SAN DIEGO — Tower of Power hasn't done absolutely everything a band can do in 53 years, but it's come close.
Since debuting in 1968 in Oakland, the brassy soul, funk and R&B band has released 29 albums — including six live concert recordings — and performed countless times with at least 49 different lineups of musicians. More than a dozen lead singers have passed through the ranks in that time.
One of the group's first concerts was as the opening act for Jimi Hendrix at the Berkeley Community Theatre. That was shortly after legendary concert promoter Bill Graham had signed Tower of Power to his Fillmore Records label, which in 1970 released the band's debut album, "Easy Bay Grease."
In the intervening years, Tower of Power has created a repertoire that includes such enduring favorites as "You're Still a Young Man," "Down to the Nightclub (Bump City)," "So Very Hard To Go," "Squib Cakes" and "What is Hip?" Fans can expect to hear most of these when the band performs in San Diego Thursday at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
Each song features Tower of Power's famed horn section, which has also been showcased on standout albums by Santana, Elton John, Little Feat, Chaka Khan, Rod Stewart, Billy Preston, Linda Ronstadt, Huey Lewis & The News, Lyle Lovett and dozens more.
As might be expected for a band now past the half-century mark, Tower of Power has outlived some of its key members. Guitarist Bruce Conte died last year, bassist Francis "Rocco" Prestia died in 2020, and trumpeter Mic Gillette died in 2016.
A number of Tower of Power alums have achieved success after their tenures in the band. Some of the most notable include keyboardist Chester Thompson, who joined Santana in 1983 and has been a key member ever since; tenor saxophonist Lenny Pickett, who since 1995 has been the musical director for the house band on TV's "Saturday Night Live"; and Scottish-born tenor saxophonist Richard Elliot, who lives in San Diego's North County, has been a smooth-jazz mainstay for several decades.
A career first, in San Diego
Yet, for all its accomplishments, there is at least one thing Tower of Power has never done in its 53 years.
"We have never played with a symphony orchestra before," said tenor saxophonist and periodic singer Emilio Castillo, one of the band's co-founders.
That will change when Tower of Power plays here Thursday at The Shell on a double-bill with the jazz- and funk-fueled jam band Lettuce. Both groups, who share the same manager, will perform with the San Diego Symphony and guest conductor Christopher Dragon.
"We're really excited!" Castillo said, speaking last week from his Arizona home in Scottsdale.
"Dave Eskridge has done all the arrangements on our albums since the 1990s. He's already done orchestral arrangements for our entire set with the San Diego Symphony."
Will Tower of Power need to adjust or modify its songs to accommodate an orchestra?
"We know our stuff inside out and we'll just play what we normally play in each song," Castillo replied. "There are some new interludes at beginning and in the middle of some tunes — which will just be played by the orchestra — and that will be different for us. But it's really not going to change what we do."
The adjustments, then, will be made by the symphony's musicians.
"We know that orchestral string, brass and wind sections don't play as tight and as on top of the beat as we do," Castillo noted.
"So, we're expecting that and will talk to the orchestra at rehearsal. The songs I have chosen are the ones I feel will show off the orchestra and really complement what we do. There are some of our songs from the past, like (1974's) 'Below Us, All The City Lights,' that I think lend themselves well to doing with an orchestra.
"One piece we'll do is a medley of James Brown songs and you don't really think of a symphony with James Brown songs. The reason I wanted that included is that it's a very big show-stopper type of number, and we need to be make sure we're thinking of the audience."
Apart from an upcoming July 20 concert with Lettuce at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver, San Diego is the only orchestral date currently on Tower of Power's schedule. Castillo, 71, is hopeful these two performances will mark the start of a new chapter for the band he co-founded 53 years ago at the age of 18.
"I had very little vision. I just loved having a band — a killer band that played soul music — and I've been that way since I was 14," he said.
A capital idea
Castillo laughed when he recalled that one of his early musical aspirations was simply to be able to perform 87 miles north of San Francisco.
"The Spyders were known as the toughest, most soulful band in East Bay and they got a gig in Sacramento," he said. "I thought: 'Man, if we can just get a gig in Sacramento, we'll have it made!'
"After a while, we headlined at the Sacramento State Fair with Santana and Boz Scaggs. And we recorded most of our first live album, (1976's) 'Live and in Living Color,' at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium."
Tower of Power's sixth and most recent live album is "50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater — Oakland, CA — June 2018." The two-CD set offers a lively career summation of the band, whose newest studio album, "Step Up," was released in 2020.
The group's current lineup boasts two co-founders in Castillo and baritone saxophonist Stephen "Doc" Kupka. Drummer David Garibaldi joined in 1970, left in 1980, and rejoined in 1998. He has long been hailed for his intense grooves and percussive mastery. The band's newest member, Dutch-born bassist Marc van Wageningen, came on board fulltime in 2018 after first touring with Tower of Power in 2002.
Garibaldi and van Wageningen also share an unenviable distinction.
Both were among a group of pedestrians who were struck and seriously injured by a passing train at Oakland's Jack London Square on Jan. 12, 2017. The horrific accident took place a short distance from the music venue Yoshi's, where Tower of Power was about to perform the final two concerts of a sold-out, six-night residency.
Both musicians were hospitalized in critical condition. Van Wageningen's spleen was ruptured, and he was put into a medically induced coma. He spent two months in intensive care. Garibaldi's injuries included a severe concussion, broken ribs, a broken face and a broken jaw.
"David and Marc were in a group of people waiting for this train to go by," Castillo recalled. "Unbeknownst to anyone, there was another train coming the other way. But they couldn't see it because the first train was a double-decker."
Amazingly, van Wageningen, now 63, and Garibaldi, now 75, not only survived but returned to the band later that same year.
"It's nothing short of miraculous. In Marc's case in particular, they weren't sure he would live," Castillo said.
"There was a doctor at Yoshi's that night, Russell Hands, who was a former drum student of David's. As I was standing outside Yoshi's in shock, Russell — who had just checked on Marc and David and was the chief of surgery at two Bay Area hospitals — said: 'Emilio, they are being taken to one of the finest hospitals here, they are not dead, and you have everything to be hopeful for.' Russell attended David's pre-surgery meeting and made a special tool to go into Marc's stomach cavity."
Castillo still vividly recalls his brief visit with Garibaldi a few hours later at the hospital.
"David's white hair was dark from all the blood and his head and one of his eye sockets had been crushed," the saxophonist said. "All David could think to say to me was: 'I'm sorry, man. I missed the gig!' "
©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
We may earn a commission if you make a purchase through one of our links.
This story was originally published July 1, 2022 12:36 PM.