- The Washington Times
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tower of Power came out of California in the late 1960s with a wall of sound created by one the best horn bands of the era - a funk sound ahead of its time.

“It was the perfect time for horns and rhythm and blues,” said Emilio Castillo, one of the band’s founding members. “The psychedelic thing had been sort of exhausted. We came in at the tail end of Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but we had this soul thing happening as well, which had been powerful in the 1960s. We had the combination of those two worlds.”

They had such hits as “You’re Still a Young Man” and “So Very Hard to Go” and a great sound that has never been truly matched. You could make the case that they are the all-time house band for soul and funk.

They have a loyal following that still is strong to this day - the band still tours worldwide and on Tuesday appeared at the Rams Head in Annapolis for two shows.

Yet a question about the band has bothered me for several years: What was Dr. Frankenstein doing in the middle of all this?

Among the members of the band who have come and gone over four decades is Victor Conte - yes, the same Victor Conte implicated as Dr. Feelgood in the steroid scandals involving Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, the same Victor Conte who did four months in prison for his conviction on steroids distribution.

The band years mark a bizarre chapter in the story of the BALCO boss, whose name resurfaced recently when Jones cried during her performance as a victim on “Oprah.” His name likely will be front and center again when Bonds goes on trial next spring on perjury charges related to his grand jury testimony about steroid use in the federal BALCO investigation.

This is like finding out Don King was a member of The Four Tops.

Conte wasn’t with Tower of Power long — he played bass with the group for about a year — but his stint was long enough for it to be included in his biography.

He was connected to the band through his cousin Bruce, a guitarist who played with Tower of Power in the early days, left for more than 20 years and returned in 2006, only to leave again after one year.

“We’ve had a lot of stuff like that over the years,” Castillo said in a telephone interview, referring to this strange footnote that thrust the band into the news when the BALCO story broke. “We had a murderer once. He had been out of the band for four years. But we carried the brunt of that.”

That was Rick Stevens, the band’s vocalist and the voice on “You’re Still a Young Man.” He had been out of the band in the early 1980s when he shot three people and went to prison on a double-murder conviction. He still is serving time.

That may have gotten the band unwanted attention in the Bay Area again. But Victor Conte made national headlines, and with those headlines came the inquiries about his connection to Tower of Power.

“My dad once told me no publicity is bad publicity,” Castillo said, laughing. But he wasn’t particularly amused by the unwanted attention and said he doesn’t know anything about Victor Conte the mad scientist.

“We took [the attention] in stride,” Castillo said. “I did one interview about it with the [San Francisco] Chronicle as a favor to a sportswriter friend. But I really didn’t know what was going on. I never did another article. There were calls from People, Rolling Stone, but I turned them down. I don’t know anything about the guy now. He’s a friend, and anything I say will look like gossip.

“I’ve seen Victor about four times since then. We got along fine. We still do.”

Tower of Power celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and have a new studio CD coming out in January, with covers of classic soul tunes made with the help of singers like the great Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame. The band filled up two shows Tuesday night at the Rams Head and finds its audience is not only baby boomers who grew up with the sound, but young people as well.

“A lot of places where we go, there is some teacher at a school or university where they study Tower of Power,” said bassist Rocco Prestia, one of the band’s original members. “We’ve got teachers who will bring their students to sound checks to ask questions and learn. It’s pretty cool.”

And maybe those kids, when they are reading about the sports stars of a generation, like Bonds and Jones and their fall from grace because of steroids, will learn that the driving force behind it was once a member of this legendary band.

“Hey, as long as they are talking about you, right?” Prestia said.

They will talk, because they will be talking about Victor Conte for years to come. He has a book scheduled to come out soon, and he forever will be part of the biggest drug scandal in sports history.

And this, as it appears on Wikipedia, will always be a footnote: “In the 1970s, Conte had played bass guitar in the group Tower of Power.”

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