The Funkiest Doctor on the planet, Doc Kupka, The mighty Tower of Power

By admin on July 22, 2018

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) —  In the summer of 1968, tenor saxophonist/vocalist Emilio Castillo met Stephen “Doc” Kupka, who played baritone sax. Castillo had played in several bands, but Castillo’s father told his son to, “Hire that guy,” after a home audition. Together, they became the backbone of Tower of Power. Within months the group, then known as The Motowns, began playing various gigs around Oakland and Berkeley, their soul sound relating to both minority and rebellious listeners. Castillo wanted to play Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, but he realized he would never get in with a name like The Motowns. The band agreed on Tower of Power and the name stuck.

Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka has established himself as a preeminent songwriter of the first order, in addition to touring the world for over 49 years with the legendary East Bay Soul band, Tower of Power.

In the 1990’s Doc realized that he was producing far more great songs than Tower of Power could record and formed Strokeland Records with the help of Andy Ebon in 1998. Doc’s first Strokeland project was, “Kick It Up a Step,” a great collection of original songs in the early Tower of Power style, and Strokeland Records was off and running.

Since then, Doc has produced a collection of releases, including, “Doc Goes Hollywood,” a departure from his trademark East Bay Soul style, featuring his original songs in the style of the Great American Songbook that he had dreamed of recording for years. “Doc Goes Hollywood” paired Doc with William Ross, music director for Barbra Streisand and first-call Hollywood film composer and arranger, who arranged and conducted a live orchestra for the project.

Doc said in his official TOP Biography:

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! 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! 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 its 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, But that’s Tower of Power.



In 2016, Doc called on Ray Greene, former Tower of Power lead singer, and produced, “Nature Doesn’t Legislate,” a socially-conscious collection of songs that continue his legacy of first-rate songwriting and working with the very best musicians.

Doc said, “On the new record, there are clever songs like Football After Church, I Guess the Old Folks Were Right After All and Virtual Reality Heaven. 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.”

Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, lifelong TOP friend had an opportunity to speak with Doc as he was on his way to a gig with Drummer Supreme Herman Mathews at the wheel.

AC: If you were to write a song today about your life with TOP what would be the title?

DOC: After 49 years, I have written hundreds of songs, if fact that is what I do in my spare time. I write songs of all styles and genres, for example I have a few country tunes, “Does He hear my drunken prayer?” and, “Two income Families down to One”.So, If I did write a song about my life with Tower of Power it would be something like, “It takes more than talent” …

AC: Regarding lyrics, you are known to carry a little note pad for phases that can be interesting, urban and lyrical, how did that all come about, do you still have you ear to the street?

DOC: My Mom was good with words, I may have gotten that from her. Back in the beginning I had a mentor named Ervin Moore, he was good with words as well, this is how I came up with, “Knock yourself out” and “On the serious side”. I am working on a song with Roger Smith called, “Where the Melody Be at?”

AC: What do you want fans to know about you that they really don’t know?

DOC: I am really into The Great American song tract type of tunes, we pursued that genre in some of our Strokeland productions. I’m a pretty simple guy, when I’m not on the road, I write music all the time, go to recovery meetings and drive around in my Toyota Camry, (I love my Camry) Always writing down cool one liners, Huge Oakland Raider fan, I have a friend in the organization who keeps me in the loop. Enjoy spending time with my wife of 27 years Yvonne and my Son.

AC: History is written by the survivors, you are a survivor, how do you remember former band brothers as Mic Gillette, Skip Mesquite, Rufus Miller, most recently Edward McGee?

DOC: They each played a role in the band and in my life and I miss them and respect them for being a part of our journey. The passing that impacted me the most was Mic Gillette, he was a friend, collaborator, incredible musician, (who got nervous allot) Guess all things happen the way they are supposed to, we just do our best to keep going forward. When cats leave the band, we have always been fortunate to get new players who bring something exiting to the table. Our new singer Marcus is a good example of this.

AC: You speak of Huey Lewis saving your career, what part did Bill Graham play in the bands success?

DOC: Huey took us out in the 80s when we were down but never out, Emilio even had a day job. He took out us out on three world tours. He would talk up the band from stage, we would bring the rhythm section and play little club dates along the way. Bill Graham literally made our career, he signed us mentored us along the way, we would not have happened if it wasn’t for Bill, in fact I named my son after him, that is how much I appreciated the man.

AC: Mic told me the turning point for the horn section was working with Sir Elton John, I understand from Mimi that they used your horn-scoops on Get Back Honky cat, is that true, what was doing those sessions like?

DOC: The Elton John sessions made us legitimate recording professionals, the horn section was given serious respect and we started getting calls to sit in with lots of major acts.

AC: Over the years TOP has lost cats like Ray Green, Chester Thompson, David Mathews to Santana, Larry Braggs to The Temptations, Brent Carter to Average White band, how do you feel about this?

DOC: Santana took us out back in the day, he helped us out, I guess we had a chance to help him out by him getting Chester Thompson and more recently Ray Greene. TOP can be a training ground for other good gigs. I am still very close to Brent Carter who is doing great with The Average White band.

AC: If you were not in TOP what band would you have loved to be in? Memorable collaborations?

DOC: James Brown, Otis Redding, Howard Tate, classing R&B acts. We have played with The Rolling Stones, Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt, the list goes on. I’ve sat in with Bruce Springsteen, some award shows.

AC: Most memorable gigs?

DOC: We did The Rose Bowl with the USC marching band, opened for the Rolling Stones in Cleveland, Headlined the Oakland Coliseum with Gladys Knight and The Pips, so many and we are still doing it.

AC: I’m told by industry people that the best shot Tower of Power has to make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the Horn Section. How do you feel about this, why do you think the RRHOF is so selective?

DOC: We know the Rock and Roll Hall of fame people, allot has to do with selling tables for 2,500 bucks to friends and family members. If we had say Sir Paul McCarthy, Sir Elton John, heavyweights like that calling the RRHF and saying they want TOP in, it could work to our advantage. Look at a big act like Journey and how long it took them to get in? What is good for us is Chicago just got in and they are a horn band, so you never know, but on the real, what we do, we do for the fans. We have musical longevity.

AC: Shifting gears a little, how were you impacted by David Garibaldi’s serious accident, how did that go down what was your reaction?

DOC: It was like a bad acid trip, we were ready to gig, suddenly we heard sirens and screaming, we heard some guys got hit by a train, we the were told it was DG and Mark, the bass player who was filling in for Rocco, we cancelled the gig right then and there. DG is getting better is seems that there is no medical protocol for surviving getting hit by a train, Mark got it worse than DG, buy hey, they got hit by a train! DG is the most in shape cat in the band, he works out is a runner, eats right, a strong guy. I understand has another eye procedure scheduled and he has said, he hopes to be back around November.

AC: Facebook friends and fans want to know about your record label Strokeland records, what can they expect from the label in the upcoming year?

DOC: I’m working with Jeff Tamalier on a new album, doing a Frank Biner 2 album CD. Been working with a Hollywood heavyweight William Ross on a few things. Would really like to get some of the Strokeland music licensed to TV and Movie projects.

AC: What would you like to say to your fans?

DOC: Thank you for coming to see us live, we will keep doing it to the best of our ability, your love loyalty and friendship inspires us to keep on keeping on. Please leave comments on my Facebook page, I read everything!

AC: What would you like your legacy to be, how would you like history to remember you?

DOC: A guy who wrote great songs, who loved the music and worked hard at making it happen.

Philly Brian Rachlin & Leo Sacks Contributed to this article

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