Tower of Power is undeniably the greatest horn band of all time. The ‘Tower’, ‘TOP’, has been around since 1968 and are best known for their iconic songs, “What Is Hip”, “You’re Still A Young Man”, “So Very Hard To Go” and on and on. The band’s core members throughout the years have become role models for many recording artists. Emilio Castillo (bandleader, tenor sax, vocals) and Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka penned a lot of those classic tunes. The groove was set by David Garibaldi on drums, the late and legendary Francis ‘Rocco’ Prestia on bass and Chester ‘CT’ Thompson on Hammond B3. Of course the horn section was always tight as a fist featuring Lenny ‘LP’ Pickett on lead tenor, Greg Adams on trumpet/flugelhorn who also arranged many of the tunes, and the late double threat Mic Gillette on trumpet and trombone.
On the flip side, the guys have put out some of the best, funkiest, instrumental tunes throughout their career, with perhaps the best known being ‘Squib Cakes’ off their fifth album, Back to Oakland. But TOP has been a powerhouse in cranking out some unbelievable jams over the years, several of which including ‘Squib Cakes’ that were written by CT, the greatest B3 player ever.
Here’s a public Spotify playlist of all the studio instrumentals with my commentary on each tune below –
Walkin’ Up Hip Street was the first studio instrumental, written by Chester Thompson and appeared on the fantastic Urban Renewal (fourth) album. It’s an incredible piece of work with notable solos from Bruce Conte on guitar, Mic Gillette on trumpet and of course CT himself. Of course, it’s the horns that propel the song and the bari scoops from Doc Kupka are pronounced and provocative.
Oakland Stroke(s) bookended the fifth album Back to Oakland. It was originally a warm up jam that the band played but then decided to record. Technically it’s not an instrumental because it has a chorus but I think of that as another instrument. It set an example for the band to use intros and outros of a split song as the first and last tunes on an album. I really like to listen to these start to finish if possible and you can do that on the compilation album “What Is Hip? the Warner two-disc collection. Also, shortly after the album release, on tour the band performed a variation called Stroke ’75 which I was fortunate to see live a few times and to my knowledge is only available on that same compilation disc and you can listen to the link to the right.
Squib Cakes on Back to Oakland was written by CT and anyone who knows TOP knows this tune. In my view, it is considered one of the great funkstrumentals of all time. David Garibaldi recently commented in a video that several takes had to be recorded to get it right as the band wasn’t “tight” at the time. They sure sound like they had the chops when you listen to this tune. It’s got some of the most memorable horn lines, drum rhythms and organ solos in history. This is a good place to start if you want to hear the essence of this band.
In the early ’80s the band decided to recut some classics in what at the time was a revolutionary process, direct to disc bypassing the use of magnetic tape recording to record audio directly onto analog disc masters. The album Direct + has an alternate version of Squib Cakes that is a compelling listen. It has a ballad-like interlude from LP that segues into a super jazz-funk opus with Lenny’s supersonic altissimo blasts. CT also takes us into orbit before the horn and rhythmic syncopation close.
Fanfare: Matanuska is Tower’s shortest ‘song’ at just 16 seconds but it provides a beautiful and seamless transition to the next song on the ‘In The Slot’ album called ‘On The Serious Side.’ It would be great to hear an extended version of this symphony intro.
Ebony Jam on In the Slot was also written by CT and in some ways I feel like it’s the long lost twin brother of Squib Cakes. It start with a Garibaldi tutorial in laying down the funk followed by CT with a jiggy organ line and then the horns just keep soaring throughout. The drums-organ-horn funk forms the foundation for another LP wild roller coaster ride. Greg Adams has an extended ecstatic flugelhorn solo before Bruce Conte takes over with a scintillating solo. The bari blasts portend CT coming in with some densely heavy organ – the bass pedals are a low end treat. Garibaldi plays off him with some riffs that were ahead of their time. LP takes the final turn before a hallmark Tower fanfare close out.
Vuela Por Noche is staccato trip written by Garibaldi, Conte, Greg, and Rocco. It’s got some of the best horn interplay ever laid down. The timing and syncopation is shocking in this tight tune with Spanish flair.
Essence of Innocence is another short intro at 35 seconds, a symphonic solo on piano from CT as a lead in to the beautiful ballad Soul of a Child on In the Slot.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was somewhat of a comeback for Tower in the early 90s on the Monster on a Leash album. And it was a strong comeback indeed. I remember being at the Newport Jazz Festival in the early 90s waiting in the rain for Tower to come on – when they hit with this one, everyone came out from their umbrellas and rain gear and started dancing. After the initial horn intro, it just sounds like the band cruising down the highway. By this time, Russ McKinnon was on the drums and the lead tenor was Steve Grove, who went on to a solo career as Euge Groove, but it sounds just as much Tower of Power as ever. It’s got some bright sounding key work and an excellent trumpet solo from Lee Thornburg. The following piano solo from Nick Milo, who wrote the tune, is a contrast to the prior CT Hammond solos and sets this one apart. A final tenor solo from Grove is next and signals his strong intro out with the band.
The Educated Bump, Parts I and II, is another bookend pairing off the T.O.P. album and it’s rock solid and is highlighted by Lenny Pickett’s solos in his guest performance on this terrific album.
Cruise Control, also on T.O.P., and written by Greg Adams and Nick Milo, starts with a great bass line by the incomparable Rocco Prestia and then a smooth trumpet riff brings in the horns. While not as raucous as some of the TOP instrumentals, this one has a low key vibe that, well, just cruises. It also features Greg Adams with some terrific trumpet soloing. Brandon Fields has a funky tenor solo here as well and this is definitely an underrated, less well-known Tower tune.
South of the Boulevard marks an unusual trifecta of instrumentals on the T.O.P. album. Again, there’s some great bass work from Rocco before the horn line kicks in. This one is perhaps more jazzy than some of the prior tunes and has a real big band feel. Carmen Grillo takes a nice solo here as well. Notably, the tune has Poncho Sanchez on congas, a slot previously held by the the late Brent Byars. There’s no question that the highlight for me is the Lenny Pickett solo midway as always an out of body experience, the funkiest of the funky.
Spank-A-Dang off the Rhythm and Business album has some great bari work from Doc Kupka and I heard a nod to both You Got Funkifize and What is Hip? in some of the horn work. John Scarpulla is the lead tenor and has an early solo. This segues into a dream like sequence and an extended trumpet solo that really swings. Nick Milo shows his piano chops and there’s definitely undertones of the prior TOP hits here.
Undercurrent is from the Souled Out album and features some great back and forth between Doc on bari and the rest of the horn section. Barry Danielian has a slick trumpet solo midway. Later David Mann takes an alto sax solo, an instrument not often heard in the TOP catalogue.
East Bay! All Day! is the short intro track (split) on Soul Side of Town with a nice intro by Tom E. Politzer followed by the vocal chorus and keys tickler from Roger Smith. Good tone setter for album.
East Bay! Oakland Style! has a nice organ fade in from Roger followed by the title chorus and a horn fadeout. Excellent close and bookend to the album.
Butter Fried shows that an instrumental with this title has to be extra greasy and it is, terrific organ work throughout with the horns riding over the top on the waves. Cortez gets high marks for the guitar solo. Nice mute work on the trumpet leading to a great Garibaldi-Prestia-Smith section gliding out with Emilio shout outs of “funky” and exhorting the horns with “c’mon fellas” and you know the band is feeling it as the horns start trading down the line in turns like they used to do. The close out is about as close to New Orleans as ToP gets and somewhat like the close of Snarky Puppy’s Quarter Master.
After Hours is possibly my favorite tune on the Soul Side of Town (read full review here). The opening vox intro from Emilio is like a full can o’ grease and the horn licks that follow could easily be the JBs. It’s a tune that’s classic ToP but could easily fit on a Lettuce album – I would love to see them cover this one. The trombone solo by Ray Greene plays well with Tom’s sax and it’s full on funk.
East Bay! All the Way! starts Tower’s most recent release, 2020’s Step Up with a classic Garibaldi tom roll with thumping bass and then hits with the title line chorus. The fadeout is a nice trumpet solo continued on the closing bookend.
East Bay! Oaktown All the Way! picks up where the opener leaves off, including the trumpet solo, the vocal chorus, and a nice guitar solo. The final close out is straight up Oakland Stroke ’74!