Legendary funk and soul group coming to Williamsport

Published 02.24.2020


(EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to the global coronavirus outbreak, the scheduled March 18 performance was postponed to Oct. 4.)

Just two days prior to releasing their 27th album, Tower of Power will bring their renowned horn-driven sound to Williamsport’s Community Arts Center.

The legendary Oakland, California, group will perform on Wednesday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m.

For over 50 years, Tower of Power has entertained with dynamic genre-blending music, mixing soul, funk, pop, rhythm and blues, and rock. Tenor saxophonist and band leader Emilio Castillo founded the group in 1968 when he teamed with baritone sax player Stephen “Doc” Kupka.

Legendary funk and soul group Tower of Power will bring its renowned horn-driven sound to Williamsport’s Community Arts Center on March 18. (Photo by Rob Shanahan)About 6,000 shows later, Tower of Power enjoys a loyal fanbase, drawn to the group’s signature life-affirming, rhythmical sound. Their latest album, “Step Up,” will be released on March 20. The 14 tracks were written and arranged over six years and recorded in the same session with “Soul Side of Town,” the group’s acclaimed 50th anniversary album.

In addition to their own music, Tower of Power’s horn section has been an in-demand backing group for some of music’s biggest names, including Elton John, Aerosmith, Grateful Dead, Journey, Santana, and Bonnie Raitt.

Below, Castillo answers questions about the band’s history and the upcoming performance:

In the early 1960s when a lot of kids were listening to rock and The Beatles, you were into R&B, jazz and blues. Why?
I’m from the Bay Area, which was famous for psychedelic music. That was in San Francisco. We were on the Oakland side of the bay, the East Bay. Over there, it was all about soul music. That’s what the kids in my neighborhood were listening to. All the dances we went to were soul music dances. We were big fans of Otis Redding and James Brown and all that music from Chicago –

The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield. That was the thing in our area.

You’ve said that the band interprets soul music in “our own East Bay way.” Can you describe the “East Bay way?”
Soul music kind of gets pinned to cities. There’s the Memphis soul sound, the New Orleans soul sound, Chicago soul. A lot of great soul music came out of New York. Certainly, there’s a Philadelphia soul sound. There is something about the Bay Area, particularly the East Bay. It’s very urban. It’s working class people. There is sort of an emotional pleading that comes from the centers of the songs that were popular in that area. The Bay Area is a big melting pot. There are blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Irish. Everybody is there all living together. It breeds a very soulful atmosphere.

In a past interview, you stated that you would be “lost if it wasn’t for the band.” What did you mean by that?
I never had to really think about what I’m going to do. I have two younger brothers and an older brother, and I saw them at different points in their lives making career changes, being frustrated and wanting to do something creative. For me, from the time I was 14 years old, I’ve been a band leader. I’ve never looked back.

What’s the secret for Tower of Power’s success? It’s rare for a band to last over 50 years!
God did it, and I just showed up! The first 20 years, we made every mistake known to man: drugs, alcohol, foolish decisions, foolish behaviors. Somehow by God’s grace, I sobered up in 1988. “Doc” (Stephen Kupka) got sober a year later. We started praying together.

The other thing is we make our music exactly the way we want it to be. We’re not trying to be like anyone else. We’re not trying to reinvent ourselves. We always sound like Tower of Power, no matter what we do. There was a time in our career when we thought it was a curse. Why can’t we sound like other bands? Shortly after that, we got back on track and started doing it the same way we always did and realized it’s not a curse. It’s a blessing we don’t sound like anyone else.

Are you proud that Tower of Power doesn’t fit within one specific music genre?
Yeah. People need genres: jazz, grunge, punk, whatever. I get that. We just don’t think in those terms. We try to make music of high musicality and good integrity. It’s just what we do. We had a singer in the early ’90s who said that we could play the phonebook, and it would sound like Tower of Power. The ultimate goal is to make music the way we want it to be because we notice that, when we do that, the fans are pleased and everything is more successful.

What makes your latest album, “Step Up,” unique? You’ve been quoted as saying that it’s the best album the group has made.
When we were coming up on 50 years, one of our old managers encouraged us to make a real supreme effort and make a statement. He suggested we do the Michael Jackson method where you record way too many songs and pick the best of them. We wound up recording 28. We got signed to a new record label (Mack Avenue Music Group), and they wanted to put it all out at once. We wanted to split the songs into two albums. So we put out “Soul Side of Town” in June of 2018, and now we’re putting out “Step Up.” We recorded all this material in one six-year period.

After 6,000 live shows, how do you summon the energy and creativity to treat each performance as unique and special?
I think the audience has a big role. Some gigs you come out and the audience is sitting in very comfortable chairs, and they are used to hearing a tamer type of music. We get out there and shake them up. Upon the energy the audience gives back, they can turn it into a really classic performance. We’re in our 52nd year. We know when we are walking up on that stage that it’s time to turn the switch on.

You want the audience out of their seats?
Yes, at least at several points in the show. You can wear them out, too, so we pace our sets. We hit them hard at the beginning and then ease down about a fifth of the way through the set with a ballad. The idea is to move the audience physically and emotionally. If you do that, they are going to walk out of there being moved and sweaty. It’s a high-energy show.

How much longer do you anticipate performing?
There is no retirement in the Bible. Retirement is a man-made thing. B.B. King was my role model, and he bopped until he dropped!

For ticket information on Tower of Power at the Community Arts Center on Wednesday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m., call the box office at 570-326-2424.

The Community Arts Center is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pennsylvania College of Technology. It is one of the top performing arts venues on the East Coast. Since its reopening in 1993, approximately 1.5 million guests have enjoyed over 1,000 productions.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.