Emilio Castillo spends about 175 days a year on the road with Tower of Power, a 42-year-old musical institution based in the Bay Area, where Castillo grew up after leaving Detroit as a kid. We caught up with him by phone at an airport, en route to a New Orleans gig where he'd no doubt play "What Is Hip" along with the other Tower classics.
On his early listening in Detroit: I left when I was 11, but I was inspired by music when I was there. My parents were really music lovers, so back in the late '50s and early '60s it was all about the Platters and Bill Doggett and Dinah Washington and stuff like that, Elvis Presley.
On stealing a T-shirt at age 16: Our first try at stealing — me and my brother — we got caught. My father made us go to the store and personally apologize. Then he brought us home, and he gave us a spiral notebook each and he said, "Fill this notebook with the reason why you're never going to steal again as long as you live." We were working on it for a few days and hanging out in our room, and he said, "I want you boys to think of something that's going to keep you off the street, otherwise you're gonna stay in your room for the rest of your life." We were like, "We want to play music." And he said, "Get in the car," and he took us to the store, and he said, "Anything you want." I picked a sax and my brother picked the drums, and life changed. That day, we started a band, that day. We started a band and then we learned how to play.
On his band the Motowns: We got into soul music when I was about 16 years old, and we were kids. My mother was like the manager and she was like, "If you're gonna play soul music, you should call yourselves the Motowns. You're from Detroit." And we were like, "Yeah, OK." But then we wanted to get into the Fillmore. We knew we'd never get into the Fillmore with a name like that, so we changed it. We never did a lot of Motown covers. We did a lot of Chicago soul music, and we did a lot of Memphis soul, and a little bit of James Brown and Dyke and Blazers. We did a lot of New York soul music like Howard Tate and that kind of stuff.
On playing Detroit: In the first half of our career, we would go with acts like Santana or the Temptations or the Crusaders, but people didn't seem to be into us. It kind of seemed like we weren't black enough for the blacks and too black for the whites. When we finally did get over, it was like the promoters didn't believe it so we didn't get offers. But now we're coming to Detroit a lot more. I'm loving it because I got a lot of family there.
On The Great American Soul Book, the band's last record: We've never been on the charts for, like, 30 years, and we were on some sort of Billboard chart for 20 weeks, and we didn't even want to do the record. We didn't want to do a cover record. We thought, we set trends, we don't chase them. Our manager convinced us. We didn't get the guest vocalists right until the end. Then Tom Jones came on board. Huey Lewis said he'd do it. Joss Stone came in. At the last minute, I remembered that Sam (of Sam and Dave) Moore lives in my hometown and I called his wife up, and she is his manager, and she says sure we'll do it. It just fell together.
On not having big hits: I think we hit the lower Top 10 and the high teens a couple, two, three, four times, but we were never a No. 1 seller. In some ways, I look at that as a blessing because it gave our career longevity. You know a lot of these people who ring the bell, they come and they go.
Tower of Power appears Saturday, March 20, at Sound Board at Motor City Casino, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-237-7711.