Phantom Sway

Tower of Power—and Mic Gillette—Came to Play

That their debut album is called East Bay Grease is fitting because the band performs like a well lubricated machine.

tower of power

The passing of trumpet and trombone master Mic Gillette, a founding member of Tower of Power, is a good time to put down my reflections about the band he helped create.

[quote float=””]”The Tower of Power family was stunned today by the news that Mic Gillette, our dear friend and bandmate going back to 1966, passed away. Mic was without a doubt the greatest brass player I’ve ever known.”—Emilio Castillo[/quote]

As a neophyte brass player growing up in rural Maryland during the ’70s and ’80s, the East Bay funk of Tower of Power was not easily accessible. There was no iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, or YouTube. You settled for listening to what was on your local radio station or whatever was available at Sam Goody or Waxie Maxies. Still, the name of that band and what it stood for filtered from Oakland’s East Bay to the Maryland cornfields, like some mystical oral tradition.

When we weren’t engaging in heated arguments over who was better, Doc Severinsen or Maynard Ferguson, we band geeks ate up the more readily available stuff from horn bands like Chicago or Blood Sweat & Tears. The veil was lifted somewhat for us in farm country in the mid ’80s when the Tower of Power horns hooked up with then superstar (and fellow East Bay alum) Huey Lewis to record and tour. Back to the Future had boosted Huey, and Huey boosted TOP back into the spotlight.

The Tower of Power horns have recorded with classic artists like Santana, Elton John, Jefferson Starship, Heart, and America. They’ve ventured into soul, blues, jazz–even glam metal–and they’re responsible for probably the only Phish song I’ve ever liked (“Julius”, if you’re wondering). However, once you’ve heard those horns playing their original music, you realize that they were meant for much more than a backup role.

After the stint with Huey Lewis, and the dawn of the compact disc, I found a used CD of their 1973 self titled release Tower of Power and played the hell out of it. “What is Hip? “Soul Vaccination,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “Get Yo’ Feet Back On The Ground.” The horns were more than a garnish. They were the meat. Musicians talk about bands being “tight”—all the players hitting their cues perfectly. Tower of Power was and is the very definition of “tight.” Doc Kupka’s bari sax scoops into rapid fire trumpets and tenor saxes intertwine with crazy yet perfect bass lines and the Hammond B3 organ swells as the guitar and drums accent the horns while laying down the foundational funk. There’s probably no better example of it than a vintage performance of “What is Hip?” Seriously, listen and take notice of what every musician is doing.  That their debut album is called East Bay Grease is fitting, because this band performs like a well lubricated machine.

Later, CD releases of Back to Oakland and Tower of Power Live and in Living Color started to show up. If you had cable and watched long enough you might have seen the video for their late ’80s track “Credit” show up on MTV or VH1.  In 1991 I finally got to see them live at Max’s on Broadway in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood. Strangely enough they had a western Maryland boy on lead tenor, Hagerstown’s own Steve Grove (aka Euge Groove), who was with the band for a time. I was parked in front of the PA and my ears rang for days afterward. This was after they released Monster on a Leash which heralded the TOP for the ’90s.  Shortly after this, I moved out to the west coast and struck gold.

I took a job in the Seattle area and found a music store called Silver Platters that seemed to have everything in stock.  I found Japanese imports of TOP CDs that hadn’t yet been released in the U.S.: Urban Renewal, In the Slot, East Bay Grease, Bump City, and others. They were ridiculously overpriced, but I had to buy them. It was like finding the holy grail. People who have always had digital downloads available to them don’t even know the struggle. The lyric sheets were a scream, having been translated into Japanese and then back into English. Badly.

The band has had a lot of personnel changes over it’s 40 plus years, and Mic Gillette wasn’t always in the lineup, but he was always part of the TOP family. Mic liked working with kids, and there are plenty of videos on YouTube of him giving clinics, teaching, or performing with young musicians. Rest in peace, Mic. The rest of you go over to YouTube and watch videos of Mic.

Phantom Jim

Jim is a science fiction nerd, writer, blogger, jazz lover, artist, graphic designer, native of the east coast, and graduate of Virginia Tech.

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