Tower of Power: Will the Funk Ever End?

TOP over the years . . .

Tower of Power in 1973
Tower of Power in 1973
Album cover for "East Bay Grease"
Album cover for "East Bay Grease"
Cover for TOP's third album "Tower of Power"
Cover for TOP's third album "Tower of Power"
Album jacket for "We Came to Play"
Album jacket for "We Came to Play"
Current Tower of Power
Current Tower of Power
Bruce Conte (at right) with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons
Bruce Conte (at right) with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons
TOP in 2007
TOP in 2007

Check out some of Tower of Power's music . . .

What is Hip?

 

Heavily influenced by artists such as James Brown, Oakland-based soul and funk band, Tower Of Power, has been playing music for 41 years. One critic called them "tighter than a clenched fist." Yes, tight is a word that always comes to mind with Tower of Power, whose intricate syncopation and jazz-fusion riffs have placed them in the R&B pantheon. So let's check out Tower of Power:

Saxophonist/songwriter Emilio Castillo started the forerunner of Tower of Power in the late 1960s. First the group was called the Gotham City Crime Fighters and later the Motowns. By 1970 the group was known as Tower of Power, a.k.a. TOP. The band played what Emilio Castillo called "urban soul music."

* * *

The group's first bass player was Francis "Rocco" Prestia. In fact, he's played almost continuously with the group since its inception. His popping, ornate bass lines have marveled folks for decades. Bassist Vito San Filippo has also recorded with TOP.

* * *

After signing a recording contract with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records,TOP released its first record East Bay Grease, whose greatest hits were the slow, flute-oriented ballad "Sparkling in the Sand," the funky, driving "Knock Yourself Out" and the bouncy, powerful "Back on the Streets Again." (This was the only album the group did with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records.)

* * *

Certainly the most enduring and spectacular part of the band is the horn section, the original members of which are tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo, baritone saxophonist Stephen "Doc" Kupka, trumpet/trombone player Mic Gillette and trumpeter/arranger Greg Adams. And later they added multi-saxophonist/background vocalist Lenny Pickett.

* * *

Tower of Power's first album with Warner Bros. Records was Bump City, featuring such hits as "Down to the Nightclub," "You Got to Funkifize," and "You're Still a Young Man," the latter tune peaking at number 29 on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1972.

* * *

As well as playing horns, Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka have also written many of the band's songs; their first collaboration was "You're Still a Young Man."

* * *

The band's third album, Tower of Power, won a gold record for selling over 500,000 copies and offered some of their greatest hits: "What Is Hip?" "So Very Hard to Go" and "This Time It's Real." "So Very Hard to Go" was the band's highest scoring single: number 17 on Billboard's Hot 100 and number 11 on the R&B chart.

* * *

With the release of the TOP's fourth album, Back to Oakland, the band became a little more funk-oriented. This album's hits were "Don't Change Horses (in the Middle of the Stream)" "Time Will Tell" and one of their most impressive instrumentals, "Squib Cakes."

* * *

The lead vocalists on TOP's first two alums were Rick Stevens and Rufus Miller. Stevens left the band after being sentenced to life in prison for three counts of first degree murder.

* * *

Smooth-voiced Lenny Williams sang the lead on the band's third, fourth and fifth albums. On the fifth album, Urban Renewal, Williams sang a tune with a socio-economic consciousness, "Only So Much Oil in the Ground." This was made during the first Arab-oil embargo, creating long lines at gas stations throughout the U.S.

* * *

On their sixth album, In the Slot, Hubert Tubbs took over as lead vocalist. There were no big hits on this album. Perhaps the best songs were the jumping, decidedly funky "Just Enough and Too Much" and the rollicking instrumental "Ebony Jam." Hubert Tubbs also sang the lead on Live and in Living Color, TOP's first live album released in 1976. This work included a 23-minute version of "Knock Yourself Out," featuring an incendiary organ solo by long-time TOP keyboardist Chester Thompson.

* * *

Sting once had a Tower of Power clone band before he formed The Police.

* * *

In TOP's seventh studio album, Ain't Nothin' Stoppin' Us Now, the band created two more songs dealing with socio-economic or geo-political issues: "Can't Stand to See the Slaughter" and "While We Went to the Moon." Some words in the latter were: "In the race for space, does it really matter who's in first place? Are we accomplishing anything much, or are we just trying to save face?" Many of TOP's songs deal with issues facing the common man - blue collar types, if you will. In fact, TOP could be called a blue collar band.

* * *

Perhaps some of TOP's best lyrics were evident on their mega hit "What is Hip?" written by Emilio Castillo, Stephen Kupka and David Garibaldi. Here's an excerpt: "So you want to jump out your trick bag and ease on into a hip bag/But you ain't just exactly sure what's hip/So you started to let your hair grow, spent big bucks to cop you a wardrobe/But somehow you know there's much more to the trip/What is hip? Tell me, tell me, if you think you know/What is hip? If you're really hip, the passing years will show."

* * *

Fresno, California native Bruce Conte, played lead guitar and wrote songs on TOP's early albums from 1972 to 1979, when he left the group. He returned briefly with the band in 2006 and 2007. His cousin Victor Conte played bass with the band in the middle to late 1970s. Victor's work can be heard on TOP's eighth album, We Came to Play, released in 1978.

* * *

Bruce Conte started his career with the Roadrunners (a Fresno band) in the middle 1960s, and then joined San Francisco's Loading Zone in 1970. After leaving Tower of Power, he played with Jump Street, Cold Blood, Hot Street and then El Chicano. Over the years, he's made three solo albums.

* * *

In 1979, the band released their ninth studio album, Back on the Streets, a work somewhat influenced by the very popular disco sound. (Rod Stewart, Kenny Loggins and Earth, Wind and Fire, and others, were similarly inspired.) Led by new lead vocalist Michael Jeffries and guitarist Danny Hoefer, the album's biggest hits were "Rock Baby," "Nowhere to Run" and "It Takes Two (to Make It Happen)." Some background vocals by the Jones Girls added plenty of sweet, harmonic highlights.

* * *

In spite of drug problems, frequent changes in personnel (especially at lead singer) and the disco onslaught, Tower of Power produced an album a year for the decade of the 1970s.

* * *

Tower of Power's last single to make Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart was "You Ought to be Havin' Fun," hitting number 62 in 1976.

* * *

Their horn section has great renown as a backup ensemble for bands and artists such as Little Feat, Santana, Elton John, the Jefferson Airplane, John Lee Hooker, Rod Stewart, Huey Lewis and the News, Aerosmith, Poison, Michael Bolton, the Eurhythmics and Spyro Gyra, among many others.

* * *

1995's album Souled Out featured a tribute to James Brown titled "Diggin' on James Brown." It would be hard to imagine Tower of Power without the Godfather of Soul's influence. Included on the album was another tune dealing with socio-economic issues, namely "Taxed to the Max." (Aren't we all?) Perhaps the album's greatest song was the lively title cut "Souled Out."

* * *

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Lenny Pickett, who played with TOP from 1972 to 1981, began playing in 1985 with the house band on Saturday Night Live. Since 1995 he's been the musical director on SNL. Not bad for a guy with a ninth-grade education and no formal musical training!

* * *

Perhaps TOP's best album in recent years was Rhythm and Business, released in 1997. Produced by the group's founder Emilio Castillo, the album's greatest hits were "So I Got to Groove," "You Do the Math," "What's Your Trip," and "Rhythm and Business." It's perhaps the only one among their recent albums that ranks with some of their best of the 1970s.

* * *

Over the years, Tower of Power has used as many as 60 different musicians (and counting).

* * *

In 1998, saxophonist/lyricist Stephen Kupka founded Strokeland Records to further his songwriting career and help other funk, jazz and soul artists do the same.

* * *

One of TOP's last studio works was Oakland Zone, released in 2003. Left from the original group in the late 1960s were Emilio Castillo, David Garibaldi, Stephen Kupka and Francis Prestia. The album's greatest tunes were "Give Me Your Love," "Oakland Zone" and "Eastside." This album could be one of their funkiest to date, and that makes a helluva lot of sense! As with sex, doesn't funk get better with age?

* * *

In its many incarnations, Tower of Power still exists after 41 years. Even though their "heyday" may be over, Tower of Power is still one of the finest live acts in the world of pop music. Their most recent album is the Great American Soulbook.

What is hip, if you think you know? Man, Tower of Power is hip!!!

Please click on the link below and listen to some of Tower of Power's licks:

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=6FB8EB25C4F7E0FD

 

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Comments 13 comments

marmmoo 7 years ago from MEQUON, WI.

Cool stuff, I'm into that whole funk-fusion thing, like, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, and others. It's all about the music, I can't only hear it, I can feel it also.


Wyldflow3r profile image

Wyldflow3r 7 years ago

I absolutly love T.O.P.!! David Garibaldi is one of my favorit drummers!! Excellent hub. If you like T.O.P. you will also like Cold Blood. In fact some T.O.P. members played for them and vice versa. Good hub!!


fredharris 6 years ago

'Doc' Kupka gets hip to Tony Adamo's "What is Hip"

"I love Tony’s version of "What Is Hip?". He evokes the beatnik-bongo days of my youth and gives a whole new slant to a hard-charging funk tune. Congrats to both Tony Adamo and Jerry Stucker!" Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka, Tower of Power co-founder

www.strokeland.com

www.myspace.com/tomyrocadamo

Already released here on Strokeland is Adamo's cool rendition of "THIS TIME IT'S REAL", another great classic Tower of Power tune. This smooth, funky arrangement by Jerry Stucker, covered by Strokeland Records artist Tony Adamo, was written by Tower of Power co-founders, Stephen 'Doc' Kupka and Emilio Castillo. Mic Gillette, who has arranged and recorded on six Adamo/Stucker songs, wrote a funk show-time arrangement for this new cover and laid down the brass. Tom E. Politizer of TOP was brought in for the lead solo, and Doc Kupka, the Funky Doctor himself, anchored the horn section.

www.strokeland.com


Fred Harris 6 years ago

"I love Tony’s version of "What Is Hip?". He evokes the beatnik-bongo days of my youth and gives a whole new slant to a hard-charging funk tune. Congrats to both Tony Adamo and Jerry Stucker!" Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka, Tower of Power co-founder


fredharris 6 years ago

Tony Adamo's cover of Tower of Powers "What is Hip" is now on Horndrivenradio Playlist

Updated Playlist for 10/27/2010. Includes music by the late Solomon Burke who passed away on October 10th of this year. More music from Roger Smith's "Rosco's Place II' (available Oct 31st) Also, in the rotation are a few Songs by Jack Mack & The Heart Attack who on 10/10/10 celebrated their Thirty Year Anniversary. And Tony Adamo's cover of Tower of Powers "What is Hip"

http://www.soulradioonline.com/

www,strokeland.com


TheManWithNoPants profile image

TheManWithNoPants 5 years ago from Tucson, Az.

I just a year late getting here, but better late than never they say. I loved TOP and had two of their old albums. Yep, I said ALBUMS! I was looking at your Hub titles and I really like the subjects my man. Sounds like you dig lots of different types of music. I'm a musician, and I do too. A friend of mine has a sort of fusion jazz band called Turning Point. The founder and leader of the band's name is Thanos Sahnas. He's a 1% er on guitar or anything with strings. Here's a link with him and his brother Dimitri playing. Look around at the other vids of the actual band. I think you'll love it. They're finally starting to break into the big time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UaAKJoKhXs&feature...

jim


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Themanwithnopants. I'll check out the link to your fellow musicians. Anyway, you gotta love TOP. Later!


mario cuellar 5 years ago

I have always known u guys r the best even before i saw u in person at the couchhouse in 86 but my homeboy Tommy Alvarado confirms it and says hes been honored and privledgeded to no u guys and play with u too well with a couple of u guys anyway


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 5 years ago from California Author

It sounds like you've heard the funk of TOP, Mario. You are truly blessed, my friend. Later!


nichegroove profile image

nichegroove 4 years ago

Tower Of Power provides the meaning of funk music at its best. From the music student to the serious record collector, any TOP album is a must-have. Personally, TOP is THE model funk band that showcase funk music in the most appealing manner, yet rhythmically intricate. Well, i guess i can make such a claim coz' my band plays quite a bit of music from TOP. AND i've an extensive collection of TOP albums.


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, nichegroove. If you play some of TOP's music, you are a very cool, hip, soulful dude. Later!


nichegroove profile image

nichegroove 4 years ago

Hello Kosmo...among all the coolest, hippest TOP funk rhythms, my all time favorite is 'You're Still A Young Man' released in 1972 on the Bump City album. This in fact is the first song written together by Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka,

As a bass player, I think Francis Rocco Prestia has the most unique way to interpret a bassline played over 6/8 feel. His signature triplet bass fills in between the downbeats locks in perfectly with David Garibaldi's drumming. Rocco's bass lines compliments the entire song right up till the end. 'You're Still A Young Man' is largely unknown to the younger generation who grew up with 'Monster On A Leash'.

Kosmo, for the benefit of readers on your section who wants to know more about Tower Of Power, I include the following YouTube links as reference.

Live version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh5YoFy8pSQ

Album version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX2lvItpXCo

Close-up on Rocco with bass lesson (part 1): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vujir_vJ7Zk&list=PL...

For the sake of convenience, readers can request for the 7 part Francis Rocco Prestia's bass video lesson, or any of TOP's recordings from 1972-1999; Simply drop me an email: nichegroove@gmail.com


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Hey, nichegroove, I've always loved Prestia's bass lines. Back in the 1970s, just about everyone was impressed with them. And their horn section is TOPs, of course. Thanks for the links. Also, I've thought about writing a book about TOP. There doesn't seem to be one out there. Later!

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