Based on the evidence of Tower of Power’s Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – Live on the Air and in the Studio (RGM-0208), the Bay Area band certainly qualifies. Real Gone Music’s crackling first-time release of a 1974 concert recorded for radio is a potent reminder of why Tower of Power’s rip-roaring horns have enlivened a host of recordings from artists as diverse as Elton John, Grateful Dead, Poison, Neil Diamond, Santana, and Aerosmith.
Tower of Power scored its commercial breakthrough with its third, self-titled album (and second for Warner Bros. Records), originally released in May 1973. The album welcomed a number of new faces to the band. Lenny Williams joined as lead vocalist, Chester Thompson assumed keyboard duties, Lenny Pickett replaced Skip Mesquite as lead saxophonist and Bruce Conte replaced original guitarist Willie James Fulton. This new, 11-strong line-up’s first album together spawned three hit singles, “So Very Hard to Go,” “What is Hip?” and “This Time It’s Real.” All three songs established that the group’s songwriting – by band members including tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillio, baritone saxophonist Stephen “Doc” Kupka, and drummer David Garibaldi – was as deft as its musicianship. One year later, in May ’74, TOP released its Back to Oakland album on the Warner label, and entered the studios of Long Island’s progressive-minded WLIR-FM for a live, in-studio performance. Now, nearly forty years later, that smoking concert has finally seen release as a 2-CD set. The fourteen-song set naturally drew heavily on Back to Oakland, with half of that LP appearing (“Oakland Stroke,” “Squib Cakes,” “Just When We Start Makin’ It,” “Time Will Tell,” “Man from the Past”). Old favorites were also reprised, of course including the three hit singles from Tower of Power.
With two trumpeters (Greg Adams and Mic Gillette), three saxophonists (Castillio, Kupka and Pickett), one guitarist (Conte), one bassist (Francis Rocco Prestia), one keyboardist (Thompson), one drummer (Garibaldi), one percussionist (Brent Byars on congas) and one lead vocalist (Williams), the large aggregation’s sound was singular. The WLIR broadcast showed off all sides of the band with tight instrumentals, vocal showcases, and extended jazz-flavored workouts. Luckily for TOP, this was a period during which the charts were welcoming to such diversity and experimentation. The band’s guitar-keyboard-brass blend reflected the prominence of fusion in jazz, while the big, prominent horns echoed the hits that had dominated the charts from the likes of Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears TOP was less pop-rock and less jazz, more funk ‘n’ soul, but similar touchstones were recognizable.
As Leo Sacks astutely points out in his new liner notes for Real Gone’s release, 1974 was also a time when anything was possible in R&B alone. Perhaps never before had so many different strains achieved such mainstream success. Thom Bell was bringing urbane sophistication and a sweetly melodic yet still funky sensibility to his work with The Spinners. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were redefining the Motown sound for a socially-conscious new generation. Barry White was emphasizing intimacy on his steamy, lush bedroom ballads. Miles Davis was alienating old fans and gaining new ones as he proved that a jazzman, with all his chops, could out-rock and out-funk damn near anybody else. Earth, Wind and Fire were tapping into a bold, expansive sound all their own. And disco, of course, was taking rise in Philadelphia and elsewhere, bringing the sounds of the underground to the mainstream. In this soul stew, Tower of Power found that their audience-pleasing style extended beyond the Bay Area, bringing energy and a massive, often massively joyous sound to music that owed a debt to classic soul. One of the band’s songs not performed for WLIR nonetheless could have been TOP’s manifesto: “You Got to Funkifize.”
After the jump: more on this sizzling live set!
And funkifize, they did, from the opening brassy blast of “Oakland Stroke” (also the opening song of Back to Oakland) followed by Thompson’s nearly 10-minute “Squib Cakes” which left ample room for improvisatory stretching. Throughout these two discs, you’ll hear a bit of Otis Redding there, a dollop of James Brown there, but mostly just a sheer jolt of Power. There’s frequently a Chicago soul feel on songs like “This Time It’s for Real,” a jaunty, ebullient slice of old-school vocal group soul with added adrenaline from the horns. The melancholy “So Very Hard to Go” has guitar licks and brass stabs redolent of southern soul, with another round of classic harmonies and enough dynamics to allow the band members to flex their muscles. TOP’s first Top 30 hit, the impassioned “You’re Still a Young Man,” originally featured vocals by Rick Stevens, but here it’s handled by Lenny Williams in truly smoldering fashion. Another ballad standout is “Time Will Tell,” in which the group locks into a sinuous groove anchored by Francis Rocco Prestia’s bass. The intro might recall Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” and indeed, co-writer “Doc” Kupka took inspiration from Bacharach in crafting the song. (He once commented, “It’s an Oakland soul cross between ‘Wives and Lovers’ and ‘What’s New Pussycat.’”) “Man from the Past,” too, has a dark vibration that balances the feel-good soul stompers.
Other moments turn the heat up. “Soul Vaccination” boasts furiously syncopated rhythms, and the pleading “Clean Slate” brings on the bleating horns, pleading vocals and even a spoken-word rap; Chester Thompson offers some particularly strong organ work on this track, too. On “Get Yo’ Feet Back on the Ground,” the TOP men sink their teeth into former member Willie James Fulton’s no-nonsense sentiment: “Woman, you ain’t got no business tryin’ to run my life…’cause I’m sick and tired of you tryin’ to tell me what’s wrong and what’s right!”
Tower of Power lived up to the title of “Knock Yourself Out” on the eighteen-minute rendition of the funky song from the band’s 1970 debut album East Bay Grease. Though the album version lasted over seven minutes itself, the song became an undisputed jam highlight of TOP’s live shows at even greater lengths; the performance preserved on 1976’s Live and in Living Color cracked the 23-minute mark! Kupka, Castillio and Garibaldi’s “What is Hip?” closed out the broadcast and this album; it’s a fitting coda to a band that remains perennially hip and in-demand today despite numerous personnel changes since its heyday. (Castillio, Kupka, Prestia and Garibaldi still play with Tower of Power today.)
Real Gone’s reissue, produced by Gordon Anderson and remastered for CD by Mike Milchner in superb sound especially considering the broadcast source, includes a very welcome 16-page booklet with Sacks’ notes drawing on a new interview with Emilio Castillio. Over five decades, Tower of Power has blurred genre lines between R&B, jazz, funk and soul. With the group members firing on all cylinders during their peak period, Hipper Than Hip is a welcome souvenir from the days when to catch a Tower of Power live performance was to officially certify your own cool credentials. Get hip!