As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Beatles British invasion and down-and-dirty ’70s funk, ala Tower of Power, Jerry Cortez was born to take up the mantle as the guitarist of California’s funkiest band.
Growing up in the Bay Area of San Francisco, Jerry Cortez was immersed in music and would watch shows, taking in the sights and sounds. From a young age, Cortez has found himself with a guitar and a passion for songwriting that’s never left him. Like the great guitarists in Tower of Power before him, Cortez is maintaining the iconic legacy of albums such as East Bay Grease (1970), Back to Oakland (1974), Urban Renewal (1975), and more recently, Soul Side of Town (2018), and Step Up (2020).
During a break, Jerry Cortez dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to peel back the onion on his origins, love for guitar, joining Tower of Power, what the group’s legacy means to him, and beyond.
Jerry Cortez of Tower of Power: Interview
What inspired you to pick up the guitar? Who were your early influences?
Like many baby boomers, seeing The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show triggered my desire to play guitar. I was impressed with all the Beatles, but in particular, George Harrison really made the strongest impression on me. Seeing him play the guitar solo to “All My Loving” was an eye-opener, especially to a seven-year-old kid who had never seen or heard anything like it.
Of course, the Beatles opened the floodgates for many other great bands from Britain. I was also a big fan of The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Yardbirds, and a founding member of Fleetwood Mac; Peter Green was a massive influence on me and still is.
More than anyone, I probably sat down and learned more early Eric Clapton solos during his years with Cream. For me, he was the most accessible regarding where I was in my playing skills at the time. He is still one of my all-time most significant influences.
Tell me about your early rig and bands.
I grew up playing a ’57 Gibson Les Paul Junior my dad gave me for Christmas in 1966. Shortly after, he gave me a ’62 Fender Bassman head and cabinet he bought from my uncle. I set the Les Paul Junior down for several years, going through a long stretch playing a Stratocaster and Gibson ES-335.
Eventually, I wanted to play it again because it is such a beautifully simple guitar. I remember taking it to a casual in San Francisco, where I knew we would be playing some jazz tunes. During one of the songs, I recall one of my favorite jazz guitarists from the Bay Area, Brian Pardo, walking into the room.
I thought, great, I can’t believe one of my jazz guitar heroes just walked in, and I’m up here playing a Les Paul Junior. To my surprise, he approached me after our set and said, “I can’t believe what a great jazz sound you’re getting out of your Les Paul Junior.” It is still one of my favorite guitars that I own.
How did you join Tower of Power? Were you a fan?
My father, Victor, plays tenor sax and sings and was the first to utter the words, Tower of Power, at the dinner table one night. I even remember the year 1970. He said, “There’s this new band called Tower of Power, and they are great.” We asked, “What’s so great about them?” He answered, “Well, they have a really fat-sounding horn section, a really tight rhythm section, and not only that, but they also sing really well.”
Soon after, he brought home their first album, East Bay Grease. I remember hearing the song Social Lubrication from that album and thought, wow, Dad was right about Tower of Power, on all accounts. Fast forward to the late ’70s, and I got word that Tower of Power guitarist Bruce Conte was accepting students. I was fortunate enough to take a handful of lessons from Bruce and learned a lot just in the same room with the guy.
I remember sitting across from him at our first lesson, and he said, “Let’s jam.” He starts in with this wicked funk groove in the key of E. I sat there for a few seconds, ready to burst out laughing, because I thought, “Holy cow, that’s Tower of Power, right there. His groove and feel were so incredible. It is hard for me to put into words. I just know that he rubbed off on me in a positive way.
Another guitar player who rubbed off on me regarding groove and pocket was the year I studied with the great Tuck Andress. Amazing feel in everything he played—super funky cat. I was fortunate to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. Between doing gigs and sessions with lead trumpeter from TOP, Mic Gillette, and drummer David Garibaldi, I was invited to audition for the band in late 2009.
Was it challenging to take on the old parts?
I didn’t have trouble taking on any of the old guitar parts from TOP. I have been a fan since I was 13. Also, spending a little time with Bruce Conte helped me wrap my head around how the band thought and how they orchestrated the sum of the parts.
How do you differ from the other players?
That question is a little tricky to answer because I don’t know how to describe my style objectively. A dear friend and Minneapolis drummer sent me a nice message recently. He said, “I love that you respect Bruce in your playing, but you still sound like yourself.” “A perfect combination.”
A couple of my favorite former TOP guitar players, besides Willie Fulton and Bruce Conte, were Danny Hoefer, who has incredible jazz chops, Carmen Grillo, who is really a versatile guitar player, and Jeff Tamilier, who is an incredibly funky rhythm player.”
What’s it like recording with Tower of Power?
The rhythm section records all the basic rhythm tracks first. Reference lead vocals are usually next, then the horn overdubs and background vocals, and some songs have string sections overdubbed. My favorite thing besides recording in such an incredible band is working with producers Joe Vannelli and TOP founder Emilio Castillo.
They make a great team, and besides that, Joe loves to overdub lots of different kinds of guitars. I am honored and blessed to have recorded steel string acoustic, nylon string, 12-string acoustic, electric 12-string, electric sitar, baritone guitar, and lap steel guitar. We even tried mandolin on a track but replaced it with an electric sitar.
All these instruments were heard on a Tower of Power album when Joe Vannelli and Emilio Castillo started producing together. I spent many hours with Joe and Emilio in the studio, overdubbing all these guitars on our last three studio albums. There is a fourth album, but that is the 50th Anniversary Live album and DVD.”
Do you have a favorite album so far?
My favorite classic TOP album is Back to Oakland, and my favorite track from that album is “Can’t You See.” My favorite album that I enjoyed playing is Step Up, and my favorite track is a Frances Rocco Prestia composition called “Look in My Eyes.”
What keeps you inspired to pick up the bass guitar?
As I mentioned earlier, hearing the Beatles perform live on TV was the thing that kick-started my lifelong love of playing guitar. When I heard TOP bassist Rocco Prestia playing on the band’s third album, I immediately bought a bass. I copied his bass parts as best I could and learned a lot in the process, but after a while, I shifted my focus back to spending more time playing the guitar and writing music.
Where were you pulling from in terms of songwriting these days?
On my latest CD, I have a couple of tunes that sound a bit like The Beatles. I wish, but who am I to argue? I’ve also got a funky blues song called Deep Blue Funk. Lyrically, I was going for the psychedelic imagery vibe I loved so much about Jimi Hendrix. I resurrected a song I wrote on piano when I was 19.
I immersed myself in Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album then—big head-turning album for me. The song “New York Breakdown” is unashamedly Steely Dan. As far as more current songwriters go, I need help to think of any, and it’s not that they’re not out there; I’m just not paying as much attention as I should. However, I love everything about Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran.”
Do you have a favorite riff and solo?
I love songs that start with a guitar solo or riff. “House Burning Down” by Jimi Hendrix still gives me chills. His guitar sounds like fire burning. It’s incredible. Another of my favorite intro guitar solos is Larry Carlton playing “Don’t Take Me Alive” from The Royal Scam by Steely Dan. You can’t help but get reeled in by that overdriven opening 7#9 arpeggio.”
How do you view the way you play today versus the past?
Hopefully, my playing has evolved enough to be more “in the moment” during performances and recording. I have learned so much about the instrument after teaching for the last 43 years. Teaching is just as rewarding to me as being a touring musician. It took me a few years for it to grow on me and be comfortable with it. Once I got in the groove of teaching regularly, I realized how meaningful and rewarding it was.”
What has changed most?
My acoustic guitar composing has more depth harmonically than in years past. My electric guitar solos likely have suffered a little as of late. I do, however, practice playing solos, but it’s different from bouncing ideas off other live musicians. As a freelance musician, I played in several bands where I played guitar solos on every song.
Tower of Power is a 10-piece band with four other soloists besides me. My dear friend and sax player Marc Russo has played with the Doobie Brothers for 25 years or more. I have told him whenever we are together, “You’re a sax player in a rock band, and I’m a guitar player in a horn band.”
All this being said, I love nothing more than playing rhythm guitar in an ensemble and changing it up night after night on the same songs. I love the challenge of coming up with new and different parts while still being faithful to the song.
Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals.
Gibson and Fender electric guitars, for sure. I love Les Paul’s because the feel and sound are so rewarding and familiar. However, I am enjoying hollow-body guitars for the TOP gig these days. I’ve been playing a recently acquired Gibson Byrdland and a Steve Howe Signature Gibson ES-175. I started playing the 175 first on the gig because I realized that some of my favorite early soul and funk recordings featured hollow-body electric guitars.
Check out the rhythm guitar work by Freddie Stone on the song Stand by Sly and The Family Stone. The tone is so fat and rich, yet it has a sweet clarity to it as well. Freddie played an L-5 at Woodstock in 1969. Whoever the guitar player plays with James Brown on the TAMMI Show is killing it on a Gibson L-5. For amps, I’ve always been a dyed-in-the-wool Fender guy.
Princeton and Deluxe Reverb are my favorites. I played a Twin Reverb for the first eight years I was in TOP. I use a Line 6 Helix these days because I like the consistency of sound, which I achieve night after night. Plus, if I ever have to use a backline amp, I’m not at the mercy of whatever is available. I didn’t always have the best luck with backline amps. Oh, the stories I could tell.
What goes into those choices?
When it comes to the Line 6 Helix, it is, as I said, consistency, mainly. If I ever get a chance to do some gigs outside of TOP, my go-to amps are either a Princeton or Deluxe. I do think Vox amps are also very cool. I owned a Vox AC15 for a bit. Great amp. I haven’t had much experience with Marshalls. I did go through a phase in the ’80s and early ’90s playing several Mesa Boogie combos. Also, great amps and great company.
What are your short and long-term goals?
Short-term goals would be whatever is involved in being on our next tour, which I always look forward to. Also, I just moved to rural Massachusetts. Some local venues feature local singer-songwriter types. I have always loved singing and playing solo for small gatherings. I want to go out and spend more time showcasing my originals and some rearranged covers. My long-term goal is to evolve the solo thing into an ensemble.
How will you achieve them?
Getting out and making myself known to a new locale is the best way to get the word out. Also, getting out and sitting in with other musicians also helps. I’ve got my first solo gig next month. I’m looking forward to it and many more and continuing with Tower of Power for as long as they will have me.