50 years of funk: Tower of Power celebrates a golden anniversary

“What is hip?”

Tower of Power, the 10-piece soul band, asked the question in 1973, answering it, “Hipness is what it is, and sometimes hipness is what it ain’t.”

They got that right. Touring with a platoon of musicians, half of them horns, wasn’t always hip, especially in the synthesized 1980s, but Tower of Power made it so, through artistry and irresistible rhythm.

Going in and out of style, the Oakland, Calif., ensemble has steadily followed its own muse, playing 200 dates a year, and arriving in Atlanta to celebrate its 50th anniversary with two nights at the City Winery Aug. 13-14. (Their very first gig was Aug. 13, 1968, exactly 50 years ago.)

Speaking from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., leader Emilio Castillo reflected on the band’s changing fortunes and the changing times. “You become a dinosaur, and the next thing you know, you’re an institution, and then after you’re an institution, you’re a legend,” he said. “It’s a fine line between a dinosaur and a legend.”

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The band came from rich soil, said Castillo, who talked about the musical ferment in the San Francisco area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a time not just of rock ‘n’ roll, but of sprawling bands with horn sections and dense percussion and black, white and Chicano influences — bands like Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Cold Blood and (from farther south) Eric Burdon and War.

While San Francisco was typified by the psychedelic sound, Oakland was earthier. “I was on the dark side of the Bay,” said Castillo, “filled with every sort of ethnic group.”

Tower of Power became legendary for soaring ballads (“You’re Still a Young Man”), foot-fooling workouts (“You Got to Funkifize”) and a five-man horn section with the force of a tank brigade and the deft coordination of the Blue Angels.

The horns are anchored by the baritone sax of Stephen “Doc” Kupka, who also co-writes most of the group’s songs, and calls himself the Spock to Castillo’s Kirk.

While many members of the band have come and gone, a critical core remains, including the remarkable David Garibaldi. Returning after some years away, Garibaldi brings delicate, light-fingered high-hat and snare to light up the band’s syncopations in the subtlest ways. He’s matched by Francis Rocco Prestia, whose 16th-note bass hits like a thousand tiny rubber hammers, urging your backbone to slip.

Tower of Power celebrates funk, but it’s a different funk than that which Bootsy Collins and Co. deploy at Parliament/Funkadelic — it’s often manic where the P-Funk is laid-back.

The Tower of Power horn section, anchored by leader Emilio Castillo, became almost as famous as the band itself, guesting with artists from Al Kooper to the Brothers Johnson. They are (from left) Adolfo Acosta, Sal Cracchiolo, Emilio Castillo, Stephen “Doc” Kupka and Tom E. Politzer. CONTRIBUTED BY ANNA WEBBER (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

On top of this shifting rhythmic engine is the TOP horn section, alternately landing like a ton of bricks and skipping fleet-footed across the beat.

During lean times, the horn section has guested on albums by many other artists, from Al Kooper to the Brothers Johnson. The horns toured for a while with Little Feat, a collaboration that produced that band’s high water mark, the live double album “Waiting for Columbus.”

Lending out the horns was “a great way to make money, get critical acclaim and get the word out,” said Castillo.

How did he and his band survive? “The patented answer for that these days is God did it, I just showed up. I made every mistake known to man in the first 20 years, but I sobered up and started praying and I developed a relationship with God.”

Now the man who wrote the unbearably romantic “You’re Still a Young Man” has lived long enough to make that song ironic.

“When I wrote it, I was 18 years old, and I was in love with a 24-year-old woman,” he said. “She said you need to hang out with women your own age. It’s just a love story, a story about an older woman and a younger guy. It’s not as though we’re saying we’re young men. I’m 67. But it could still be happening. I could be in love with a 73-year-old.”

What does Castillo have to say to the other young men out there? The band holds clinics and workshops for horn players and other musicians in high schools and colleges, and Castillo talks about the challenges of touring, especially with a big band.

“During question-and-answer, they usually ask, ‘What advice would you give young bands trying to make it like you?’ and I usually say, ‘Be a trio.’”


Tower of Power

8 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.) Aug. 13-14. $65-$78. City Winery Atlanta, 650 North Ave., Ponce City Market, Atlanta. 404-946-3791,


Best Atlanta festivals to attend in August There's an array of ways to enjoy the last days of summer with an Atlanta festival this month. Decatur BBQ, Blues & Bluegrass Festival, Aug. 11. Piedmont Park Arts Festival, Aug. 18. BronzeLens Film Festival, Aug. 22-26. Dragon Con, Aug. 30-Sept. 3.

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