Tower of Power is a Bay Area institution, a horn-powered, world-renowned soul and R&B band, born in Oakland and celebrating 50 years of recording and performance. They play Napa’s Uptown Theatre Saturday, Dec. 15.
On the phone from Los Angeles last month, Tower of Power co-founder and baritone sax man, Steven “Doc” Kupka, known affectionately as “the funky doctor,” talked about his journey from a classical music childhood to center stage with the 10-member purveyors of “What Is Hip.”
“I started out playing the oboe when I was 12,” Kupka said. “All through junior high and high school I took lessons and I got pretty good. I was good enough to play in the band and orchestra.
“My father really liked opera and classical music. The Texaco Opera broadcast was on the radio every Saturday. He didn’t really like popular music much. Broadway shows, he liked them okay, but pop music was a bother to him.”
Kupka continued playing the oboe through two years at UC Santa Barbara, but his musical interests changed when he transferred to UC Berkeley for his junior year. “That was right around the time when I was getting real interested in R&B,” he said. “I really liked it – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ was a big one, all the James Brown stuff, all the Otis Redding stuff.
“That’s what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to do it on the oboe. I figured I’d better switch over to saxophone and there were a lot of good tenor players around but nobody played baritone. So that’s what I got into. And majoring in music at a school like Cal was not going to prepare me for a career in popular music, so I dropped out of college.”
In the East Bay, Kupka quickly hooked up with a local band led by tenor sax player and vocalist Emilio Castillo. He re-played their first conversation. “I told Emilio, ‘You got a real great band. One small problem — your horn section, it needs a little bottom. By the way, I play baritone sax.’
“He gave me a tryout and I’m very grateful that the tryout process back then wasn’t what it turned out to become years later. I played just four songs and I guess I was good enough to get the job. I learned the repertoire and 50 years later, here I am today.”
With Castillo and Kupka as the founders and principal songwriters, rhythm regulars Rocco Prestia on bass and David Garibaldi on drums, and a rotating army of other musicians over the decades, Tower of Power has recorded 26 studio and live albums. A revered subset of the band, the Tower of Power Horns, has recorded and performed with a long and star-studded list of rock, soul, jazz and blues artists.
Kupka said that the 1970s through the 1990s were the recording heyday for the Tower of Power Horns. “With the advent of samples and the home studio, there’s much less work now,” he added. “But we just did one with the Tony!, Toni!, Toné! guys. It was just great, D’wayne Wiggins and those guys, that was a lot of fun. But there’s not nearly the number of sessions that there used to be.”
The man wielding the big saxophone — his current baritone weighs 17 pounds — was given his nickname by early lead singer Rick Stevens, the “funky’ moniker as much for Kupka’s dance moves as his playing. Choreography has always been a part of the Tower of Power stage show, though it has toned down considerably as the band has aged.
“Age is much harder on the dancing than on playing the bari, I can tell you that,” said Kupka, 72. “It’s harder to dance these days, it’s really hard for me to go from side to side, which we do on one of our songs. I definitely look my age when we’re doing that.
“We still dance a bit though, just enough not to be a comedy routine at our age. I tell you what, we have a song, ‘Knock Yourself Out,’ that we do as an encore in some of the shows, where we dance around pretty good. We don’t look our age on that one.”
At the Uptown, DJ Harry Duncan, host of KCSM’s “In the Soul Kitchen,” will open the show.
Saturday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m. $50-$80. Uptown Theatre Napa, 1350 Third St, Napa. 707-259-0123. UptownTheatreNapa.com.