For over 50 years Tower of Power has been the favorite of those who love R&B/soul, funk and sophisticated jazz. While the band is often known for its revolving door of lead singers, the band's founders, Emilio Castillo (saxophone) and Stephen "Doc" Kupka (baritone sax) have remained their constant. The Bay Area band's first album East Bay Grease
was released on Bill Graham's San Francisco Records. The effort became known for its immediately recognizable horn arrangements and energy, especially on the track, "Knock Yourself Out" which was sung by then lead singer Rufus Miller. The band's other lead singer Rick Stevens appeared on "Sparkling in the Sand."
The band signed to Warner Brothers, Miller made way for the smoother Rick Stevens. In 1972 TOP released Bump City
. With the charismatic Stevens the band had even more range as evidenced on the charming "What Happened to the World That Day" and the relentlessly funky tracks like "You Strike My Main Nerve" and "Down to the Nightclub." Despite those highs, Bump City
is best known for the instant classic, "You're Still a Young Man" which hit the pop charts at #29 and the R&B charts at #24.
By 1973, Stevens was out of the group and was replaced by Lenny Williams. The band released Tower of Power
and it made good on the promise of Bump City
and featured tracks like "This Time It's Real" and the much loved "What Is Hip." The album's biggest hit, "So Very Hard to Go" showed off Williams's range and hit the R&B charts at #11 and the pop charts at #17. Back to Oakland followed and while it didn't have any big hits, songs like "Oakland Stroke," and "Can't You See (You're Doin' Me Wrong)" displayed their enviable fire power. Although it was a large band, the public knew the names of the horn section, the aforementioned Castillo and Kupka, Greg Adams (trumpet/flugelhorn), Mic Gillette (trumpet) and Lenny Pickett (saxophone.) The rest of the Tower of Power/Back to Oakland band included Bruce Conte (guitar) Francis "Rocco" Prestia, David Garibaldi (drums) Brent Byers (congas) and Chester Thompson on keyboards.
It was during this era when TOP heightened their profile and appeared on shows like Soul Train and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and the 1974 Rose Bowl. In late 1974, Urban Renewal
was released and yet another change was on the horizon.
Much loved lead singer Lenny Williams left the band in late 1974. Williams went on to release solo albums for Warner Brothers, Motown and MCA. TOP replaced him with powerful belter Hubert Tubbs for 1975's In the Slot
and 1976's Live in Living Color
By 1976, Tubbs left and the band left Warner Brothers for Columbia Records. Edward McGee became the new vocalist. CBS released Ain't Nothing Stopping Us Now
that featured the band proceeding with changing styles and exiting members. This lineup appeared on Soundstage in 1977 with Santana and Gato Barbieri
While the band's own releases seemed to stall in the era, the Tower of Power horn section appeared on sessions for Rufus, Brothers Johnson and Elton John. Oddly enough, they also appeared on ex-lead singer Lenny Williams albums Rise Sleeping Beauty
and Choosing You
By 1977, the lead singers switched again as McGee was out and was replaced by Michael Jefferies. Jefferies appeared on albums We Came to Play
and Back on the Streets
. By the late '70s, TOP started to try different avenues. While the CBS contract was winding down, the group just missed re-signing with Warner Brothers and having an album produced by Ted Templeman. If the late '70s presented challenges, the '80s weren't exactly a vacation either.
The band was marred by exoduses that included Lenny Pickett, Chester Thompson, Francis "Rocco" Prestia, David Garibaldi (who left again after returning in 1979.) "The '80s" seemed to catch up to TOP more than any other band and in clips from the early '80s, it's clear that some incarnations couldn't grasp the complex arrangements the earlier members played with ease. In 1981, the band released Direct Plus
, a live-in studio, direct to disc effort. Dinosaur Tracks
was recorded during the same era and was released years after the fact for Rhino Handmade.
While it seemed that despite Emilio Castillo and Steve "Doc" Krupa's best efforts, TOP seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse, they didn't. The band got sustenance from overseas concerts, studio and live dates with Huey Lewis and the News and appearances on Late Night With David Letterman. TOP horns were a constant presence on Late Night and viewers got to see new players like Lee Thornburg (trumpet) and Richard Elliot (saxophone.)
In 1987, the band released Power
domestically (released in Europe in 1986) and it featured a new lead singer, the blind and talented Ellis Hall. This album also marked the return of Francis "Rocco" Prestia after a ten year absence. The album's killer ballad "Some Days Were Meant For Rain" got them play on quiet storm stations and was arguably one of the best songs they did since the mid '70s.
By 1989, the band bid adieu to Ellis Hall and assigned Tom Bowes to lead singer duties. The band signed with CBS again and released Monster on a Leash
in 1991. The album features immediate TOP favorites "Believe It," and "A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing." This lineup crackled with renewed confidence and energy and it led to a broadened public profile.
In 1993, the group followed with the even more popular TOP. Like its predecessor, it was a well-thought out product as Bowes powered through tracks like "I Like Your Style" and "Soul With a Capital 'S.'" Lenny Pickett appeared on five of the tracks. TOP marked co-founder and TOP horn arranger Greg Adams's departure from the band after 25 years.
Bowes bowed out in 1995 and was replaced by Brent Carter. Carter and the group released Souled Out
and they notched two instant TOP classics, "I Got to Groove" and "Souled Out." Late '90s efforts Rhythm and Business
and Soul Vaccination Live
closed out the second CBS/Sony run. In 1998 drummer David Garibaldi returned to TOP and got to play in tandem with drummer Francis "Rocco" Prestia once again.
By the 2000, Carter left and he was replaced by an immediate TOP favorite Larry Braggs. Unlike a lot of the talented TOP lead singers, Braggs had the accessibility and classic R&B voice to cover the balance of the catalog. Braggs's studio work with the group includes 2003's Oakland Zone
and 2009's The Great American Songbook
which hit #3 on the jazz charts.
The early to mid 2010's found TOP welcoming back alumni for another stint in the band. Guitarist Bruce Conte rejoined TOP in 2006-2007. Trumpeter Mic Gillette rejoined the group from 2009-2011. The band celebrated their 40th Anniversary at the Fillmore in San Francisco and TOP luminaries such as Greg Adams, Lenny Pickett and Chester Thompson returned.
No question the biggest reunion came from a singer who spent over 30 years in jail. In 2013 Rick Stevens returned to the stage and sang with Tower of Power again.
Incidentally, Stevens's signature song was "You're Still A Young Man" and he did them during the emotional performances and one featured Larry Braggs in his last appearance with the band. Braggs spent 14 years with TOP. Ray Greene replaced him and stayed with the band from 2013-2016. In 2017, former lead singer Lenny Williams also had a reunion with the band and sang, "What Is Hip" and "You're Still A Young Man."
Sadly in 2017, TOP hit the papers for more than rhythm and business. Founder and drummer David Garibaldi and bassist Marc van Waginen (subbing for an ill Rocco Prestia) were both struck by a train in Oakland. The injuries were severe for both of them but both were back playing for the band by autumn of the same year.
When it came time for the 50th Anniversary in 2018, Tower of Power had a new singer, Marcus Scott. Scott seemed to especially enliven the band. Also in 2018 the band released their well regarded effort Soul Side of Town
. The band also did a well regarded edition of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. Step Up followed in 2020. It was in 2020 when Tower of Power lost one of its founders, inimitable bassist Rocco Prestia. Marcus Scott also left the band, Ray Greene returned and Michael Jerel replaced him in 2021.
While the band's albums don't always set the charts on fire, Castillo, Kupka and the rest of TOP are still renowned for its live act status. Even better for fans is the fact that the Tower of Power still is a veritable "old home week" for former players who either come to sit in or start another tenure. The collected work of Tower of Power is a catalog that doesn't diminish and still retains its uniqueness and power with each play.