Better Late Than Never
The classic rock era and psychedelic music movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s would not be nearly the same without the contributions of bands from the San Francisco Bay Area.
In addition to the obvious bands, such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Bay Area was home to lesser known but hugely influential acts, such as Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, It’s a Beautiful Day, Moby Grape, Hot Tuna and the Flamin’ Groovies.
Hailing from Oakland, the 11-piece band, Tower of Power, was a multiracial tour de force that occupied a peculiar genre of the time that combined rock, soul and funk. Other bands in that genre at the time were War, the Average White Band and Earth, Wind and Fire.
The Real Gone Music label has just released a newly discovered recording of Tower of Power at the height of its power. Recorded at Ultrasonic Recording Studio in the Long Island town of Hempstead, the performance was first broadcast live over WLIR-FM on May 14, 1974.
Nearly four decades later, the music from that show, released as the two-disc album, “Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” sounds as fresh and vibrant as anything you will hear on the radio today.
During the time of the band’s greatest popularity, 1973 to 1975, it released several charting singles on the Warner Brothers label. All four of those hits are included in the new live recording: “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “Down to the Nightclub” and “What Is Hip?”
The new album also features live versions of lesser known songs that are just as great as the hits. Songs, such as “Time Will Tell,” “Soul Vaccination” and “This Time It’s Real,” jump out of the speakers and show why, fast or slow, the Tower of Power sound was timeless and true.
The 1974 lineup represented on the album includes Greg Adams on trumpet, Brent Byars on congas, Emilio Costillo on tenor sax, Bruce Conte on guitar, David Garibaldi on drums, Mic Gillette on trumpet, Stephen (Doc) Kupka on baritone sax, Lenny Pickett on tenor sax, Francis Rocco Prestia on bass guitar, Chester Thompson on keyboards and Lenny Williams on vocals.
Many members of the 1974 lineup went on to fame in other groups. Chester Thompson was a member of Frank Zappa’s band in the early ’70s, moved on to Weather Report and then spent the majority of his career with Genesis. Lenny Pickett left ToP in 1981 and, since 1985, has been playing tenor sax in the Saturday Night Live Band.
Amazingly, Costillo, Kupka, Garibaldi and Prestia are all still recording and touring under the Tower of Power name, along with five new members.
That the “Hipper Than Hip” recording was discovered at all is a bit of a miracle. A producer for Real Gone Music stated, “On a whim, a tape collector sends us the show, saying that of his 10,000-plus recordings of live concerts, this set was his favorite. Well, people send us stuff all the time; but within about five minutes of listening to this show, we know we have to find a way to expose the record-buying public to this performance. So, fingers crossed, we send it to the band, and much to our delight, they agree with us.”
Said Castillo, “Many people think this was our best lineup ever. I can tell you we were firing on all 10 cylinders.
“Every single person was literally amazing. David and Rocco burn it down. You could make the case that Mic is the finest first trumpet player on the planet. Greg’s arrangements sparkle. Chester was ferociousness.”
But perhaps the star of the show is Williams and his amazingly moving vocal style.
“He was off the charts,” Castillo said. “His tone and signature are so unique, so completely soulful.”
Many times when you hear of a band releasing “one from the vaults,” the product is inferior, and it is just a case of a band trying to make a little money after the thrill is gone.
That is not the case here. “Hipper Than Hip” is as good as any album released by Tower of Power in its entire career and as good as any live album produced by anybody anywhere.