“When everything is perfect, everything is perfect,” Stephen “Funky Doctor” Kupka says. “It’s a little better with the little mistakes that make it sound human.”
When the multi-instrumental baritone saxophonist crossed paths with tenor saxman Emilio Castillo in 1968, they discovered they had similar perspectives about music and musical innovators, like Miles Davis and Bo Diddley, whose imperfections became part of what made what they did so genius. By August 1968, the perfectly imperfect Oakland R&B powerhouse Tower of Power was born.
Unlike many bands from around the same era and region, TOP has survived adversity, namely addiction.
“We’ve stayed true to the sound,” Kupka adds. “We’re good about not getting trapped in the trappings – we overcame all the drugs and alcohol 25 or 30 years ago.”
Most importantly, 72-year-old Kupka says they still dig what they’re doing and haven’t reached the point where they’re “too old” to do it anymore.
“The musicianship level is still so high,” Kupka says. “I’m as proud of that as I am of the 50 years.”
TOP has done more than just survive; they’ve thrived and continue to evolve, regularly selling out shows in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In addition to Castillo and Kupka, longtime TOP regulars bassist Rocco Prestia and drummer David Garibaldi have maintained the original TOP sound using a rotating collective. In turn, they’ve helped churn out a combined 26 studio and live albums over the years.
But it had been a studio break of nearly a decade until TOP released Soul Side of Town this year. The players may not be the same, but the cohesive unit that hooked folks in 1968 marches with a familiar unified intensity on the funky call-and-response opener “East Bay! All Day!” and the mellow Philly-soaked R&B ballad “Let It Go.” The Soul Side of Town sessions led to recording so much new material, Kupka says there’s already another full-length record “in the can.”
“Personally, I like the retro stuff better – the Warner Brothers stuff,” admits Kupka. “But it’s nice having something new.”
TOP’s run began when Bill Graham immediately recognized the vision and signed TOP to his short-lived record label, San Francisco, and released their debut East Bay Grease, featuring all originals penned by Castillo and Kupka. Warner Brothers produced TOP’s sophomore LP Bump City, which landed “Down to the Nightclub” and “You’re Still a Young Man” on the The Billboard Hot 100.
TOWER OF POWER 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR 8pm Friday, Dec. 14. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. Sold out; $99/VIP. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com