Emilio Castillo: Keeping the Tower powering on

It all happened in a flash. In 1964, aged 14, Emilio Castillo took up the tenor saxophone. Just four years later, when San Francisco was better known for turning hippy hair into flower-arrangements, he formed Tower of Power, the band that has remained a benchmark for super-funky soul for 51 years.

Sly Stone was a big influence in Castillo’s early days. “We used to sneak into a nightclub in Hayward called Frenchy’s,” he recalls. “We’d climb over the back fence, and sneak in the back door on weekends, and stay there from nine o’clock at night until eight in the morning, when they served a free breakfast. We had a lot of fun there watching Sly. We didn’t want to emulate his music so much as his live energy.”

Tower of Power. Photos: Anna Webber.

Castillo says that in 1968 he had no grand vision for Tower of Power: “I just knew I loved music, and every single day that’s all I did. I never had to wonder what I was going to do. I knew it was going to be music. This local band called the Spyders – who weren’t famous, but were very good – got a gig at this bar up in Sacramento, and I thought that was so awesome. I thought, ‘Man, if I could just get to Sacramento!’ That was my vision then.”

Some 60 members have passed through the 10-piece band’s ranks, with Castillo remaining the leader throughout. “But everybody’s allowed to bring their ideas to the plate,” he says. “I’ve got such great musicians they they’re always thinking a million and one ideas, and I’m sort of the filter. We go back and forth, just chipping away at the sculpture.”

Remarkably the band has remained continuously active since its inception – separating them from most of their contemporaries. “And a lot of them are wealthier!” exclaims Castillo. “They can afford to not tour for two years. We’re a working band, and we make no bones about it. We work for a living, and we’ve been doing it now for 50 years.”

They recently had to find a new singer when Ray Greene was poached. “We loved Ray,” says Castillo, “and then Carlos Santana heard about him, and offered him twice the money and half the work. We weren’t even mad at him, because he’s got kids and college and everything, and what’s he going to do? So he left, and we had two months to find a singer, and a guy who was playing drums for BB King, TC Coleman, called me up and said, ‘I heard this singer in Memphis, man. Marcus Scott. You gotta hear him.’ So I checked him out, but I also looked at all the finalists and runners-up on all those TV shows. We narrowed it down to three guys, and decided to give Marcus a shot, and he’s turned into one of the greatest singers we’ve ever had.”

The band’s signature punchy horns have been hired by a gamut of pop/rock/R&B acts that stretches from Little Feat to Elton John, Santana, Huey Lewis, Neil Diamond and P Diddy. The reason, as Castillo points out, is that “it’s a five-piece horn section that plays like one person”.

Half a century on Castillo still dreams of a hit single and breaking out of what considers the band’s relative obscurity. “We’re kind of the best-kept secret in the entertainment world, and I want to change that. But I’m grateful for a long career, and we’ll just keep pushing it and see if we ring the bell at some point. But if we don’t, I’m already overpaid.”