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Tower Of Power

Reviewed on this page:
East Bay Grease - Bump City - Tower Of Power - Back To Oakland - Urban Renewal - Live And In Living Color - Ain't Nothing Stoppin' Us Now - We Came To Play - Back On The Streets - Power - Monster On A Leash - Souled Out - Rhythm & Business - Soul Vaccination: Tower Of Power Live - Oakland Zone - Bumped Up To First Class - Great American Soulbook

An integrated West Coast funk outfit, Tower Of Power became known primarily for its highly professional horn section. But they also had a knack for catchy riff tunes, and a bass player with a phenomenally fast technique and the brains to use it musically: Francis Rocco Prestia. Unlike competitors like War and the Ohio Players, who split songwriting and arranging credits, TOP had a clear division of labor: saxophonists Emilio Castillo and Steve "Doc" Kupka wrote most of the tunes, first sax Lenny Pickett played most of the solos, the singer du jour wrote the lyrics, and trumpeter Greg Adams did most of the arrangements. After forming in the Bay Area in the late 60s, the band went through a zillion lineups, hitting a commercial and critical highpoint from 1973 to 1975, then abruptly vanishing from the charts while many other funk bands continued to thrive. You could build an argument that there's nothing in the TOP catalog that James Brown hadn't done better before, and even at their best they were prone to third-rate soul ballads, but when they got hold of a good riff, look out!

The TOP horn section has appeared on a bunch of projects, and is perhaps best known for working with 80s cornball Huey Lewis. I've also listed the solo projects I know about. If you're looking for web resources, you're stuck with the band's official site, which has a solid discography and up-to-date info on former members, though it's relentlessly mercenary. (DBW)

Emilio Castillo, Steve Kupka, Skip Mesquite, sax; Greg Adams, Mic Gillette, David Padron, brass; Francis Rocco Prestia, bass; Rufus Miller, vocals; Willy Fulton, guitar; David Garibaldi, drums. In 1972 Miller left, replaced by Rick Stevens, Padron left, and Brent Byars was added on percussion. In 1973, Fulton left, replaced by Bruce Conte; Stevens left, replaced by Lenny Williams; Mesquite left, replaced by Lenny Pickett, sax; and Chester Thompson was added on keyboards. In 1974 Byars left, replaced by Carter Collins. In 1975, Williams left, replaced by Hubert Tubbs; Collins left. In 1976, Tubbs left, replaced by Edward McGee; Garibaldi left, replaced by Ronnie Beck. In 1978, Prestia left, replaced by Victor Conte; McGee left, replaced by Michael Jeffries. In 1979, Garibaldi returned; Bruce and Victor Conte left, replaced by Danny Hoefer and Vito San Filippo respectively.

In 1981, Fulton returned, replacing Hoefer, and Rick Waychesko was added on trumpet. In 1982, Pickett left, replaced by Marc Russo, Waychesko left, Thompson left, and Garibaldi left again, replaced by Mark Sanders. By 1986, Jeffries was replaced by Ellis Hall; Gillette was replaced by Lee Thornburg; Sanders was replaced by Mick Mestek, Russo was replaced by Richard Elliot, and Prestia returned.

By 1991, Hall was replaced by Tom Bowes, Mestek was replaced by Russ McKinnon, Elliot was replaced by Steve Grove, Fulton was replaced by Carmen Grillo, and Nick Milo was added on keyboards. In 1993, Pickett returned; Steve Grove left, replaced by Paul Perez; Poncho Sanchez added on congas. In 1995, Bowes was replaced by Brent Carter; Pickett was replaced by David Mann; Adams and Thornburg were replaced by Bill Churchville and Barry Danielian; and McKinnon was replaced by Herman Matthews. By 1999, Mann was replaced by Norbert Stachel; Danielian was replaced by Jesse McGuire; Grillo was replaced by Jeff Tamelier, and Garibaldi returned again.

East Bay Grease (1970)
Hard to find, and probably not worth the trouble. On their small-label debut, the band already had plenty of instrumental verve but not much songcraft: Castillo and Kupka wrote all six tunes, but underneath the snazzy horn lines there isn't much substance, which makes the long running times excessive ("The Skunk, The Goose And The Fly"). Most of the cuts are uptempo funk workouts with group vocals - "Knock Yourself Out," a future concert favorite; "Back On The Streets Again," the record's best track - but they do include some tepid slow jams (the closing, flute-led "Sparkling In The Sand," sung by Rick Stevens). The good news is, Prestia's bass playing is astonishing, and the sound isn't very different from their future successes. (DBW)

Bump City (1972)
The band's key formula of Rocco Prestia's rock-solid, sixteenth-note bass lines, punchy horn charts and memorable hooks is present from the opening notes of "You Got To Funkifize," and a few other tunes are just as good (the uptempo blues "Flash In The Pan"). However, for much of the disc they seem to be imitating Chicago - "What Happened To The World That Day?" with its breezy brass melody and vocal harmonies; the concluding impressionistic "Of The Earth" - and it's not particularly exciting. I also don't care for the soul ballad "You're Still A Young Man," though it remains a concert staple. Most of the writing is again by Castillo and Kupka, though they collaborated with Garibaldi ("Down To The Nightclub") and Williams ("You Strike My Main Nerve"), and the slow "Gone" was contributed by Adams and first sax Skip Mesquite. The last album featuring vocals from Rick Stevens, who flipped out on drugs a few years later and killed two people - a crime for which he is incarcerated to this day. Produced by Ron Capone and the band. (DBW)

Tower Of Power (1973)
Some key lineup changes: Lenny Pickett came on as first sax (replacing Skip Mesquite), Chester Thompson joined on keyboards, Lenny Williams replaced Stevens on vocals. (Bruce Conte replaced Willy Fulton on guitar, to less effect.) Not coincidentally, this was their first album to have a national impact. The tunes are split between top-notch propulsive funk ("What Is Hip?," "Soul Vaccination," "Get Yo' Feet Back On The Ground") and soppy pseudo-soul ballads ("Will I Ever Find A Love?," the Otis Redding homage "Both Sorry Over Nothin'"). The ballads get more album space, making the disc something of a wearying listen, and the horn section isn't nearly as inventive as the Horny Horns. But the funk tunes are so damn good nothing else matters. Produced by the band. (DBW)

Back To Oakland (1974)
A mess, for two reasons: the band tried to blend the soul ballads and funk workouts, resulting in flabby, muddled tunes like "Below Us, All The City Lights." And they abandoned short, punchy riff tunes in favor of rambling jams: the eight-minute "Squib Cakes" finds room for lengthy, meandering keyboard and guitar solos but never really hits on a solid riff, though the opening drum pattern is excellent, and was later borrowed by both Prince ("Release It!") and Stevie Wonder ("Stubborn Kind Of Fellow"). Throughout, the band sounds uncharacteristically sloppy (the frantic "Oakland Stroke," which bookends the record), and Prestia's bass lines are hard to hear. You wonder if they threw the album together while on tour under record company pressure. There is one undeniable hit, "Don't Change Horses (In The Middle Of A Stream)," powered by fine group vocals, but I wouldn't search this one out. (DBW)

Urban Renewal (1974)
Back to short tunes, precise arrangements, and a split between funk and ballads ("Maybe It'll Rub Off" is a sterling example of the former, the drippy "I Won't Leave Unless You Want Me To" definitely the latter). The topical "Only So Much Oil In The Ground" was a single, the funked-up cover of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "(To Say The Least) You're The Most" is a blast, and "Willing To Learn" may be the most affecting of the band's slow numbers. The most consistently entertaining TOP album I've heard so far, although no single track is as good as "What Is Hip?" The only personnel change was David Bartlett replacing Garibaldi on drums. (DBW)

In The Slot (1975)
Williams left, and Hubert Tubbs took over as lead vocalist. (DBW)

Live And In Living Color (1976)
Overlong, none-too-precise renditions of just five songs. The main offender is the 23-minute "Knock Yourself Out," which convincingly demonstrates that, whatever TOP's strengths, they're not outstanding soloists. The horn players blow for several minutes each but rarely trip over anything exciting or novel, and while it's impressive that Prestia can keep up his high-speed bass runs without breaking down from exhaustion, it's not particularly fun to listen to. About eighteen minutes in, organ, guitar and drums hit on a high-quality groove, but it's way too late. Overall, the album resembles the excessive moments of Back To Oakland, but is even more so (the eight-minute version of "Sparkling In The Sand"). "What Is Hip?" is rendered adequately, the brief take on "Bump City" is enjoyable, but in every respect the 1999 live album blows this away. (DBW)

Ain't Nothing Stoppin' Us Now (1976)
Who says a funk band can't play soft rock? Well, they can, but maybe they shouldn't. The production here - by Castillo and the band - is so smooth it detracts from the faster numbers ("Can't Stand To See The Slaughter"), while the slow tunes ("While We Went To The Moon") are dreadful. The bigger weakness is a lack of solid tunes: Kupka and Castillo are still the most prominent writers (title track), but they don't come up with a single killer riff. But they outshine contributions from Conte (the endless, sluggish, would-be life-affirming "Doin' Alright"), new vocalist Edward McGee (the horrible, Brysonic ballad "By Your Side"), and new drummer Ronnie Beck (the trite, lightweight "Make Someone Happy"). Thompson arranged the horns on three tracks; Adams did the rest. (DBW)

Choosing You (Lenny Williams: 1977)
The horn section turned up to support their former lead singer. (DBW)

We Came To Play (1978)
Rocco Prestia left before this was recorded - replaced by future BALCO founder Victor Conte - and without his propulsive bass lines, the group is just a slightly less hokey Average White Band. The title track is a minimal tune that's an excuse for the horns to blow, and much of the record is fusiony, directionless R&B ("Yin-Yang Thang"). New vocalist Michael Jeffries continues Williams's Redding impersonation on the retro soul numbers "Let Me Touch You" and "Am I A Fool" - producer Steve Cropper brings some authenticity to the proceedings by adding rhythm guitar to several tracks, but it doesn't help much. The one real exception is the touching album closer "Somewhere Down The Road." Drummer Ronnie Beck contributes one unremarkable lead vocal ("Love Bug"); the horn section remains intact. (DBW)

Back On The Streets (1979)
The band came down with disco fever: new bassist Vito San Filippo slathers Louis Johnson-style slap/pop lines all over the place, while Jeffries does his best Michael Jackson impression amid absurd backing vocals by the Jones Girls ("Rock Baby"). There's no real funk at all; the silly dance cover of "Nowhere To Run" is a low point, but their own material isn't much better (the predictable, familiar-sounding "It Takes Two (To Make It Happen)"). Cheryl Lynn duets on "In Due Time," and she belts it out, but the tune still falls flat. Half the tracks are produced by McKinley Jackson, the other half by Richard Evans (including the enjoyable retro-rocker "And You Know It"). Guitarist Danny Hoefer replaced Bruce Conte, and additional percussion is added by Paulinho da Costa and Motown vet Eddie "Bongo" Brown. (DBW)

Direct (1981)
Looks like another live album, judging by the titles ("What Is Hip," "Squib Cakes"). (DBW)

Dinosaur Tracks (rec. 1982, rel. 1999)
A collection of outtakes released through Rhino's web-only division. Most of the band had fled at this point: Pickett, Thompson and Waychesko were all gone, and Marc Russo was the lead sax. (DBW)

Power (1987)
Also known as TOP. A reconstructed band including a returning Prestia, Richard Elliot on lead sax, and Lee Thornburg replacing Gillette. (Thornburg also adds gritty lead vocals on "Ball And Chain.") But the main change is the unfortunate addition of Ellis Hall, who dominates the record with his compositions, lead vocals, and cheesy synth stylings. He contributes a batch of appalling soppy ballads which are just excuses for him to show off his mediocre Stevie Wonder impression ("Some Days Were Made For Rain," "Through Lovers' Eyes"), but they're genius compared to his lite fusion instrumental "Boys Night Out." Kupka and Adams managed to write one tune each, and Kupka's "Credit" is bearable, though its derivative funk pales before the band's 70s successes. Produced by Castillo, as were the band's subsequent releases. If you only pay attention to one of my recommendations on this site, don't buy this record. (DBW)

Lenny Pickett With The Borneo Horns (Lenny Pickett With The Borneo Horns: 1987)
Pickett's only solo album to date is a horns-only project. (DBW)

Layin' In Wait (Lenny Williams: 1989)

Michael Jeffries (Michael Jeffries: 1989)
Produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. (DBW)

Monster On A Leash (1991)
At long last, a high energy, funky R&B record. There are still a few disposable ballads ("Someone New"), but they're not the focus: the brassy riff tunes are ("Who Do You Think You Are," "Funk The Dumb Stuff"). Castillo and Kupka cowrote most of the songs, which certainly helps, and Greg Adams cowrote several others (the instrumental "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride"). New singer Tom Bowes has a powerful voice ("How Could This Happen To Me") but also knows when to stay out of the way of the horn section. Overall it's not particularly original - "A Little Knowledge (Is A Dangerous Thing)" is very similar to "Don't Change Horses (In The Middle Of The Stream)," and every lick new guitarist Grillo plays is out of James Brown's catalog - but it's so much better than the previous few albums I don't want to say anything bad about it. The new drummer was Russ McKinnon, and Nick Milo joined on keyboards. (DBW)

Ooh Child (Lenny Williams: 1993)

T.O.P. (1993)
Pickett returned for about half the tracks here. (DBW)

Chill (Lenny Williams: 1994)

Souled Out (1995)
More shake-ups: Brent Carter was the new singer, Herman Matthews assumed drumming duties, David Mann was first sax, and both trumpets (including longtime arranger Adams) were out, replaced by Bill Churchville and Barry Danielian. But the sound is virtually unchanged from Monster On A Leash, with an emphasis on short, punchy tunes ("Diggin' On James Brown"). Castillo and Kupka again were the primary songwriters, with help from Jeff Lorber on the record's two best tracks: the stomping "Taxed To The Max" and "Do You Wanna (Make Love To Me)." Once again, the ballads are more something I put up with than something I enjoy, though "Sexy Soul" has a heartwarming melody and nice harmony vocals, and Carter is a strikingly professional R&B singer. (DBW)

Hidden Agenda (Greg Adams: 1995)
Apparently this is a Smooth Jazz offering. (DBW)

Rhythm & Business (1997)
John Scarpulla is the lead sax, and Gillette returned for a few tracks. As usual, though, the quality of the compositions is more important than the personnel, and the compositions are good: there's plenty of funk with group vocals (title track; "Crazy For You") though some of lyrical concepts are obvious ("You Do The Math"; "The More You Know"). "What's Your Trip?" goes for a different type of nostalgia, with the horns supporting a nasty 80s-style synth hook. "Unconditional Love" is one of the band's more memorable ballads, though the melody is uncomfortably close to The Captain & Tenille's "Do That To Me One More Time," and "Don't Knock Me Down" is better. (DBW)

Right From My Heart (Bruce Conte: 1997)

Kick It Up A Step! (Strokeland Superband: 1998)
Basically, this is TOP without Castillo: a band led by Kupka featuring Garibaldi, Prestia, Pickett and Gillette. Castillo even adds guest vocals to "A Jump On The Millennium." (DBW)

Soul Vaccination: Tower Of Power Live (1999)
If this accurately documents their current live show, this is a band well worth seeing. The set list focuses on uptempo hits from the 70s ("You Got To Funkifize," "To Say The Least You're The Most") with just a couple of ballads ("So Very Hard To Go") and a few recent/new tunes (the overdue tribute "Diggin' On James Brown"). Norbert Stachel was the new first sax, Jeff Tamelier was the new guitarist, Jesse McGuire was the new second trumpet, and Garibaldi was back for another tour of duty. The vets-plus-newbies lineup has all the sharpness of TOP's glory days, there are no endless jams and new lead singer Brent Carter has the flexibility to stand in for the succession of front men. There are a couple of drawbacks: the band is so intent on recreating the sound of the original albums, there's next to no originality, and the production is so smooth, numbers like "What Is Hip?" aren't as greasy as they should be. (DBW)

Everybody On The Bus (Rocco Prestia: 1999)
Prestia's first solo release was produced by Grillo and features many other TOP alumni: Bruce Conte, Tamelier, Churchville, Milo, Thompson, Garibaldi, and Matthews. (DBW)

The King of Retro Cool (Strokeland Superband with Glenn Walters: 2000)

Oakland Zone (2003)
How's this for a theory: innovative, groundbreaking artists usually make their best records in their twenties, when everything seems possible and they aren't confined by expectations or worried about paying the mortgage, but bands depending on precision tend to do their best work in later years, once they've gotten all the youthful experimentalism and attendant drug use out of their system and can focus on honing their craft and giving their audience what it wants. There are probably a million counterexamples - AC/DC, an archetypal craftmanship/precision act, has gotten stale with age, while George Clinton's crazy genius didn't fully flower until his mid-thirties - but these guys sound better now than they did in the mid-70s. Prestia's bass lines are as busy as ever ("Stranger In My Own House"), the horn charts are just as brassy ("Eastside...") and better detailed ("This Type Of Funk"), and the writing is more consistent (except for "Page One," an obvious retread of "What Is Hip"). Some things don't change, though: there's a mix of hard funk and ballads, and generally the former ("Pocketful Of Soul"; title track) are much better than the latter ("Remember Love"; the Pollyanna singalong "Life Is What You Make It"). The standout, though, is "Happy 'Bout That," a joyful, bouncy, love song I can't get out of my head. The same personnel from Soul Vaccination, by and large. (DBW)

The Law According To Fred Ross (Strokeland Superband: 2003)
With vocalist Fred Ross. (DBW)

Bumped Up To First Class (Strokeland Superband: 2007)
This time the Superband features a succession of lead vocalists, and though there's some TOP-style uptempo funk ("It Is What It Is," featuring Edgar Winter and Chester Thompson; title track) there are more bluesy party tunes ("Just In Case You Wondered (Big Dog)") and Chicago-recalling love songs (the joyous "I'd Do It All Over Again"). With Prestia only on a couple of tunes (Bobby Vega and Bob Glaub provide most of the low end) and nothing from Castillo, too many numbers are soggy ("All Of The Above" with Alex Ligertwood; "Must Be Love") or just forgettable (the brassy blues "Business Is Business" featuring Huey Lewis; "It's A Done Deal," a stale duet between Mike Finnigan and Lydia Pense). A couple of tunes are political comments ("Colin Powell"; "Public Truth And Private Lie"), but aren't particularly intriguing either lyrically or musically. The MP3 version of the record I bought on Amazon didn't come with any credits or liner notes, but you can find them at strokeland.com. (DBW)

Great American Soulbook (2009)
This time TOP pays homage to classic soul and R&B tunes ("Me & Mrs. Jones"; the James Brown medley "Star Time"), shoehorning in some solos but otherwise not really monkeying with the arrangements. Larry Braggs sings most of the leads, showing more guts than brains by attempting to outsing Stevie Wonder ("You Met Your Match") and Aretha Franklin ("(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone")... he has a nice voice but not that nice. There are also guests like Sam Moore ("Mr. Pitiful"), Lewis (the Marvelettes' "634-5789") and Tom Jones ("I Thank You"). It seems you can't put together a project like this without including Joss Stone, for some reason, and she's on "It Takes Two" and Ashford & Simpson's "Your Precious Love." A harmless waste of time. (DBW)

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