I started to write a column about Tower of Power, a band that had a huge influence on all of us, and realized quickly I couldn’t start that story without some of the history of Funk, which naturally begins with James Brown.
JB had started his singing career in the early 1950’s with a gospel group and an R&B group called the Flames, then the Famous Flames, and as Brown started to find his pipes and leadership jones James Brown and the Famous Flames. The Flames with Bobbie Byrd didn’t consider themselves a backup group and there were problems that resulted in them breaking from JB in 1970, but they couldn’t argue with success. In 1956 the band released “Please Please Please”, a soul staple that stayed in JB’s show set for the remainder of his career. By the mid 60’s James Brown had a string of R&B/Soul hits and in 1962 released “Live at the Apollo”, a live album of his hits. His record company wouldn’t release the album, believing people wouldn’t buy it because they’d already bought the records. Brown had to finance it himself. The album was released in June ’63, reached #2 on the LP list and stayed on the charts for 14 months.
This event really underlined JB’s confidence in himself and his music. There are some great videos and documentaries from this period where band members spoke to his studio style. Brown knew what he wanted, but without formal music education had to resort to mouthing parts and hand signals to coax the groove out of his players. The musicians, especially the horn players, were more studio trained and accustomed to charts. But everything was in JB’s head, and the only way to release it was to “boop, UH, bopa-de-bop, cha OWW, bopa-de-bop” until they got what he was after. What Brown was doing with these guys was laying a groove, and turning the entire band, drums, bass, horns and vocals, into one big driving drum. What he was doing was inventing Funk.
Now I’m going to get some argument here. Critical voices will point to “Cold Sweat” in 1967 as the first true funk song. But the essential element of funk is the emphasis on the 1, and the SPACE between beats in the bars. Most R&B, Motown, Pop and the like lived on the 2 and 4. Funk hit you in the face with entire band on the 1. And that started with this. Turn it UP, and Get On Up, because we be going dancing. 1965.
If you can sit still during that you ain’t human, man. I think the pundits don’t use “Papa” as the first example of funk because it was such a huge hit. But dudes and dudettes, you is just wrong.
Certainly after “Cold Sweat” in ’67 shit started happening. The Meters formed by Art Neville, with George Porter Jr bass, Leo Nocentelli guitar, and Zigaboo Modeliste drums, set a New Orleans tone to funk and as Alan Toussiant’s backup group carried the funky torch through several renditions of the band which later added some of Neville’s brothers. Sly and the Family Stone, formed in ’66 woke us all UP, with stage style and a groove that just grabbed us hard. Larry Graham on bass with Sly would later be a huge funk artist with Graham Central Station. Graham started the slap-pop bass style, later copied by Everybody, when he was a kid working in his mother’s R&B band and she couldn’t afford a drummer. Larry developed that slap-pop style to make up for no kick drum and no snare. And all you have to do is think about that groove in Sly’s hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” in 1969. Boo-oom Bat bop Bat, Boo-oom bat bop. That’s right.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Bootsy Collins and his older brother (Catfish Collins!!—Ed.) joined James Brown in 1970 (Bootsy was 18) and became funk brothers. There was a lot of cross pollination going on in the early 70’s including Bootsy playing with Parliament-Funkadelic after JB.
In the summer of 1968 Emilio Castillo met Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka. Castillo sang and played tenor sax, Doc played bari sax. The legend says Castillo was starting a band and auditioned Doc first in the living room of the family home, and Emilio’s dad told him to ‘hire that guy’ and they became the nucleus of Tower of Power, arguably the greatest and certainly the longest tenured horn band in the business. My favorite part of this story is these two clowns sat down in the Castillo living room and wrote their first song, “You’re Still a Young Man”, one of the most beautiful soul songs ever performed and written, with Mic Gillette (RIP man) on that soaring trumpet solo that defines the beginning of this killer ballad. I wasn’t going to add this audio since it ain’t about funk, but it popped up when I was looking for another title, and, well, it’s a dear friend’s favorite and she’s currently in the hospital. So, for Terri..
Really? Your first song? Little bastards…
I saw TOP a few years back, with Castillo, Doc, Gillette, and Garibaldi. Rocco was sick and another bass player sat in and the result suffered a bit. Vive La Bass Players! But when Gillette started this song there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.
By 1970 the boys had added horns, including Mic Gillette, but especially Rocco Prestia (bass) and David Garibaldi (drums) who became the sweetest rhythm section on the planet Funkify. Garibaldi’s work in particular is fascinating to pick out and listen to. Any drummer will listen to his grooves and be rocked by the style and the sheer slyness of his stick work. Really innovative and along with Rocco lays the bottom to black earth funk and always turning that stanky mud over and over.
Some of my all-time favorite albums featured the Tower of Power horns on studio and especially live performances backing other groups. They were the horn section to get. Elvin Bishop’s Live Raisin’ Hell!, Little Feat’s best album (also live), Waiting for Columbus. Backed so many and varied artists because they were, and still are the shit.
A mention for Clyde Stubblefield, an early James Brown drummer who actually laid the groove for “Cold Sweat” in the studio. We lost Clyde Feb 18 at the ripe drummer age of 74. Thanks Clyde.