As the legend goes, in 1974 the commercially successful jazz and soul symphony band Tower of Power played a studio session in Long Island on the radio station WLIR. This might have been just one of countless performances in the history of a band that's conquered the ups and downs of the music industry for 45 years, but there seemed to be something special about this show. Their rhythm was on point, each song hit a little bit harder and more precisely than the last--in short they left listeners wanting more by the end of the set, or at least a chance to experience it all again.
Since that performance, the winds of change have brought many different faces to the line-up of TOP, but their drive and passion for music has always kept the core musicians grounded. Now, after nearly forty years, the band has stumbled upon the original master recording of the unique Long Island performance that was seemingly lost in the annals of TOP history, and die-hard fans can get their long-awaited fix with the release of Hipper than Hip.
"I was kind of floored by it myself," says TOP founding member Emilio Castillo when recalling the day he listened to the lost recording for release approval.
TOP has always prided themselves on their live performance, and while Hipper than Hip is a hell of a way to put one of those performances on repeat, the R&B boys will be live in the flesh at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix on Friday, December 20 for one of their last performances with current lead singer Larry Braggs before he retires one week later.
Prior to their show, Up on the Sun spoke with Castillo about their new live album, replacing a lead singer yet again, and the bottom line for TOP's continued success.
I recently listened to the new Hipper than Hip album and I thought it was very unique. I was kind of floored by it myself. I listen to the band all the time; people will come through the line when we're signing autographs and give me discs. When they called me about this one, I was only home for a few days and they said they needed me to approve this. I saw it was a two-disc set and I thought, "Great, I have to sit here for three hours and listen to this thing." [Laughs]
I wasn't even five minutes into it and I was thinking, "Man, we were hitting hard." I remember that I listened to the whole thing and I was stunned. I took it to sound check two days later and I told the guys that they needed to download this because it was coming out as a new album.
What was the idea to release it nearly 40 years later? It wasn't my idea. Warner has had those tapes in their vault all these years. It was for a concert series called Warner Bros. Month. They were bringing in a Warner act every weekend to simulcast it on the radio for WLIR in Long Island. They did the concert from Ultrasonic Sound, which is a recording studio, and they had a live audience in the studio. We were wired in there so they recorded the whole thing. I've heard bootlegs of this over the years, but this is the actual mastered and mixed.
What is your favorite instrument to play? You know, I don't even consider myself that great of a player. I'm the sax player of the second tenor player in the band, because all I do is play parts. I don't solo or anything like some great saxophone player. I can play parts well, and I play in a section well. I write on guitar and piano, but I don't play either of those very well, but I have a good knowledge of chords and I'm able to get around on it.
My main thing is being the band leader, and I facilitate great musicians. I have a great knowledge on music; I know how to make a band sound. That's really my main deal. I work a lot with the rhythm section. I'm really meticulous about the horns and the background vocals. My other thing is producing the records and writing songs with my partner Doc [Stephen Kupka]. We've been the main song writers since the band started. Larry Braggs will be leaving the band at the end of this year. Have you scouted a new singer? Yeah, we have a guy who is starting on New Years. He's a great singer, his name is Ray Greene.
I know that you have had several line-up changes in your history. How does Tower of Power adapt and persevere? Well, over the years we have had so many major changes from drummers, keyboard players, guitars, and sax players. We've had some really great players. Now, it seems that when people hear we're getting somebody new, the crowd gets bigger because they know we get good people.
So, you've been able to replace talent with talent? It looks good on a resume to say you've spent time with Tower of Power, so we get some good people coming through.
What can an audience expect from your live performance these days? With Tower of Power, the live show is really the thing. It's kind of like going to a James Brown show or something. It's really exciting and high energy soul music with those heart wrenching ballads, and a lot of great improvisation, and audience participation. It's an exciting show. We're really kind of going for our live show more than anything. We have so many albums that we've done, so what we do is play a group of songs for a time, and then we get bored and work up some other ones [laughs]. We have a lot of material that we do, and rotate it around.
We're constantly chipping away at the sculpture. Every night that we come off stage, we're talking to each other about things that we hear or ideas that we might have. We constantly check stuff.
The whole thing is about the interaction with the audience. This isn't one of those turn your back on the crowd and do your own thing type of deal. We're not up there playing jazz and looking at our feet; it's an audience thing. It's always a better show when the audience is really alive and has a lot of energy. That feeds us and we feed it back to them.
Can you describe the Tower of Power fans for me? They are kind of like Dead Heads, man. They fly all over the place, and we're just so blessed. We have a couple that comes down from Quebec, and they'll follow us around to eight shows on the East coast. I come off stage in Manhattan and there's a guy telling me [imitating a Russian accent], "I come from Moscow to see you." I ask him what he's doing in town and he says, "I come to see Tower of Power." I have heard that you listen to a lot of Gospel music nowadays, is that correct? I'm a Christian, and so I started listening to Gospel, and I came to this big realization: All the really great soul singers went back to the church, man. The Gospel scene is alive and well. These guys are singing and the production is really contemporary. I love it.
Then, hanging around with my kids, and I see bands like the Foo Fighters. I took my kids to see Rush and the Who, that was never really my thing, but I see a band like the Foo Fighters and they are so passionate about their music and it reminds me of us. They are so good at doing what they do, and it reminds me of the way we approach our music.
The other thing that I've been listening to a lot, and I never thought I would say this, but I'm a huge fan of Allison Krauss and Union Station. Because of her and her band, I started listening to other country, and I realized the country scene is just so healthy.
Are you currently working on any new projects or material? We're doing a new album, and I'm trying the Michael Jackson method this time. I'm recording twenty-five songs and I'm picking the best twelve. We're doing it between tours though. We're a working band, and we're not set to where we can take six months off and say that we're going to be recording. It'll take me a while, so I don't expect it to be out until 2015.
Can you describe some of the major shifts in the music industry that Tower of Power has had to overcome in the last 45 years? As far as overcoming, well in 1980 we were already twelve years old. The whole mindset of the industry in 1980 was that [if you were] over two or three years old, it was out of date. It was the age of punk and new-wave. They labeled us as dinosaurs and said, "Their music will never be popular again." We didn't have a record deal all through the 80's.
Then, we were signed again in the '90s, and they started talking about us as being legends [laughs]. We kind of just made it through the '80s, when it was a time that real music was just looked at as old, but by the end of the '80s the word "retro" came in, and all of a sudden it's cool. I just make my music how I'm going to make it. I don't think about it being old.
In the 2000s, with the way you make and release records now, we were realizing that we were selling the same amount of records every time we put them out, and the record company wasn't doing anything to promote them. Our manager explained that it was a different age, so we should put the records out ourselves and still sell the same amount, but take all the money.
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The bottom line for Tower of Power is that we just don't go away, and the reason is because of the music.