Tower of Power's Brass Master
Legendary multi-instrumentalist Mic Gillette continues to shine as a band leader, session player and music teacher
Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Anytime you hear the horn introduction on the Tower of Power hit 'You Are Still a Young Man' it is brass master Mic Gillette taking you on that journey. He helped launch the TOP horn section into the stratosphere as they have performed, complimented and made their own name in the Who's Who of contemporary music.
Published on LatinoLA: January 6, 2016
Music critics around the world say Mic's horn introduction are arguably the four most famous notes on trumpet in the history of Rock & Roll.
A child prodigy, Gillette picked up the trumpet and was reading music by age four. At 15, he joined the Gotham City Crime Fighters (which later evolved into the Tower of Power) playing both trumpet and trombone (as well as baritone and tuba). Gillette took a brief break from Tower of Power to tour and record with the band Cold Blood but re-joined Tower of Power a year later, hitting the road and opening for Santana and Credence Clearwater Revival.
As its reputation as a premier horn band grew, Tower of Power toured with Heart, Rod Stewart, and The Rolling Stones, among others. In addition, Gillette has appeared on hundreds of recordings as a session player. In 1984, fearing that his daughter Megan would not recognize him, Gillette quit touring to be a full-time father.
In 1998, shortly after joining the Sons of Champlin, he missed one of their concerts due to a split lip. According to Mic himself, he had split his lip due to not playing for fourteen years after leaving Tower of Power. He spent those years running a landscaping business in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Married (to Julia), Gillette suffered a heart attack (reportedly, his daughter saved his life) and has vowed to get and stay healthy. He has toured and recorded with The Doobie Brothers (appearing on the Doobie's Live At Wolf Trap DVD), Blood, Sweat & Tears and Santana, and has released a children's album Newvo Kids (1995) and a solo CD entitled Ear Candy (2005) on the BKA Records label. He is also featured on "Hip Li'l Dreams," a disc of originals released by the Sons of Champlin in 2005.
After a 25-year absence, Mic Gillette rejoined Tower of Power (August 2009) for touring, replacing Mike Bogart. After just more than a year and a half (February 14, 2011), Gillette departed Tower of Power once again.
Gillette now continues to do session work as well as live appearances but he spends most of his time doing clinics at middle and high schools. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for music departments in schools across the United States.
Fulfilling a long-time dream to assemble his own band, he brought together Megan Gillette McCarthy, Clinton Day, Ryan Habegger, Mark Foglia, Jason Stewart and Andr?®s Soto to create MGB, the Mic Gillette Band.
Megan is Mic's one and only daughter, a vocalist/percussionist, and is a published songwriter and singer on her family's album Newvo Kids. She has also had the opportunity to play percussion on stage with Little Feat, Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson and The Doobie Brothers. She is a percussionist on Mic Gillette's Ear Candy album in 2008.
Mic's album Moon Doggy, as the name suggests, brings an assortment of funky flavors and textures to this uniquely diverse collection of tunes. Got to Give it Up written by Marvin Gaye is a tribute to Gillette's soulful influences and background. From the well-known TOP ballad So Very Hard to Go featuring Megan, to Don't Let the Door Hitcha (a high-energy original East Bay R & B tune featuring a phat horn section with tuba) this CD features some the finest saxophone players alive including Marc Russo, George Brooks, and Paul Contos.
Check him out at http://www.micgillette.com/
Dr. Al Carlos has known Mic off and on since the 70's and, like Robin Williams said, "If you really remember the 70's, you were not really there."
Here is our long overdue conversation.
AC: Tell us about your dad, how he inspired you to play music, and your musical family.
MG: My father, Ray Gillette Jr, would have had a much different life had he not chosen to be a family man first and a musician second. He combined both by having all four of his children become horn players, two brass and two reeds. Add to this my grandmother, Caroline Gillette, was a very accomplished pianist (she played piano accompaniment to silent movies in grand theaters. My grandfather, Ray Sr, sat next to her on the piano bench and gave her clues what kind of music to play and when. She was a banjo/ukulele player (just for fun) and she later switched to organ and became president of the Bay Area Hammond Organ Society in the 1950's. My dad wrote special arrangements for five horns with organ accompaniment and the Gillette family band would play every year at the Hammond Organ picnic on Mt Diablo in the East Bay.
My father played with the Oakland Weldonians musical organization growing up and he was known far and wide as a master trombonist. He played with many big bands in his younger days and was offered lead spots in several big touring bands, but those were normally six month bus tours for very little money. Instead he married my mother, Mary Frances Kelley, and got a day job. He stayed put and played with some of the name traveling bands as they came through San Francisco.
For me, playing music was as natural as falling off a log.
AC: What was the moment when you decided to be a musician? Tell us about your very first performance?
MG: Three weeks after I turned five years old, my father, a WWII Veteran, was asked to get a trumpet/bugler to play Taps at a Memorial Day ceremony in a large cemetery in Fremont, CA. He found a local boy who was in high school and offered him $10 to play for the ceremony - in 1956 this guy was thrilled to do it.
Then a couple of days before Memorial Day he thought it would be cool to show me how to play an echo part behind a headstone, out of view. He stood a few feet away and subtly directed me. It created a kind of spooky effect because none of the people there could see where it was coming from.
At the conclusion, the director of the ceremonies walked over to the high school trumpeter and handed him $10. Then I came walking out from behind the headstone and they all saw where the echo had come from. I was certainly not expecting to get any money for this, it was just a cool thing to do, but the Veterans all came over to me and each one handed me a dollar bill. I soon had to hand my trumpet to my dad so I could handle the money. Soon I was standing there with $25 in my hands.
I looked at my father and told him right then and there that I was going to be a trumpet player when I grew up. I have always known what I would be. My friends all wanted to be a cowboy, a baseball player, a fireman, etc. To the best of my knowledge, none of them did.
AC: What kind music has inspired you? What do you listen to now? Still a TOP fan?
MG: First it was Dixieland music, playing with my dad and his buddies, then on to the old jazz standards.I have so much music going on in my head, most of the time I don't play the radio or CDs.
My favorite Tower of Power music was during the formative years when we were building and innovating and sharing the creativity that made us what we were. Even with the few original members that are with the band today, the band's best efforts are spent recreating things we did 45 years ago. It sounds like the best of the many Tower cover bands that are all over the world today. Full of great musicians but I have trouble sitting through an entire show.
AC: You are a strong supporter of music in schools so what was high school like for you? Were you cool, popular, athletic?
MG: I went to Mission San Jose HS in Fremont, California in the heart of the East Bay. My older brother Pete and my sister Karen were both strong section leaders and Pete was also in the jazz band. By my second year I was leading and writing arrangements for our pep band and played lead trumpet in the jazz band all four years. By the middle of my sophomore year I joined a band called the Gotham City Crime Fighters and was playing gigs every weekend. I went from being the band geek to being the coolest kid in the school when we won a Pepsi Battle of the Bands contest hosted by the Sons of Champlin. Played many different sports and did well but the music overcame everything.
AC: Tell us how you hooked up with Emilio and Doc of Tower of Power at such a young age and what was that first meeting like.
MG: A buddy and fellow trumpet player, Ken Balzell, from across town asked me to come sit in with the GCCF and the drummer/leader was Jack Castillo, one of the best musicians in town. I was writing music and conducting the band for the Miss Fremont beauty pageant along with my Dad and Herman Mesquite, Skip's Dad. Emilio was doing the singing and playing a little Vox Continental organ and we were doing a lot of somewhat obscure soul tunes where horns has a solid part. This was 1966.
I talked Mimi into playing some sax, which he had done in school and we were off and running. Doc showed up in 1968 and we went to five horns. I remember being a little stiff when the guys in the band wanted the horns to do dance steps but I caught the bug and it made the grooves more solid.
AC: What were the various incarnations of the band in its early day? I'm guessing it was The Extension 5, then the Gotham City Crime Fighters, then The Motowns? Tell us a little about each incarnation and how things changed.
MG: I met Rocco first when we were about ten or eleven years old and played on a little league baseball team together. He was called Frank, or Butchie in those days.
The Extension 5 was before my time. That was when Rocco switched from guitar to bass. Then they changed the name to the GCCF and recorded Who Stole the Batmobile. It was not a big hit. Jack would dress up like Batman and Mimi, Rocco and guitarist Jody Lopez all dressed up in Robin costumes.
The organ was the 'Bat Computer' and the guitar and bass amps were in the 'Batcave.' I joined right when they quit wearing the costumes. We changed our name to the Black Orpheus for about a year and for most of that time I was the only horn (trumpet/flugalhorn) in the band. Then we brought in my childhood friend Skip Mesquite and the horn section started to grow. Next we changed our name to the Motowns and with Doc, went to five horns. After Doc added his songwriting skills and started writing for the band we knew we would have to change our name again so in 1968 we changed our name for the last time to the Tower of Power.
Last huge change came when we were shopped by David Rubinson who produced East Bay Grease. I had been asked to join in for Cold Blood's first album as lead trumpet as the horn section were all friends of mine. When I went to the session I brought Doc and Mimi with me so they proceeded to bend Rubinson's ear while I was blazing on top of that strong horn section. This was 1969.
We were soon signed to Bill Graham's San Francisco Records along with Cold Blood.
AC: As a founding member of Tower of Power, what did you bring to TOP and how has that legacy continued?
MG: I believe that my horn strength and Doc's height were strong contributing factors to why we chose that name. We didn't really come up with it; it was on a huge list of potential band names thought up by a friend of the band. And after Doc joined, I started playing trombone as well and that definitely had some impact on the power of the horn section. I was also did a great deal of the arranging and most of what you hear on East Bay Grease were my lines, but instead of writing them down, we all pretty much understood what voicing to use with the Bari on the bottom and the trumpet on top. Those same stylized voicing are what the band uses today. Then the horns started to play tighter and crisper and we really firmly established what funk horns are all about. I'm very proud of that.
AC: I was actually there when you first played as TOP at the Berkeley Community Theatre when opening for Hendrix. What do you remember about that gig?
MG: Bill Graham had taken us under his wing and thought it would be a great venue and show for us. He had just signed us to his record label and Berkeley was pretty much our hometown at this point, so it made sense. Unfortunately Hendrix was pretty much out of his mind at this point and the gig was shortly before he took himself out. He was not being either friendly or nice and was fighting with Bill who was doing everything he could just to get the show on. He only had his trio and yet insisted we set up in front of the curtain and play while the house lights were on and people were coming in. The stage in front of the curtain was only about six feet deep and we all had to play lined up, side by side without any monitors, then yank our gear off the stage as soon as the house lights went down so Jimi would have the entire (huge) stage to himself. I remember that he put the extremely pregnant wife of one of his band guy's onstage in a chair with a spotlight on her huge pregnant bubble, and I remember him having a very loud fight with Bill just before we were sent out to play. Hendrix screwed us pretty royally but we just went out and did the best we could.
AC: Tell us about East Bay Grease. What did you think of the music?
MG: I loved playing the music. I loved my band and the way musicians regarded us. Every decent musician in town wanted to be in the band. Most bands would go into the studio, record, then go play live and try to recreate their best stuff. We were the exact opposite. We went into the studio to try and capture what we had going on when we played gigs. My biggest complaint about EBG was the intonation problems in the horn section. That was David Rubinson's job, to not release it until it was ready. These days, ProTools over-fixes everything. We recorded all of the tracks live, with horns in one day. The flugelhorn solo on Sparkling In the Sand is still one of my favorite things I have ever recorded.
AC: When did you know that you were becoming famous and how did it effect you?
MG:I have never considered myself famous. Fame is a very selective thing. If you are known and even respected by a small number of people, THEY may consider you famous if you can walk down any crowded street all day without being recognized, how can you be famous? Fame is a blessing and a curse.
AC: How did you feel when you heard Still a Young Man on the radio? You killed it with the horn intro!
MG: It's still a thrill to hear, believe me. I have been told those are the four most famous notes on trumpet in the history of Rock & Roll. And thank you.
AC: Many of the founding TOP members fell into substance abuse. Did you have to navigate those stormy waters? Did falling into the drug/alcohol scene effect the progress of the band?
MG:Drugs were and alcohol were all around. Our music seemed to attract those things and during the late 1960's it was harder to stay away from them than it was to find them. What probably saved my life were two important factors: I had and still have a huge aversion to needles, and I was often a firsthand witness to drug use, abuse, and dire results from them. My father taught me that while we all make mistakes, a smart person learns from their mistakes and the smartest person learns from others mistakes. I am alive today because I paid attention. Others are paying the consequences of living too loose.
AC: Skip Mesquite (great guy) told me that you and he had arranged the horn parts for Santana's Everybody's Everything tune - tell that story.
MG: We had major jam sessions at a large nightclub in Hayward, California called Frenchy's. Sly and the Family Stone was the house band there for years in the early days. Carlos and several other notables came there and sat in with us. When the gig was over Carlos said to come on over to the studio in San Francisco and possibly put some horns on one of his new tunes. We arrived there around 3am and I found some horn lines that fit and added what he was looking for. Skip was at my side and was the first guy I would run my parts by and he agreed it would work. It did.
AC: Tell us about playing with the Rolling Stones, Huey Lewis, Little Feat . . . what were some of the best gigs?
MG: The Stones at Candlestick Park in 1981. Huey Lewis at Magic Mountain in 1982. Feat in London recording Waiting For Columbus. All were great fringe benefits or perks. We were like Popeye on spinach.
AC: Who are some of the other acts you have worked with?
MG: I played with Huey Lewis, Rod Stewart, Little Feat, Cold Blood, Blood Sweat & Tears, Sons of Champlin, Elvin Bishop, the Temptations, Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Connie Francis, Don Rickles, Danny Marona, the O'Jays, Bonnie Raitt, the list goes on and on.
AC: You and Skip were the only TOP guys to work with Cold Blood. Why did you switch over and why did you switch back? Which band is better?
MG: Jeff Tamelier played in both bands and for a brief time, David Padrone. Both bands were great. Tower leaned more to funk and soul, Cold Blood was much more into rock and jazz. At their peak, I loved both bands.
I left Tower just as we were finishing East Bay Grease because I was getting drafted and Cold Blood helped me avoid that. My punishment was I didn't get my picture on the album after arranging and playing on every song. I was 18 at the time. I spent nine or ten months with CB then returned home to the Tower.
AC: You quit the band for many years. Greg Adams told he didn't want to be 40 and playing Still a Young Man. Why did you quit and why did you go back?
MG: I found out my wife and I were expecting our first (and only) child so I left the band January 1, 1984. I understand Greg tiring of playing Young Man but with my feature at both ends of the song it meant a lot more to me. It still does. When our daughter got married I was asked back again, which had happened many times over the years, because Mike Bogart was leaving the band to rejoin the US Navy. I said I would go back for a year and actually stayed 18 months, which proved to be too long.
AC: I understand one of your best musical experiences was playing with your dad on Below Us All the City Lights. Tell us about that magical experience.
MG: We augmented the horn section with some of LA's finest as well as Henry Mancini's strings and conductor and had my dad play trombone right beside me. Three of the best French horn players in town were right behind us.
May be Greg Adam's best arrangement for the band ever. In retrospect, after the session was done a flaw in the track was found and we had to go back later and recreate it. My father was not available so we had Frank Rosolino as his sub. My father later went up to Seattle with us and recorded with our horn section on Time Will Tell. Amazing experience!
AC: Tell us about your CD Ear Candy. What was the vision?
MG: For years I had done recording favors for so many artists and when budgets were either minuscule or nonexistent, I would play with the understanding they would "owe" me a track if and when I recorded my own album. I traded tracks with Lenny Williams, Bill Champlin, Marc Russo and others, then I brought in the original Tower horn section from East Bay Grease, Skip Mesquite, Doc, Mimi, Greg Adams and myself. We recorded two songs we used to play before we had any originals, Tell Mama and Open Up the Door. Also had David Garibaldi, Rocco, Paul Jackson, Tal Morris, Elmer Cole, and several of my students join us.
This album would have never seen light of day without the amazing and enormous support from Steve Finch, from Raonoke, VA and our band there, the Funky Loophole - AKA the Domino Band. Some fun cover tunes, especially It Had Better Be Tonight, and some original material my wife Julia and I wrote.
AC: Tell us about working with your very talented daughter Megan.
MG: It's called Legacy. I got to play along with my father when I was young and so Megan has with me. She has been a published songwriter since she was eight and a member of ASCAP. She now writes for and sings with our band, She is a drummer and percussionist trained by Karl Perrazo from the Santana Band. She is the mother of two incredible boys, Maverick and Wyatt. We even sing some duets!
AC: Tell us about your work with school programs. What is your ultimate goal?
MG: To keep music departments in schools vibrant and flourishing. Tomorrow's stars are ready for training today! I am sponsored by Yamaha musical instruments and Marcinkiewicz mouthpieces.
AC: Tell us about your live act: what kinds of gigs, where do you play, what kinds of music?
MG: We play soul, funk, jazz, rock, Dixieland, rearrange oldies, originals. We are a Northern California band, our favorite club is Armando's in Martinez. We play festivals, concerts, dances, showcases, the occasional nightclub and fundraisers.
AC: I understand you moved to the Oregon coast. Are you still making music? Do you still take session dates?
MG: We love the southern Oregon coast, always have. Still doing recording and jingle sessions in the Bay Area.
AC: What is left on your bucket list? Any chance of going Back to Oakland?
MG: Born in Oakland. Received keys to the city from Mayor Lionel Wilson in 1975. We were the unofficial Raiders band in the '70's. I know how to find it if I ever need to. I have outlived my bucket list.
AC: How can people get your music and instructional materials?
MG: Our music is available through ITunes, Amazon, CDbaby and through our website.
http://www.micgillette.com/ Also on Facebook: Mic Gillette Band
AC: When it's all said and done and the last note is played, how do you want history to remember you and what would you like your legacy to be?
MG: I would love to see someone ask one of my fantastic students of today performing ten or twenty years from now and ask them how they got so good. If I would be mentioned as one of their influences or teachers, that is how I would like to be remembered.
Edited by Susan Aceves
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