Doc, Then, and Now (Current Photos: Tony Harding)
Stephen "Doc" Kupka: Baritone Sax
Love is patient and kind. That’s my philosophy. Making things better for you if you’ve been to our show– that gives me a joyous feeling. It’s a beautiful thing and I know it was meant to be. Having a vibrant career that meets my creative and artistic needs also brings me joy. And being this old -- that really works me! (Laughs). The sum for us has always been greater than the parts. Because when we click there isn’t a band in the world that can beat us. It’s us veterans getting that charge from the young guys – they’ve really kept us old guys going!
Way back then, I never thought this far ahead! It was a different kind of one day at a time! (Laughs). So when the band celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1993, I started thinking about what our longevity has meant to me, how we could keep this thing going. That’s when you start treading on iconic turf – like eligibility for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Some musicians are great at jazz but can’t play rhythm-and-blues. We’ve enjoyed the best from both worlds. Over the years I loved playing with so many guys, especially Lenny Pickett, Chester Thompson, Mic Gillette and Greg Adams. And I think our current configuration is one of our best, ever.
I’m proud of so many things. I’m proud of the way the horn section evolved with Greg’s horn arrangements, and the fact that we rarely deviated from our sound, or copped to trends. The horn section has always had it’s own style, its own character -- cutting the notes short, snapping them off, clicking and bumping against the rhythm section. Technically speaking, it’s not the way you’re supposed to play (Laughs.) But that’s Tower of Power.
Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., I loved the Coasters’ “Searchin’” and Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.” My dream was always to play well and write some good songs, like “What Is Hip?,” “Only So Much Oil,” “Recapture The Magic,” “So Very Hard To Go” and “Willing To Learn.” At first I wrote more of the music, but over time I’ve written more of the lyrics. It’s funny, before it was like play – now it’s more like work – but it’s good work!
It doesn’t take me much to get up for show time! There have been so many highlights. Opening for Aretha and King Curtis. Jamming with Bruce Springsteen and Huey. Playing during the last days of the Fillmore West. When Prince said he lost his virginity to “You’re Still A Young Man,” that was a big thrill. But the little things are more anecdotal – having done it for a long time, that’s the big kick. As for the lean times…well, there wasn’t anywhere else to go! It’s easy to get lost in the sauce – liquor, dope, women, the spotlight. It’s easy to get hung up on peripheral things. If I hadn’t gotten clean and sober I wouldn’t be making music with Tower of Power, and I’m grateful for that second chance. To be respected, and to have fun doing it – that’s where it’s at. People who make music secondarily usually aren’t around for long.
When everything got better I appreciated it so much more. Don’t take anything for granted, it’s all so fleeting – that was the biggest lesson. Huey Lewis single-handedly revived our career, and I’m eternally grateful for that. Getting David (Garibaldi) back -- what a major turning point that was. Also, being vigilant about the business -- it doesn’t matter how well you play if you don’t take care of that. So the future is friendly, especially if we get a couple of breaks – a song in a high-profile movie, let’s say, or if one of the stars from the teenage set swears allegiance to the band!
What I’m hearing on the radio today doesn’t do much for me. It’s not good or bad – I’m just indifferent to songs with attitude and R-rated words that aren’t even clever. Where are the distinct voices? Where is the artistry? Let me put it this way: I’m writing a song called “Where The Melody B At?”
I’d compare us to the great big bands in that we’ve got our own style, we’ve been doing it a long time and there’s no end in sight! The Tower fans are getting younger, especially overseas – that’s a good sign. Our baby boomer fans are starting to take their grandkids to the concerts. I don’t know if it’s a spiritual or emotional connection we’ve kept alive for them, but our shows are kicking ass! (Laughs.) I’m grateful that kids today are digging live music more than sampled music -- that’s a big change from 10 years ago and really stimulates me to make the best music I can.
Being on top of the world when we’re smoking – it’s a magical feeling. I’m blessed to have my relationships with Emilio (Castillo), who’s taught me so much about soul music, and David and Rocco (Prestia) who make everything look so easy. As long as we have Tower people playing Tower rhythms, and horn players who know how to play tight – and we have a good vocalist -- Tower of Power will be all right.
All band member biographies were compiled by Leo Sacks.
Leo Sacks is a freelance record producer in New York. With Emilio Castillo, he co-wrote “Happy ‘Bout That” and “Stranger In My Own House” for Tower of Power’s Oakland Zone (Or Music, 2003), and the bonus track “Nothing Like It” for the European edition.