An Ode to Power

I found myself in the car a lot this past weekend, so I had the opportunity to play some of my music, and play it good and loud. (Those readers with teenaged kids of their own may understand how rare this kind of opportunity is.) And one of the bands that got heavy play on my program was a very old favorite, Oakland’s own, Tower of Power.

[Quick note here: I became a die-hard Tower of Power fan when, in 1972, they played in my high school’s cavernous auditorium. Seen them several times since. Generally better sound.]

Tower was ubiquitous on Bay Area radio when I was a young man, their horns popping, their lead vocals soaring, their rhythms hot and funky. They were unlike other bands of the time. Originals. Real musicians.

And, unlike some of the other bands I lived and died with at the time, they stand careful and repeated play still.

Start with the horns, because they are the soul of the band. The arrangements aren’t complex and fancy. They’re punches in the gut. They’re meant to be. The play is direct and precise. The musicianship is extraordinary. The horns often carry the melody, harmonies and rhythm, all at the same time. The players are craftsmen. They don’t flip and fly through scales. They aren’t trying to impress you; they’re experts and they know it. They let the songs and their play do the talking.

Read liner notes and see how often other bands and artists used the Tower horns on their own recordings. There are none better.

In addition to playing, the horn players often function as a Greek chorus in counterpoint to the lead singer. Listen, especially, to ‘What Is Hip’ and “You’re Still a Young Man,’ Tower mega-hits, to get a sense of these bandmates functioning as interrogators.

Lead vocals carry on the funk tradition of, say, James Brown. You get the feeling that, while some lyrics were penned a priori, what was actually sung was what was felt during recording sessions. A listen to Tower’s live albums pretty much confirms this. Written lyrics seem more like guidelines than laws. It takes a particularly strong voice to sing with horns as the main accompaniment and Tower always had lead vocalists who could do the heavy lifting.

Tower’s drummer was always the timekeeper. Good. Necessary. Never the dynamo some bands had. Same, I feel, with the bass and guitar. Tower of Power isn’t a string band, after all; it’s all about the horns.

Here, the message is in the metal.

Why California Swings Too

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the perfect combination of man-made and natural disasters, the term perfect, not connoting excellence, of course, but perfect in the sense that these two factors built and grew upon each other to reach almost boundless levels of devastation in the Midwest and Great Plains states.

The damage was not solely physical.  Families which had depended on farming the now-buried land were humbled, uprooted, reduced to abject poverty. Foreclosed upon by banks, they began a westward migration of unprecedented size and scope, looking for any sort of work that might be available.

Many of these so-called ‘Okies’ landed in California, pursuing jobs in the growing oil business or in the vast agricultural lands of the state’s valleys; both settings were sadly familiar.

Knowing they’d likely never see their old farms again, the migrants brought all they could carry on the journey – beds, family photos, pots and pans, chairs, quite literally everything. And they brought something else as well, their music.

Thus, Texas (or Western) Swing came to California. And like the cotton and artichokes and tomatoes they toiled over, the Okies’ swing music took root here in California and grew and lasted.

From Bakersfield to Brisbane, clubs opened and attracted headline acts and large crowds of displaced fans of Texas Swing. These amply-muscled oil rig workers and farmhands would wait all week to get paid so they could go down to the local club, meet women, release some pent-up frustration. At Brisbane’s 23 Club, musician Jimmie Rivers recalled, “The music started at 9, fights started at 10.”

Since that time, California has been both home and destination to countless swing bands and artists: Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, ‘Spade’ Cooley, Big Sandy, and many more. Here’s Big Sandy’s version of ‘Tequila Calling.’ We owe a great cultural debt to the migrants who brought their music here.

Swing on, California; swing on.

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