Tower of Power bandleader Emilio Castillo held nothing back during a brutally honest interview with Music Republic Magazine editor Simon Redley.
Talking about his 20 year addiction to heroin, cocaine and booze – losing millions of dollars in the process, and almost his life…
Tower Of Power are celebrating 50 years on their current tour, which calls in to the UK for just three shows: Birmingham Town Hall 28th May, Manchester 02 Ritz 29th May and London’s Royal Albert Hall, 30th May 2019.
They will also be playing the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam in July. Currently promoting their fabulous new album “Soul Side Of The Street”, released in June last year (2018).
I will declare an interest at this juncture. My job as a music journalist and photographer sometimes brings me into contact with an artist or a band who I dig. But I always remain objective. This band are my personal all-time favourites, since I discovered their music in the 70s, when I was a teenager.
My Step-Dad was a pro trumpet player, and he was in a big band formed by a visiting US band leader, and I went along to a rehearsal one foggy winter’s night in a freezing cold school hall. Bored, I was reading a music ‘paper in the corridor when they fired out this amazing song, with a deep groove and the horn section took my head off.
That song was called “Don’t Change Horses In The Middle Of The Stream”. By a band I had not heard of called…Tower Of Power. I wrote that down and put that scrap of paper away.
A few months later, digging about in my favourite second hand record store in Leicester, I come across a 1974 vinyl LP called “Back To Oakland,” by Tower of Power – and the second cut in leapt out at me. “Don’t Change Horses In The Middle Of The Stream”.
The chap in the shop put it on for me, and I was hooked from that very second. Got most of their releases and seen them maybe 10 times across the years. Have photographed them a few times and met them backstage too, but never done an interview with any of them, until now.
Who better to trace the band’s history for me than the man to blame for creating this soul and funk monster band. Emilio Castillo. Their leader, main songwriter (with Stephen “Doc” Kupka), co-lead singer and tenor sax man.
Speaking to me from his Arizona home during a rare break from the road, I reminded Emilio of the time T.O.P. played a double header with the original line-up of the Blues Brothers Band at the Royal Festival Hall in London, where they did two shows in one night. In the early 90s, I think it was.
I stood side stage taking photographs and while T.O.P. did their first set, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn and others from the BBB stood next to me and were commenting that T.O.P. were tearing the venue a new one, with a blistering opening set.
After the BBB had finished their set, word was sent to T.O.P. to ask them to go on second, for the next show of the night, as the BBB didn’t want to follow such a hot performance as they had to in the first show! And there were some real A-listers in that BBB line-up too.
So, it’s now more than 50 years since the first T.O.P. gig. That was 13th August 1968. Here we are in 2019 and the band are still hot to trot and constantly globe trekking, and not trading on past glories either. They still write and record great relevant soul music.
50 years. How the hell did that happen, Emilio? “Well, God did it. I just showed up. But for the first 20 years, I lived my life as a wreck and did everything in my power to ruin my career without really realising it.
“But kind of woke up in 1988, sobered up, started living right. After that, just….I’ve been blessed. Wound up living right and choosing people that lived right; principled people.
“You know, you gotta spend a lot of time with these guys, so you want to pick your people carefully. Not just for the musicianship, but also for the principles they live by. I’ve been blessed to have some really great people in the band.”
The 2019 line-up boasts three originals. EC, Stephen “Doc” Kupka and drummer David Garibaldi. Original bassist Francis “Rocco” Prestia was sadly forced to quit touring late last year after a series of serious health issues. Replaced by his dep’, Marc van Wageningen as a permanent member.
Mark was in a coma for eight weeks when he and drummer Garibaldi were hit by a train in America, as they walked across tracks outside a venue the band were playing in January 2017.
It was touch and go if he or David would survive. Both did and are now fit and well. That is, until Mark’s current bout of pneumonia which has landed him in a German hospital and missing a bunch of gigs, until he is well enough to resume the tour.
The current line-up is Emilio Castillo on 2nd tenor sax, Doc Kupka on baritone sax, David Garibaldi on drums, Roger Smith on Hammond and keyboards (also on bass pedals while Mark is absent), Jerry Cortez on guitar, Tom Politzer on 1st tenor sax, Adolofo Acosta on trumpet, Sal Cracchiolo on trumpet and flugel horn and Marcus Scott on lead vocals.
Emilio tells me there was definitely no long term aims for the band when he first started it. “I was 17-years-old, I had no vision whatsoever. All I knew was, I loved soul music and I loved having a band, and that consumed my life. I idolised a local band called Spiders, and I wanted to be as tight as them.
“They got a gig in Sacramento, California about an hour away and I thought to myself, if I can just get to Sacremento. Wow! That’s how limited my vision was. A really immature 17-year-old that just loved soul music. I loved having a band. That was it. Never gave the future a thought.
“I saw my younger brothers struggle in their career, wanting a change, asking themselves, ‘what am I going to do?’ I never had to think about that since I was 14. I found music and never wanted to do anything else. No thought of anything other than pursuing it. Then I blinked my eyes, and all this time has gone by.”
His first ‘biggest moment’ memory is from the early 1970s, as Emilio explains. “The biggest concert of the year was when Aretha came to Fillmore West (legendary Sam Francisco venue). Even though we were having a legal battle in that year with Bill Graham (US concert promoter and record label owner), he loved the band and he knew we were the best band to open for her.
“He put us on that show all weekend and that was a real high profile gig. I remember they wrote about us in the Sunday Chronicle, describing King Curtis and the King Pins coming on stage after we had done our show. They said, ‘warming up for Aretha Franklin was King Curtis and The King Pins, but Tower Of Power has stolen their thunder.’ That was such a high point for us.”
So, T.O.P and the Stones are just about the only band to reach this five-decade milestone. What’s the key to this long shelf-life? “Living right and doing your best. As a leader, for me people say, ‘oh, you must lead with an iron hand’, and I say no. I am a servant, that’s what I do. I serve these guys.
“I’m a facilitator. I get these great musicians together and I help them to play together well. I filter their ideas. The buck stops here, but it’s a democratic band, we all have a say, we all have ideas, and I make sure all ideas get sounded out, but in the end…”
I’ll be dead by 40
For the first 20 years of the band, Emilio admits there was rarely a day where he was sober. His addiction to booze and drugs almost claimed his life and he reveals to me he had resigned himself to be dead by the age of 40.
He was in and out of hospital so many times in that period, but one visit literally saved his life when he found a lecture about the 12 Steps from an Alcoholics Anonymous group and sat in, at that moment realising he had two choices. To Live or to die.
“I got sober in 1988. Coming up on 31 years next February. I still go to meetings quite regularly. I got hospitalised with pancreatitis at the age of 21, first of maybe 20 hospitalisations. Every time I drank, I got pancreatitis.
“It’s really painful, to the point of screaming at the top of your lungs, so I didn’t want that. The doctors had told me, if you drink you could die. The pancreas turns black, and you can have problems for the rest of your life. So, I tried to use drugs to keep away from alcohol.
“I eventually got into hard narcotics and the needle, you know; heroin, cocaine. I always smoked pot for the full 20 years. But here’s the thing: I always went back to alcohol.
“Sometimes I’d go a year, year and a half without drinking, by using these different recipes of drugs. But I always drank again, and every time I did, I went back to the hospital.
“It was just a merry-go-round I couldn’t get off of. I was totally powerless. When I saw that lecture on the 12 steps, I realised it was a way out and I grabbed it with every fibre of my being – and I have been sober ever since.”
Apart from the physical cost, Emilio spent all of his cash on drink and drugs for most of that 20 year period. His career and his life were slowly taking a nose dive, along with his health.
“I was never a dealer. I was spending tonnes of money. My career starting to go down the tubes. My heath was going down the tubes.
“I lost a restaurant, I lost a house I bought my mother. I lost a big house in the hills in Berkeley.”
“I was down in LA trying to get my career back on track, renting a home, driving a junky car. All my money went to the dope, you know. Whatever money I had, I got whatever I could with it, and if I needed more, I tried to get people to give it to me for free.
So was there a “rock bottom moment”, where you decided to get clean?…“I didn’t make a decision to ‘get clean’.
“I was doing so much drugs and drinking 24 hours a day, and I couldn’t get high or get drunk – no matter how much I put in me.”
“My eyes were watering, I had the chicken skin. Sweats, the chills. I had all these drugs in me, but it stopped working for me and I was hopeless. Because even though it was not working, I kept on spending all my money to put it in me. I went into the hospital that way. I went in there with no hope.
“I didn’t go in there to get clean. I just figured they’d dry me out for 30 days, push me out the door and I would die.
“I knew I was gonna die before I was 40. I’d accepted it.”
“I happened to go into this lecture on the 12 steps and I realised there was a way to not drink in years, and not be miserable. That was my experience; that every time I did not drink in years, I was miserable.
“That day I came out, the nurse said you gotta take your meds, and I said I am not taking any more drugs ever again, and I never did. Once I got into that 12-step community, I realised not only could I stop drinking and using, and not be miserable, but my life could improve on all different levels.
“Then there was the spiritual aspect. I started praying and the Doc got sober a year later, and we started praying together. Everything got better after that. Now the whole band prays together. We are all principled men. We are not perfect, but we have principles and we work together, and can call each other and support each other. It’s a great way of living.”
So, would you be alive today if you hadn’t got clean? “Absolutely not.” Would there have been a Tower of Power in 2019 celebrating 50 years, if you were still on the bad stuff? “No possible way, and Doc would tell you the same thing. No possible way. We wouldn’t have made it to 20 years.
“It was 1988, just short of 20 years of the band, and I know we wouldn’t have made it.
“I was definitely gonna die and I accepted it, because I thought there was no alternative.” “I knew there was no way that I could not drink – and then I saw that lecture.”
He laughs loudly down the ‘phone. “You see, I didn’t know nothing about those people. I heard about them, but I thought they were a bunch of old drunks in trench coats, cursing and complaining about their lives. It wasn’t that at all.”
Back in the day, a typical after-show was very, very, very different to today, as Emilio explains. “We are older and clean, so it is definitely different. After shows now, we might sign some autographs, then we go to the hotel and go to bed.
“I’ve learned, you got to get your rest. Get the sleep when you can. Back in the day, we’d hang at the gig, drink, do drugs, push it to the limit at the gig as long as we could. Then get kicked out of there, move the party to the hotel and was always looking to somebody to score with, or someone ‘holding the bag’. All of a sudden, they are our best friend and we are at some house somewhere.
“The police can bust in, somebody can come in and shoot the dealer for his drugs. I was constantly in jeopardy and that is how I lived my life”
When Emilio is on stage in front of his band after 50 years, he says it feels comfortable, exhilarating and energising emotionally and physically. “When the band is clicking on all 10 cylinders and the crowd are excited and urging us on, it is just really easy to do, you know.
“Sometimes we do high paying gigs, for big corporations’ year end parties, and everybody is stood around talking about the presentation they had that afternoon. I look at those gigs and think yeah, we got twice the money we usually make, but that’s work. But when you are on stage and everything is clicking, and the crowd are really into it, it’s not work. It’s play.
“I get asked, ‘are you still enjoying it’, and I say yes, 98% of the time. There’s a few gigs where its work, but for the most part, it’s all play.” So, is the high you get in front of that amazing band, better than the one you got with drugs or drink?
“Far better, yes. I remember when I first got out of treatment, I flew to Florida, and at the time I was singing lead for the band, as we didn’t have a lead singer. It was an outdoor concert, in Fort Lauderdale, and while we were waiting to go on stage, XXXXXXXX (I have blanked out the name here to protect their identity!) pulled out some blow.
“I just came from the hospital, and he pulls out cocaine in front of me, and says you don’t mind do you?”
“I looked at him and I was so grateful that I didn’t have to do it. I said no, no, I don’t mind. I remember I smiled. I got this tingle. I used to have this test that I used to do, when I used to shoot heroin and cocaine. I would wait about 30 seconds and squeeze my eyes shut and feel this tingle.
“If I didn’t feel the tingle, I knew the dope wasn’t good.”
“But here I was, I was clean and I smiled because I was really grateful that I didn’t have to use. But I got that tingle and I realised I could have had that tingle all those years for free – and I spent all that money, you know! The biggest lesson I have learned in 50 years with T.O.P is: live right, feel right.”
Back to the music….with circa 27 albums and zillions of songs to choose from, which would EC say was his favourite album and song (s) from the TOP catalogue? “Only So Much Oil In The Ground. I love playing it, I’m very proud of it. The lyrical content gets more relevant every day.
“I love the ballads, ‘Time Will Tell’, ‘Below Us All The City Lights’, ‘As Surely As I Stand Here’. ‘Can’t You See’ – we love to play that one. Very proud of it, the chords, rhythmically, everything about it. But I have got a lot of favourites, not just one or two. My favourite album is definitely Urban Renewal. Always has been and still is”.
After 50+years of leading Tower Of Power and touring the globe, does 68-year-old Emilio still have any ambitions left unfulfilled, I wonder. “The thorn in our side is South America. Back in the heyday, ‘So Very Hard To Go’ was # 1 in Brazil for 13 weeks, but we have never played South America.
“We just finished Australia, we have been to New Zealand, we are going to Korea regularly. Japan, UK, across the States. But I want us to do more cities in the UK and get to up Scotland and over to Ireland.”
Emilio reveals that during their three-date trip to the UK they will be recording a track with Jacob Collier.
Hot news: New record out later this year
He also delivers the great news that Tower of Power cut 28 extra songs during the sessions for the current album, “Soul Side of Town”, and those tracks will appear on a new album that is ready to go and slated for release by the end of this year. He says he wants to record with other artists and to continue making records, writing new songs and his big “dream” is to record the signature song in a major movie.
“We are not the type of band that has the big hits, top ten, top five, # 1 hits, you know. But that could change in this business. Love to do a soundtrack. Want to get in to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. I want a Grammy! I want an Oscar!
“But the truth of the matter is, I’m overpaid already, so whatever God decides I’m gonna have, that’s fine with me. What I’ve learned is, he’s got a better plan than I do, so I’m just gonna strap myself in and follow him. It’s the way God planned it for all of us, whether we know it or not.” Amen to that.
By Simon Redley
- UK shows: Birmingham Town Hall, 28th May, Manchester 02 Ritz, 29th May and London’s Royal Albert Hall, 30th May 2019. North Sea Jazz Festival, Rotterdam, 12th July 2019.
Review and pix from Tower of Power’s Birmingham show, here: http://www.musicrepublicmagazine.com/2019/05/tower-power-town-hall-birmingham-uk-28519/