four guys on saxes and horns backing a vocalist
Tower of Power in 2008. Image by De-fexxx666 under CC BY-SA 3.0

Tower of Power

Like the Dead, the Tower of Power was birthed in the sixties in the Bay Area. But it took Tower of Power backing Etta James when she shared the bill with the Dead on their 1982 New Years’ run to get their incredible horns in the same building as the boys. And once the Tower of Power were in the house – Oakland Auditorium Arena to be exact – there was no way Jerry and the rest of the band were going to miss the opportunity to play with them.

On the first night, Tower of Power plays alongside the Dead on the double encore that also featured Etta on vocals. The first of these was a huge breakout for the Dead, Hard to Handle. The boys had not played it since Pigpen was with them, all the way back at the classic 1971 Gaelic Park show in the Bronx. With Pig, the Dead never really seemed to jam out Hard to Handle to the extent they could have. But this 1982 version is shorter than any of the previous Dead versions. And it is too bad, because Phil is on fire from the beginning and everybody is just starting to come together when they bring the tune to a close. Fortunately, a rocking Tell Mama, Etta’s 1968 hit from the album of the same name, rolls out next with the Grateful Dead and Tower of Power sounding like a well-oiled machine.

The following night, Tower of Power gets a lot more time with the Grateful Dead, playing an entire final set with Etta James and them. A funky New Orleans sort of Lovelight gets the action started, Bobby taking the vocals while Tower of Power goes to town. Towards the end, Etta comes in, providing a little call and response with Bobby right into Tell Mama. Tight as hell, the Tell Mama is a rocker, undergirded by Phil’s relentless bass line. The only knock on the tune is that Jerry is only able to get in a few sweet licks. Afterwards, they head into Baby What You Want Me to Do, Jimmy Reed’s blues classic that Etta frequently covered and included on her 1963 live album, Etta James Rocks the House. Another Hard to Handle and a Midnight Hour follow, the latter with Bobby and Etta on vocals, before the Dead finish the show out with a Brokedown.

When they took the stage with the Grateful Dead, Tower of Power consisted of Emilio Castillo on tenor sax, Steve “Doc” Kupka on barry, Marc Russo on alto, and Greg Adams on trumpet. Castillo had started the band back in 1968 in Oakland. But the first member he brought on was Kupka, who Castillo’s father had told his son to hire after overhearing an audition. Beyond those two, Tower of Power has consisted of a rotating cast of musicians along with a handful of lead vocalists. 

Originally formed as The Motowns, they enjoyed some success in both Oakland and Berkeley, playing to the African American community on one side of the bay and the counterculture on the other. They finally changed their name in 1969 when Castillo realized they would need a moniker that didn’t pigeonhole them if they were to get a gig at the Fillmore. 

The name change worked, because a year later, they ended up signing with Bill Graham’s San Francisco Records. Also in 1970, Tower of Power released their first album, East Bay Grease. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Warner Brothers and released Bump City in 1972. The new label helped get them national exposure, and Tower of Power charted their first hit with You’re Still a Young Man, which topped out at #29 on the Hot 100. Down to the Nightclub, another track off Bump City, gave Tower of Power an additional top 100 hit.

Before their third album, Tower of Power shook up the personnel. The biggest change was Lenny Williams taking over lead vocals. This lineup created Tower of Power’s only gold record with their eponymous 1973 album. And So Very Hard to Go, the sixth track off the album, peaked at #17 on the Billboard chart. The album also included This Time It’s Real (#65) and What Is Hip? (#91).

While a follow-up record, Back to Oakland, came out the next year, the band never enjoyed great commercial success after Tower of Power. Instead, they increasingly became known as one of the greatest horn sections in the business, backing acts as diverse as Jermaine Jackson and Bonnie Raitt, Journey and Frankie Valli.

Of course, Tower of Power played on Mickey’s Rolling Thunder. And more than a few Dead fans are probably familiar with their work on Julius and Wolfman’s Brother off Phish’s Hoist. It really is incredible how many acts that the Tower of Power has played with over the years; the band’s discography is practically unending, not unlike the Grateful Dead’s.

Shows Tower of Power was a guest at:


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