credit to Rocco and David Garibaldi. And even when they weren’t in the band, I was drawing that sound out of the players that were in the band. We had this style of playing and what we learned every time we tried to deviate was, no matter what we did, it sounded like Tower of Power, you know.
For a while there, you know, when the record companies were getting frustrated, you know, saying why can’t you sound like so and so? And we could get more air play if you sounded like so and so. And we’d try, but it always came out sounding like Tower of Power. Well, we thought that was a curse, you know. But later on we realized, no, that’s a blessing because we only sound like ourselves.
As soon as we realized that and stuck to that, things started getting better. But, you know, we have a unique way of writing and a unique way of approaching the way we put the songs together, and that’s what makes it sound like Tower of Power. So no matter who’s in the organization, you know, I’m drawing that sound out of them.
Tavis: You referenced this already and I think all your fans would agree that “You’re Still a Young Man” is probably still – that’s the biggest hit. That’s the top of – you got a lot of hits over the years, but “You’re Still a Young Man” everybody knows is one of your biggest hits. Tell me about the making of that particular song, the writing of that song.
Tavis: I tell myself that, by the way, every day, that I’m still a young man, yeah.
Castillo: Yeah, I try that myself [laugh].
Tavis: I guess we all do that, don’t we?
Castillo: When I was actually a young man and Doc approached me, he said, “What you do to these songs that we’re playing, it’s amazing.” ‘Cause I used to take these old soul songs and I would change the rhythm and change the harmonies and the way we approached the backgrounds and stuff like that.
And he said, “You know, what you’re doing with these songs is amazing, but why are we doing it to everybody else’s songs? Why don’t we write our own?” I don’t know if I’d ever thought of that. I was a kid. I was 17. I was happy. I had a great band and we were making good soul music, you know. But I said, “Yeah, we can write. Let’s go sit down and try.”
And at the time, I had been in this relationship with this woman that was 24. She was six years older than me and she had broke up with me and then she’d come back. She was always telling me, you know, “Why do you wanna be with me? Go be with those girls your own age.” I was like, “No, no, no. I wanna be with you.” [Laugh]
Tavis: We all know that story [laugh].
Castillo: So when I told him, when we sat down to write, I said, “You know, why don’t we write a story about that?” You know, an older woman telling a young guy, you know, you’re too young for me. That’s how we wrote it.
Castillo: And the thing was, we were listening to Curtis Mayfield at the time…
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.
Castillo: And he had this record out called “This is My Country” and on that album, there was this song and it had a trumpet intro, really high, you know. We loved it, so the first thing he says, “We gotta write a great trumpet intro” because we had this guy, Mick Gillette, and he was a fabulous trumpet player, really high player, you know.
So we wrote that trumpet intro first and then we wrote the story later and then we said, “Let’s go back to the intro at the end.” And that’s really the most famous thing about that tune, you know. We played that intro and it was, “Oh, it’s that song.”
Tavis: Tell me about the process, Doc, when a song is written, and Emilio gives me some of this now. But give me the Tower of Power process for laying down those horn licks once you know what it is that you wanna do with the song.
Kupka: Well, a song, you know, it’s like atoms becoming molecules. You get a title or you get a groove or you get a phrase or anything that you can build upon. I mean, for the horns, that one was inspired by the Curtis Mayfield tune.
Also, the song was also inspired by a song by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers called “Does Your Mama Know About Me?” And it turns out Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong was in that band and co-wrote that tune. So we worked with them through the years quite a bit and talked about it.
Anyway, you just get inspiration from wherever it is and build upon it and then make sure that the song, when it’s done, is up to your standards. We’ve always been good about that. We have pretty high standards for what makes a good song. And then give it to the boys, let them, you know, add a little magic to it, and whoever our arranger is.
We arranged that one ourselves, but for years, our arranger, Greg Adams, was just a great, great arranger. And now we have a guy named Dave Eskridge who arranges the horns. And sometimes we give him, you know, play this line and then harmonize it or whatever, and other times they just do whatever they come up with.
Tavis: Emilio, tell me about “Hipper Than Hip.”
Castillo: “Hipper Than Hip” is this recording that’s coming out at the end of November and it’s two discs. And it’s a live performance that we did. They had this thing called Warner Bros. Month on this radio station called WLIR. It was in Long Island, Hempstead, Long Island.
Tavis: I know it well.
Castillo: And what they did was they took bands from Warner Bros. at the time and put them in a recording studio called Ultrasonic Sound and they go them all wired up for a professional recording, but they did a simulcast on the radio station. So every weekend was a different act and we were one of those weekends. This record actually has gone out like it bootlegs for years, you know.
But this is the actual tapes mixed and mastered and a great booklet that goes with it and everything. It’s coming out, but I gotta tell you, the record blew my mind. You know, I get people all the time coming to me and telling me, “You know, look at this, listen to this, I got this off the radio.” I hear the band every night, you know, so I remember when they came to me, they said, “You need to okay this.”
So I was like, okay, two discs. I got to sit down and listen to all these songs. I started listening and, you know, it’s not that I forgot, but just the realization of, you know, what an aggregation it was in 1974, and I was only 23 years old.
Man, Lenny Williams was killing it. Lenny Pickett was astounding. Chester Thompson on the organ. David Garibaldi and Rocco. I mean, it was like a fabric, a soul fabric. It was just really, really exceptional, you know. So it’s coming out in November and we’re really proud of it.
Tavis: You should be. You mentioned a couple of names in this conversation already that everybody knows. Certainly James Brown’s name was mentioned. Curtis Mayfield’s name was mentioned. I’m curious as to not necessarily who influenced you because we talked about some of that already. But is there a particular person or persons whose vote of approval of what you do has meant so much to you over the years?
Castillo: Famous people, you mean?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I’m asking that question – Robert Duvall was on this program. The great actor was on this program one time. I’ll never forget as long as I live. And I asked Duvall – somehow in the conversation, we were talking about whether or not he read reviews or critics.
He said, “I haven’t done that since I was 22 or 23.” I said I wonder why. I wanted to know why. He said, “When I was just a kid, Marlon Brando came to me one day and had seen one of my movies.” And Marlon Brando said, “Kid, you’re good, you’re really good.” He said, “Since then, I ain’t read nothing.”
He said, “Marlon Brando told me that I was a good actor and I was gonna be a great actor and, if Marlon Brando said that to me, I haven’t had to read or listen to what nobody else says ’cause Marlon Brando told me that.”
So I’m just curious as to whether or not, aside from the people you were influenced by, whether or not there’s somebody whose approval you received over the years of this journey that you said, “You know what? That’s all I need to hear?”
Kupka: There’s one that’s real meaningful to me.
Kupka: We have a song called “Diggin’ on James Brown” and then we add a little James Brown medley in it. Anyway, we had a show with James Brown. We had actually several. In one of the shows, he came up to me and said, “I really like that James Brown song.” We thought maybe we’ll see you in court because we were, you know…
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].
Kupka: Because we were trying to emulate his sound, but he liked it and that meant a lot to me.
Castillo: And for me, you know, we headlined a weekend at the Fillmore Auditorium with Aretha Franklin.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.
Castillo: You know, that was a really special gig for us. At the time, we were having this little feud with Bill Graham, but this shows you how great Bill Graham was. Even though we were having that little feud, he knew we were the best act to open up for her and he put us on for the whole weekend. So we opened up. You know, we were hitting pretty hard.
This is when Rick Stevens was singing for us, but we were really hitting it hard. Bernard Purdy was a fan of our drummer, David Garibaldi. You know, we’re playing in the fourth night. I was standing in the doorway of the dressing room and here comes Aretha wearing that tight white dress with the turban that’s on the “Aretha Live at The Fillmore” album.
And she’s coming towards me and I’m trying to get out of the way, but there was some people here and I couldn’t. So I just turned sideways in the doorway and she kind of turned sideways to go through and we were nose to nose. And she says “Tower of Power, my favorite band.” And I just about melted.
Tavis: Well, when the Queen tells you that [laugh] and James Brown tells you that, I guess you don’t need to hear it from nobody else. This is the 45th anniversary, believe it or not, of Tower of Power. “Hipper Than Hip” coming out late November. You’ll want to get your hands on that new project.
And if you can get your hands on this one, the 40th anniversary of Tower of Power, the “Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco,” you’ll want to get that. That’s a CD and DVD. So you want to get all that and add it to your collection as these gentlemen celebrate now, again, 45 years of doing this good music. Doc, good to have you on the program.
Kupka: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Emilio, a blessing to have you as well.
Castillo: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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