T.O.P. on WTOP: Tower of Power brings classic R&B to Bethesda Theater

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Tower of Power at Bethesda Theater (Part 1)

The sound of classic R&B tunes will echo along Wisconsin Avenue this weekend.

Tower of Power performs on stage in Milwaukee on June 16, 2024. (Courtesy of Tower of Power)

The beloved group Tower of Power rocks the Bethesda Theater this Friday, June 21.

WTOP caught up with founding saxophonist and songwriter Emilio Castillo.

“I am extremely honored to be on WTOP as the band leader of T.O.P.,” Castillo told WTOP.

“Fans get an up close and personal view of the band. It’s a very powerful thing to hear it that close. We do all kinds of gigs, big festivals, small venues, we go overseas, we’re getting ready to go to Japan and Europe later in the year, we do all kinds of stuff, but I expect the Bethesda Theater to do great, I think I’ve been there before and I’m looking forward to it.”

Born in Detroit in 1950, Castillo mostly grew up in the Bay Area of California.

“That’s when the Motown-thing got popular and I was missing all of my friends in Detroit, so I listened to the radio and the radio became my friend,” Castillo said.

“I listened to Smokey Robinson and The Four Tops and The Temptations and Martha & The Vandellas, I loved all that kind of music growing up. … My mother said, ‘If you’re gonna have a soul band, you should call yourself The Motowns because you guys are from Detroit.”

The band eventually changed its name from The Motowns to Tower of Power.

“People that played The Fillmore were psychedelic bands: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & The Holding Company, bands with weird names,” Castillo said.

“We were doing a recording at this little studio in Hayward, California. I was on a break, sitting at the owner’s desk and here’s this list of all these weird names, thinking, ‘None of these are gonna work,’ then I saw the name Tower of Power. I was like, ‘Guys, what about this?'”

After Tower of Power’s debut album “East Bay Grease” (1970), the band followed up with the successful sophomore effort “Bump City” (1972) and hits like “You’re Still a Young Man.”

“That’s the first song that Doc [Kupka] and I ever wrote,” Castillo said. “Right out of the box, it was a big hit.”

Their self-titled third album “Tower of Power” (1973) was their biggest success, featuring hits like “This Time It’s Real,” “What is Hip?” (played often at this year’s NBA Finals) and their signature song, “So Very Hard to Go.”

“I knew it was a hit the moment I wrote it, to be honest,” Castillo said.

“We had a house up in the hills in Berkeley, California, and we sit down in the bedroom, me and Doc, writing the song. When it’s finished, I said, ‘Man, I think that’s a hit.’ He said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ We called our manager and said, ‘Ron, we wrote a hit.’ He laughed, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m serious!’ I played it for him over the phone and he goes, ‘Man, I think you might be right!'”

By now, Tower of Power was a household name, making way for their fourth album “Back to Oakland” (1974) with even more R&B hits from “Time Will Tell” to “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream).”

“By that time, Lenny Williams had been our singer for over a year,” Castillo said.

“He was a clever writer and he used to hang out with this guy named Johnny ‘Guitar’ Walker, who used to come up to our house in Oakland at Berkeley Hills and he would sit at the piano and write. They wrote this song ‘Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of a Stream)’ and as soon as we heard it, we knew it was going to be a cool song for Tower of Power.”

Still, Castillo’s personal favorite album remains their fifth effort “Urban Renewal” (1975).

“I’m very proud of all the records that we have made, I worked really hard on them because I produced those records, but I still have always said my whole career that album called ‘Urban Renewal,’ I thought we were firing on all 10 cylinders when we made that record,” Castillo said.

Since then, the band has cranked out 15 more studio albums, not to mention numerous live albums and compilation albums.

They also played on hits by Santana (“Everything, Everything”), Elton John (“The Bitch is Back”), Little Feat (“Spanish Moon”), Rod Stewart (“Big Bayou”), Jefferson Starship (“Jane”), Heart (“Even It Up”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Tangled and Dark”).

When it’s all said and done, what does he want the band’s legacy to be?

“I would say high musicality,” Castillo said. “We’ve often been tagged as the musician’s musician band over the years and I want that to be our moniker — that we have high musicality in the band Tower of Power.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Tower of Power at Bethesda Theater (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation on the podcast below:

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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