Although our August 23 interview with Tower of Power founding member Emilio Castillo mostly focused on the band’s new album, the sax player also talked about the early days of playing in Bay Area, coming in at the tail end of the psychedelic scene and having the group’s first record released on San Francisco Records, which was headed up by legendary music promoter Bill Graham. Castillo also enthusiastically recounted the first time he saw Sly Stone. Here's the interview in its entirety.
Westword (Jon Solomon): How did the sessions go for the new record?
Emilio Castillo: Pretty good. We did the last four tracks with George Duke. Talented guy. Really nice. They’re gonna come out great.
Any different than the last few albums you’ve released?
We’re doing all old soul music. This is definitively the most different album we’ve ever done.
Like which tunes?
We cut a tune by Stevie Wonder called “You Met Your Match,” we did a four-song James Brown medley. We did “Baby Baby Sweet Baby” by Aretha. We did “Love Land” by the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. “Me and Misses Jones,” “Your Precious Love” by Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell. “Heaven Must be Missing an Angel” by Tavares. “Who is He and What is he to You,” by Bill Withers. “It Takes Two” by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. And a few others.
What made you want to go that direction and do the old soul stuff?
It was a suggestion from our new manager. He’s almost two years with us. When we started thinking about doing the new record, he said, “What you think about doing something different?” We were like, “What different. We don’t do anything different. We make Tower of Power music.” He said, “I want you to make Tower of Power music, but maybe rather doing original material, you do some old soul stuff.” We said, “Everybody’s doing that. We don’t want to follow a trend.” But he said, “Do these tunes your way.” He made a point and said, “You’ve done 19 albums of all original Tower of Power music, and maybe it’s time you give them something different.” So he ran it by a bunch of different promoters throughout the world and they were all really excited about it and so we decided to go ahead and do it, and it’s been fun.
You guys have your first live DVD coming out soon, right?
It should be out by now. I know they have advance orders on it.
What was it about that show that made you want to release it on DVD?
We were doing this show and they told us sort of late in the game that they were doing an 8-camera shoot. You can’t just spring that on us. They said, “If you let us do this, we’ll let you have the footage and you can do with it what you want.” So we thought, well, what do we have to lose? And we had a really good show. So when they gave us the footage, we were really pleased. So we got all the footage and remixed it. It’s really nice. We’ve been trying to get a live DVD out for a long time, and this was an easy way to do it.
Going back to the early days of Tower of Power in the late-‘60s, how was it doing funk and soul and competing with the psychedelic scene?
Well, we were like fish out of water there. We came up in the Fillmore and we were certainly not the norm. By that point, the whole psych thing, I wouldn’t say it was done, but it had certainly run its course. The collective ear of the Bay Area had really been raised a few notches because of Bill Graham. He had over the past three or four years before we showed up, he started brining in people like Miles Davis, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, BB King and Muddy Waters Tito Puente. He exposed the Bay Area to all different kinds of music. So their collective ear was much higher than the rest of the country. So when we came along, they were just totally open. They had gotten to this place where they were really open minded, or shall we say open eared. They were just ready for us.
How was it working with Bill Graham when you put out your first record on his label?
Well, ya know, we had a weird experience there. We got signed, which was something beyond our wildest dreams. And then we went on tour, and everywhere we went they didn’t have our records in the stores. Getting down to this end of my career, 38 years later, I realize that happens to every new act. But back then we were a bunch of kids, and we just got all up in arms about it, and we started complaining. Our singer at the time, Rick Stevens, started saying stuff like, “I got a guy up in the hills who will out-manage Bill Graham.” So we wound up really insulting Bill Graham, and we got into a big fight. Then we spent the better part of a year trying to apologize to him for the way we had acted. But the thing was, he had always loved the band. He always got along with me and Doc. Even though we were sort of feuding, he would welcome us into his office every Monday and we’d try to apologize. He’d listen to us for a while and then scream at us, and we’d say, “OK, we’ll see you in a week.” And then at the end of the year, we got our old manager back, Ron Barnett, and he went in and settled with Bill in one sitting. At that point, we were as hot as we could be and we were dying for a second record. And Warner Brothers was signing all the Bay Area bands, and they wanted us. And Bill knew that, so he said, “I want a point off your contract and a certain amount of money,” and Warners paid it all, and then they signed us. Then we were fast friends, Bill and us, for the rest of our career.
When you first heard Sly, it completely changed you life didn’t it?
No question about it. My dad came home one night… we were a little band that played rock n’ roll music like “Louie Louie” and some Rolling Stones and Animals and that kind of stuff. We had just started getting into soul music. My dad came home one night and said, “I need you go this bar – I’m going to fix it up so you can get in – and I want you to see this band.” It was Sly & the Family Stone. And I had just gone to a soul show at the Oakland Auditorium with Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, the Whispers, and there was this band that opened, and they did this song called “Skate It Out” by Lou Courtney. And they all started doing this dance called “The Skate,” going back and forth across the stage. And there was this guy playing organ, and I remember they did “Tenderness.” And I was kind of wowed by them and noticed the guy was kind of conducting them behind all these other artists. And it turned out that was Sly Stone. So when I got to the club, I walked in and there was this band playing. And the bass player was singing -- that was Larry Graham. And they were doing “Georgia,” and “(I Know) I'm Losing You by the Temptations, and then right in the middle of the song this guy walks in wearing this Sherlock Holmes, ya know, Lord Fauntleroy suit. He walks right up to the stage, stops the band, sits down at the organ and goes “one two three four,” and they hit this tune, and I was like, “Oh that’s Sly Stone.” We’d already known who Sly Stone was because he was a disc jockey on the radio. But we had no idea he was a musician. And man, they hit, and the difference in that band from when they were playing without Sly and when he walked in was night and day. You could just tell he was the heartbeat of that band. And they were so exciting and that’s what really inspired me. I didn’t want to emulate Sly & the Family Stone, but I wanted to have the same energy in my live performance.
How old were you then?
I was 16, just before I turned 17. My dad had to arrange with the owner of the club to let me in secretly.
Can you elaborate a bit on the Oakland Zone concept?
The whole idea of the Oakland Zone was a frame of mind thing. Oakland is a very blue collar, down to earth place. It’s not what you would call culturally gifted. It’s ordinary people, ya know, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. And they like soul music. By virtue of that, the radio itself is just more soulful than the rest of the country. The music in the Bay Area just has a little more soul in it, a little more emotion and a little more energy. And that’s the kind of thing we grew up on, and that’s we have in our music. When we’re sort’ve creating in that mode, that’s what call being in the Oakland Zone.
What is hip now versus when you guys started?
My answer to that question is always the same. It’s in the lyric of the song: ”What’s hip today just might become passé.” Because that’s what always happens. Hipness is a state of mind. It’s not a thing. It’s not a particular fad. It’s not a trend. It’s a state of mind. If you’re trying to be hip and wear your hair a certain way, you know that hairstyle’s gonna be out in six months. You’re trying to be hip and have a certain amount of tattoos, in a few years people are going to look at you say, what were you thinking. All fads come and go.