Gettin’ Zoned With Emilio: Tower of Power’s Saxist Singer Keeps On Keepin’ On

When Emilio Castillo was 11 years old, his family moved from Detroit to Fremont, south of Oakland. It was a hard transition, but he credits music with making it easier. As the singer, sax player, and head man of Tower of Power, Emilio Castillo has been passing on the strength he found in music since the days when he was sneaking into shows to hear Sly and the Family Stone “play that funky music” before Sly became known to a nation of funksters.

If you were young in the late ‘60s—living in the Bay Area, smoking some not-very-good street weed, attending the occasional anti-war protest, reading the underground press, and listening to the flood of music issuing out from Bay Area rock bands—you might have thought there was something in the air, what with so many exciting new bands releasing albums faster than any of us could quite keep up with. There was Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, Sopwith Camel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Youngbloods, Commander Cody,  Santana, and dozens of others; some still well-known, others forgotten. New bands were rehearsing in garages or suburban family rooms from Olema to Oakland—Tower of Power’s home base.

“The Bay Area was a hotbed of music,” Castillo told me, “and the proliferation of bands was kind of born in the Bay Area. It was the nature of the time and place. But the Bay Area was always culturally eclectic, and that fed the music. Musicians were coming from all over the country to be in that scene. We were lucky enough to be part of that.”

Tower of Power was, and remains, a hard-driving rock n’ funk consortium that took the hippie ethos, added a dollop of soul sauce, and shook it up real good. They’re still playing nearly 200 gigs a year—survivors in a business that takes a heavy toll on its practitioners. Their current tour brings them to Laxson Auditorium this coming Thursday, and is one in a series of gigs celebrating the band’s 45-year run. Staying power is just one power Tower of Power has.

“I don’t take any credit for our longevity,” Castillo said. “People tell me it’s amazing what I’ve done to hold this band together for 45 years. But I didn’t do anything. God did it, and I just showed up. I was often getting in the way of keeping it together. God had this plan, and He made sure it happened. I try to honor Him in how I do my work, but I don’t kid myself. It ain’t me. If I look at my whole career, and how I handled it—we’re still here in spite of me.”

The ability to create and sustain a groove is another of the Tower’s powers. A Tower of Power audience might surprise you; there are a lot of young listeners who gravitate to the sound they lay down.

“There’s a place we play in Denmark,” Castillo said, “and it’s always kids in their early to mid-20s, and they’re always singing along—in English. They know all our songs. I feel like we’re the Beatles when we play there. What makes a great gig is the audience. The energy that comes off the stage is directly proportional to the energy we draw from the audience. Sometimes we play corporate gigs, and the audience is schmoozing about some presentation they just came from, and the ice is tinkling in their glasses. You have to work a little harder on nights like that, and so you just do.”

The Laxson audience is likely to bring some energy-generating juice for the band, making it easier for them to hit what Castillo calls “the Oakland zone”: that aural sweet spot where everyone finds the groove and adheres to it, players and listeners alike. Such moments on stage sustain guys like him, making it possible to put up with the endless hassles of travel and promotional interviews like this one. What was it like to do all that, and for so long?

“We just had a week that was one of the most difficult travel experiences we’ve ever had. We drove from Long Island to Woodstock, played a concert, then drove back to Manhattan to do a 4:15 [a.m. taping] at Fox News, and then we got on a plane to Seattle for a show there. We were up 36 hours. But we travel, and we see the world. Sometimes it’s difficult; sometimes it’s glorious.”

As for the interviews and the other ancillary stuff, Castillo said, “Some interviews are boring, but I still think it’s a privilege that people are interested enough to ask me questions. I should be grateful for that.”

How did it feel, I wondered, to grow old in a profession so firmly associated with youth? And did he think of himself as a rock n’ roll performer?

“I’m in the rock n’ roll industry, so in that respect, I’m a rocker. But what we really play is soul music—stuff that moves your soul. As far as aging goes, I look to my peers. I traveled with BB King, and sometimes he looked like he was going to drop dead, but the moment the lights came up on stage, he came alive. And he’s still doing it. As long as I’m able to get up there, I’ll do it. It might be different if I were in a hair band and had to squeeze into tight pants and jump around like a kid. But I don’t.”

Does he think about quitting?

“The Bible doesn’t say nothin’ about retirement. Besides, I don’t look at what I do as work. We’re in the middle of making a new album; we’re recording 25 songs, and we’re going to pick the best dozen. I want it to be the best album of our career, and it’s turning out great. I want to document the band as it is now: the best we’ve ever been.”

I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians over the past decade, with names big and small. Some were easy, some were difficult, some were boring, and some were interesting. Emilio Castillo spoke with me for half an hour. The time flew by. It was easy. And it was interesting. If this piece isn’t interesting, that fault lies with this writer, not with the artist.

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  1. I am TOP’s Web Master and band historian. This is one of the best interviews I have ever read regarding Emilio and TOP. GREAT job.

    Brian Rachlin
    Web Admin for Tower OF Power

  2. Steve Smith says:

    Great Interview!