Rock and roll legends don’t come through Pensacola often. As the go-to horn section for many classic bands like Santana and Little Feat, Tower of Power has left an indelible mark on music history. Band founder and saxophone player Emilio Castillo recently chatted with the Independent News about the history of the band and what we can expect from the upcoming show at Vinyl Music Hall.
IN: Talk about your childhood a little bit. Were you surrounded by music as a kid?
CASTILLO: My parents were big music fans. They always had records playing throughout the house. They weren’t musicians, but it’s hard to remember a time when music wasn’t around. We lived in Detroit in the 1950s, so everything from Nat King Cole to Dinah Washington to Elvis Presley was big around the house.
IN: At what point did you know you wanted to be a musician your entire career?
CASTILLO: I moved to California when I was 11 years old and had a very short-lived crime career. I was caught stealing a T-shirt and my dad told me to figure out something that was going to keep me off the streets for the summer. The Beatles had just come out, so starting a band was a natural choice for me and my brother. Dad took us to the store, pointed to the wall and said we could get anything we wanted. I was drawn to the sax, and my brother went straight to the drums. I’ve had a band ever since that day. We didn’t go through years of practice to start a band. We started the band and then learned how to play.
IN: Was that the genesis of Tower of Power?
CASTILLO: We had rock-and-roll bands before Tower of Power. Our first band was called the Roadrunners. We went through a bunch of names and styles, but by 1968, we were a soul band called the Motowns. That’s when I met my partner Doc, the baritone sax player. We wanted to get into the Fillmore Auditorium but knew we’d never get in there with a name like the Motowns. So we changed it to the Tower of Power. We did a Tuesday night audition and Bill Graham liked us and he signed us.
IN: Was it intimidating at all being introduced to the record business by such a famous and imposing figure?
CASTILLO: Absolutely! As intimidating as you can possibly imagine. He was a powerful personality. We couldn’t believe it. By the time we did that audition–it was November of 1969–we were completely broke and had no work at all. All we had was that audition. We had rehearsed for the better part of that year on our original music. By the time we got the audition, I told the guys that I was going to have to fly back to Detroit to be with my parents and wasn’t coming back. They were all devastated. Doc called me a couple days later and said, “You have to come back. He dug it. Bill Graham digs us!” I told him to immediately hawk the organ and send me a ticket back to California.
IN: Tower of Power’s horn section is one of very few that is world famous. Was that ever your intention when the band was first getting started?
CASTILLO: Not at all. It happened by fluke. We had the horn section for a few years. After we started getting some recognition, Nick Gravenitis of Big Brother and the Holding Company called us to help on his solo record. We went in and made up some horn parts, and as we were walking out, he gave us some money. I thought we were just coming down to hang out and make music. Next thing we know, we get a call from Carlos Santana in the middle of the night. We went down and did a song called “Everybody’s Everything.” We never thought about how this could be an alternate thing, but it really blossomed for us over the years.
IN: Is that how most of your collaborations work, with someone just giving you a call?
CASTILLO: That Santana record really helped our reputation. It was the first time Santana had used horns, and they were really prominent in the mix. We were in the liner notes and had toured with him as a band. It eventually became known that if you wanted a big horn section on your record, you call Tower of Power horns.
IN: How do you balance the fame of the horn section with the band as a whole?
CASTILLO: It doesn’t interfere at all. We don’t really do many sessions. You just see our name a lot. For a recording session, we’ll show up at noon and be done either by 3 p.m. or 6 p.m. People have seen that name on the back of the records for years and years. They think we’re in the studio all the time, but really it’s just one afternoon every now and then. The main thing we do is Tower of Power, the band.
IN: With such a storied career, how do you and the band keep things fresh, both in the studio and live?
CASTILLO: We have a large body of music. Fortunately for us, we did them all selfishly. We made the music the way we wanted. We weren’t chasing trends or doing it for other people. It makes it really easy for us to come to work every day. We’re always tweaking our stuff to make it better for us and the audience.
Photo: Tower of Power Official