- Tim's Tower of Power Page -

"Soul Recollections & Reflections"
or... "Confessions of a T.O.P. Junkie"

This page is dedicated to the many past & present members of the band Tower of Power for making the world a better place with their inimitable brand of soul music, & even more so to their die-hard fans, the legions of loyal & faithful Bumpsters whose numbers grow larger every day. I’m proud of my longtime association with the band & hope these little stories make some of you smile & perhaps give a glimpse inside “The band that made Oakland famous”.











2000-2001 & BEYOND


I first heard TOP at a party in '72. A friend had just purchased "East Bay Grease" and, especially since he was a drummer, he was very excited about this new band. The rhythms, the horns--everything about them knocked me out, especially the tune “Knock Yourself Out”. Immediately, my drummer friend and I (we played in a local Top 40 bar band together) started emulating the TOP grooves and inserting them in the “boring” pop songs we were playing on the gig, much to the annoyance of the other less funk-inclined band members. But, hey!—I was on the road to “funkdom” and it was all Tower’s fault.


My first contact with the band was in '74 at a Seattle recording studio formerly know as Kaye-Smith (owned at the time by actor/comedian Danny Kaye and Lester Smith, owner of KJR radio station in Seattle). I was recording with a local band and, down the hall, TOP was recording "Back to Oakland". I first met Bruce Conte that day--he was in the lounge, trading guitar licks with a local guitarist, Paul Anderson, from a band called Acapulco Gold (they were also laying down tracks there). I introduced myself to Bruce and listened for awhile. He and Paul were both burning; it seemed like they were playing every lick they knew. I then wandered down the hall and peeked in on Emilio, who was mixing background vocals for the song "Time Will Tell". He was fully absorbed in the job at hand and didn’t notice me, so I stood there for quite a spell, soaking it in. It was an exciting day for me, though, little did I realize at the time, I was watching a little piece of history being made. Nor did I realize that my future would include being friends with TOP, writing songs with them and actually getting to tour with the band.

Fortunately for me, Tower performed in Seattle a lot, playing mostly at Parker's Ballroom (also known as The Aquarius Tavern in the '70's, then Parker's Restaurant), but somehow, I never had a chance to see them live until 1980-81. The first version I saw had Michael Jeffries on vocals, Vito San Fillipo on bass, Mark Sanders on drums and I believe Willie Fulton had rejoined the band by that time. I’m glad I got to see the band with Lenny Pickett on lead tenor at least once, in his sequined tux doing his trademark twirling dance. I can't remember if Chester Thompson was still with the band (I think so) but the next year when I saw them, Dave Matthews was on B3 and synthesizer.

WANNA SIT IN? - 1982

In 1982, after seeing my first live TOP show at Parker's the year before, my band, The Reputations, was backing up a local female singer named Bernadette Bascom (who, coincidentally had been the singer in that band "Acapulco Gold"). We were hired to open for Tower at Parkers and I got real excited about that because it meant that I could watch the boys up close and personal and perhaps meet some of them. It was a two-night gig, Friday/Saturday and, during the first number where I got a chance to sing, I looked over and half of Tower was standing in the wings, watching me. I was singing an old Blood, Sweat & Tears/ Al Kooper song called "I Love You (More Than You'll Ever Know" (the Donny Hathaway version). After our set, Doc and Emilio both came over to me and complimented me on my voice, which was such a huge rush for me--I didn't come down until the next day. I was struck by how nice everyone in the band was--they all made a point of coming over to me & congratulating myself and the band on our performance--both nights!

By this time, Chester Thompson had left to join Santana and Dave Matthews was on keyboards, Willie Fulton had rejoined the band on guitar. On Saturday night, Michael Jeffries warned me that he might call me to the stage for their encore, which he did. Unfortunately, it turned out to be "What Is Hip", which I didn't know the lyrics to at the time, so I only sang the choruses and there was a lot of dead air during the verses (Michael had drawn a blank trying to help me with the verse lyrics--oops). This was my first embarrassing moment with Tower of Power, but not the last time, for sure.

That weekend, Doc and I hit it off big time--the beginning of a friendship that has lasted 20 years. We talked about music, listened to music and had a blast. After that, whenever they came to town, he would call and come over to hang. If I wasn't working, I would come to the show.


TOP came back to Seattle the next year, 1983, and I had to work that night but--I had a plan. A close friend of mine was having a 40th birthday party after my gig got over and I was going over to join in an informal late-night jam session. I had spoken to Doc and he said to come pick him up on my way to the party--he had a surprise for me! The surprise was--Rocco! He was back in the band and was coming to the party to hang out. They got in the van and Doc turned to me and said "Timmy, I want you to meet my pal, Francis Rocco Prestia, the original bass player in Tower of Power. The Rock is BACK". Doc was obviously very pleased that his buddy, The Rock, was back and we hung out all night, playing and talking about music. Rocco was such a warm, open guy and we became pals immediately, so then I had two great friends in the band. It was daylight when I dropped them off at their hotel but we three were in agreement..."A good time was had by all".

For the next couple of years, whenever TOP was in town, I would engineer it for them to show up at whatever local gig I had in Seattle after their show and have as many members sit in with my band as possible, including Doc, Greg Adams, Lee Thornburg (who had replaced Mic Gillette by this time) and whoever else would come. We usually were at The Scarlet Tree, where my horn band The Reputations was the house band. On one visit, Emilio and I went down to Larry’s Greenfront, a bar in Pioneer Square and sat in with the band there. He sang “You’re Gonna Need Me” by Albert King, an old slow blues that the band had been doing on and off for years. He was great. I was beginning to make real friendships with Doc, Emilio and Rocco and they were the nicest cats, always very supportive of what I was doing and just regular guys. Plus, they had great stories! I was having the time of my life.

 BACK TO L.A. - 1985

In 1985, I moved back to Los Angeles, having lived there for a year in 1974. I made a trip down in October of '84 to scope out the scene and do some networking. As fortune would have it, Tower was performing at The Palomino in North Hollywood, a notorious country & western bar that would mix musical genres and had great national acts frequently. It doesn't exist anymore but you can see it if you rent the Clint Eastwood movie "Every Which Way But Loose". I called Doc and Rocco and arranged to come see them at the gig. Blues singer/ guitarist Kal David, whom I remembered from a band called The Fabulous Rhinestones, was opening for them and I struck up a relationship with Kal that night that I still treasure today. Tower had just lost their latest singer (Ellis Hall) but the band was on fire as usual. At a party after the gig, Emilio was lamenting to me the loss of Ellis as lead vocalist and I couldn't help but wish I could see and hear this talented man that Mimi respected so much. I couldn't have known then that I'd get that chance & then some.

I went back to Seattle and started making preparations to move in the summer, September to be exact. As soon as I got to town, I called Doc and Rocco, hooking up for another show at The Palomino. This time, Ellis was back and I immediately heard what Emilio was talking about when he said Ellis was the best they ever had. The guy was burnin', singing, dancing, playing keys, guitar, bass and drums--and-- completely blind. Emilio would lead him up the stage, turn him loose and the fireworks would begin!


Emilio has referred to this period in the band’s history as the dark period—they couldn’t get signed to any kind of deal, there were personnel changes, drug problems, health problems and legal problems. The same was true for myself & a lot of the musicians we knew—kind of a combination of popular music in general taking a sharp left turn & our lifestyles catching up with us. That being said, there were still some great things that happened for the band and I was privileged enough to be a part of some of it.

Although the band wasn’t signed, they still wrote and recorded--some cool tunes came out of this period, a few of which finally surfaced on the “Dinosaur Tracks” CD. “Credit”, “Move You Lose” & a personal favorite of mine, “Can’t You Feel It?”, written and arranged by Chester Thompson, are excellent examples of that music. Also, a song that Emilio wrote with a mutual friend, David Woodford, came out of that period called “Way Low to the Ground”. Sax player Mark Russo left somewhere in here and was replaced with Richard Elliott. Guitarist Danny Jacob from Sheena Easton’s band replaced Willie Fulton. The band still continued to work and tour some, just not enough to pay everybody’s bills. The horns were getting a fair amount of recording work and they began to tour with Huey Lewis & the News. To try and keep morale and earnings up for the rhythm section, Rocco starting booking the rhythm section in nightclubs around the L.A. area, calling it Tower Rhythm Section or TRS.

Ellis Hall was back in the band and served as lead singer and keyboardist—tearing it up! Rocco was on bass, Willie Fulton on guitar and Mark Craney had replaced Mick Mestek on drums, later to be replaced by a very young Steve Monreal. The band was augmented by a young player named Mitch Riley on sax and a luscious black woman named Johnnie Fiore on vocals. They played every Monday at Josephina’s in Sherman Oaks and I was there every week to sit in—it was part Tower, part jam session. To help bolster the business at the club, when the horns were in town, they would come down and play for free and it would be an actual Tower show but, for business reasons, they couldn’t advertise it as Tower of Power. That meant that it was a special treat for anyone who showed up, unaware that they were getting the Full Deal. Occasionally, someone of repute would come in and sit in with the band, which might be good or not-so-good. I remember one night when Bruce Willis came in. He was starring in the TV show “Moonlighting” at the time and also making records with a local backup band called “The Heaters”. He wanted to sit in on harmonica and sing a couple of songs and was pacing around the club. Rocco, who wasn’t easily impressed with “stardom” didn’t want him to play and the more insistent Bruce became, the more adamant Rocco was that he wouldn’t let him. And so it was that Bruce and his entourage stormed out of Josephina’s, never to return (at least on a Monday night). Ellis left TOP necessitating replacement of both lead singer and keyboardist for TRS as well. Rocco installed me as the male lead singer and a young player named Paul (can't remember his last name) on keys. Also, when Willie Fulton left Tower, he left TRS too and was replaced by a guitarist named Gary Cambria and then Danny Jacob, Zeke Zirngiebel and finally, Carmen Grillo. During this time, the band finally snagged a deal with a foreign label to make “TOP”, later released in the states on Cypress Records as “Power’ and began recording at The Complex. I got to go with Doc to the studio a few times to watch the album being recorded. It seemed like things were finally in an up-swing for the fellas. This album later spawned a music video for the song “Credit’, although personnel changes by that time had new members lip-syncing parts that had been recorded by previous members.


So the horns were in full swing, touring with Huey Lewis and getting some good exposure for TOP. Huey even started performing one of their tunes, “It’s as Simple as That”, and ended up recording and releasing it (I forget which album it’s on). The horns were also doing his records. At the time, I would get together and write songs with Doc when he was in town and we started on a song I had been working on. It was little more than a short chord progression and guitar riff—I was trying to write something “Toweresque”. Doc liked it and came up with a working title “What a Way to Make a Buck”. It was going to be an expose’ of sorts, a rant about the music business and how hard it was for musicians—something I could relate to. Well, we got started on it and he called me one day and said “Timmy—change of plans! I just got a new hook from Skip (Van Winkl—a B3 player friend of ours who made some records as “Teagarden & Van Winkle”). It’s gonna be called “You’ve Got to Keep Your Monster on a Leash”! I said okay and we started pounding it out, little by little, we got it done but it still needed a bridge. The next time the horns went out with Huey, Doc came back and called me—“Huey wrote a bridge for us. It’s perfect! He’s gonna record our song on his next album!”

Wow, I thought. I just wrote a song with TOP and Huey Lewis is going to release it on his next record—here we go! Doc did an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle and announced that Huey would record “Monster on a Leash—there it was in print!

Well, as things in this business often do, that fell apart and I was disappointed to learn that our song got bumped (music politics) by a song co-written with an old band mate of Huey’s from the Bay Area band, Clover. The song was titled “Bobo Tempo”. I was crushed. Ironically, a few years later, I started seeing an L.A. chiropractor named Dr. John Ciambotti—a fellow bass player who has played with Elvis Costello, Dylan, Lucinda Williams and, yes, Clover with Huey Lewis. As it turns out, my chiropractor was the co-writer on the song that bumped my song off the Huey album—Bobo Tempo!!! Oy vey!

Meanwhile, after the TOP album "Power" came and went with not much notice, Ellis Hall left again--this time, for good. Emilio didn’t replace him but worked dates without keyboards and with himself up front. Around this time, I auditioned for Tower as lead singer. I took my lunch hour off from a day gig I was doing and went by the rehearsal studio. I sang 3 songs, one of which I recall was "So Very Hard to Go". Everyone was nice, of course--they were all my friends. But then, Emilio, with a chuckle, says "Well, I guess we know you'll never be the singer for Tower of Power". I was crushed! What a mean way to say "You didn't get the gig". Later that night, I was over at Rocco's when Emilio came by and apologized, saying he hadn't meant it the way it sounded--only that he didn't think my voice was right for the band. I was still disappointed but over the years, I've come to understand that it's probably the hardest chair in that band--Tower chews up lead singers and spits them out. It was probably a blessing in disguise. Besides, I've gotten to sing with the band on many occasions and it's always been an honor and a lot of fun.

Guitarist Danny Jacob left, replaced by my former band mate Zeke Zirngiebel, who had played with some diverse artists like Warren Zevon and Nina Hagen. Zeke did a good job for them but wasn’t quite the soulmeister they were looking for so his tenure was short. He did appear in the video they made for “Credit” however. The band was just treading water at this point but they did have one memorable gig that my friend Sal and I traveled to The Bay to see—TOP opening for Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble for New Years Eve at the Oakland Armory. That was an especially memorable night because organist Chester Thompson, who had left the band for a new career with Santana, was Tower’s special guest star that night. It was refreshing to hear the band with B3 once again and really special because I had never heard the band with Chester before. Smokin’—it was a great night!

When Josephina’s closed down unexpectedly, TRS simply moved down Ventura Blvd. (following our friend the bartender, who would get a job at the next bar and immediately install the TRS jam night). It was the Ventura Shuffle--Josie’s, Sasch, Ten Pesos and The Coconut Teaser in LA. We also played some dates in Benicia, San Diego & Newport Beach. Ultimately, after Emilio made wholesale personnel changes in TOP, Rocco laid TRS to rest. The new Tower added all relatively young players, Carmen Grillo from Rita Coolidge’s band on guitar and vocals, Russ McKinnon on drums, Nick Milo on keyboards, Steve Grove (now smooth jazz artist Euge Groove) on saxophone and Tom Bowes on lead vocals. With new, young blood in the band, Tower was poised to sign a new record deal with Sony/Epic, which turned into a 7 or 8 record deal, beginning with…yes, their first Sony album featured the song that Doc and I wrote, “Monster on a Leash”, as the title cut. TOP’s career, as well as my own, was back on track. My song was sung by trumpeter, Lee Thornburg, who was a founding member of the band I’ve been with since 1992—Jack Mack & the Heart Attack. I was verrry excited!

At the same time, Rocco wanted to continue with our TRS vibe playing around LA, so we resurrected TRS as “Flexx”. This new band featured our buddy Sal Polcino, who was a co-writer on 4 songs on Rocco’s “Everybody on the Bus” CD, on guitar, Tom McMorran from Tom Scott’s band on keyboards, tenor saxophonist Dave McLaurin and a drummer who ultimately joined TOP some years later, Herman Matthews. This was a much more powerful, musically adept and funky band than TRS—we really slammed and went on extended jams. Picking right up where we left off, we continued down Ventura Blvd, playing at Bangers, Catch 21 and Something’s Fishy (a sushi joint). The only problem was, everybody in the band was so busy playing and touring with other projects, it became a real nightmare trying to sub out band members, even with a pretty good book of charts to fall back on. Eventually, Flexx was retired as well. Years later (2001), Rocco and I tried it one more time with “Hip Street”, named for an instrumental written by Chester Thompson which appeared on the Urban Renewal album. This band again had Tom McMorran on keys, as well as former and latest TOP addition, Bruce Conte, on guitar. Fun while it lasted.

I’ll always be proud that a song I started writing as a TOP-style tune ended
up as the title cut on a Tower of Power album, a song I still receive royalties for. I encourage all TOP fans to purchase several copies of Monster on a Leash and download it off the Internet often. I need the money!   :o)






T.O.P Photos

Old TOP Tour luggage tag from Mimi

All Access Backstage Pass for the TOP '94 West Coast Summer Tour

Flipside of luggage tag

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Tim with Phil Upchurch and Bruce Conte

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Tim with
Steve Cropper
"We Came To Play", remix engineer on "Bump City")

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Emilio and Doc
from T.O.P

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Tim with
Tower of Power

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Tim with Tower of Power 2

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Tim in TRS (Tower Rhythm Section) with guest stars

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Tim in TRS (Tower Rhythm Section) with guest stars

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Tim in TRS (Tower Rhythm Section) with guest stars

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