How highly Mic Gillette prizes his music career is evident the instant you enter his home.
To cross the Gillette threshold, as I did a few years back to conduct an interview, was to enter a living room adorned with gold and platinum albums, mementoes of not only the horn player's 19 years with Tower of Power, but also the hundreds of studio sessions that exposure brought. Elton John, Huey Lewis, Rod Stewart – pictures of stars so dominate the room you'd think they were family.
But chat with Gillette, and you realize very quickly he's anything but star struck. The multi-instrumentalist had no problem walking away from the industry in the late 1980s to stay home and raise his daughter. Likewise, it's for the musicians he teaches – not the established stars that helped pay the bills – that Gillette would like to be remembered.
"I would rather have it 20 years from now that people would really be talking about the students I taught instead of what I played on," Gillette said. "I try to encourage kids to play every instrument they can get their hands on."
The trombonist’s career enters a new phase as the Mic Gillette Band holds a record release party for its debut disc, “Moon Doggy.” The celebration-performance is set for 8 p.m. today at Red House Studios in Walnut Creek. The disc features the blues-jazz-funk sound that continues to endear audiences to Tower of Power.
Born in Oakland and raised in Fremont, Gillette inherited his musical gifts from his father, a trombonist who played with big bands in the 1940s and '50s. His was a musical family, with siblings playing trombone and bassoon. Gillette gravitated toward the trumpet at age 4 after watching his father attempt to teach an older brother the instrument.
As a teenager, Gillette began playing with the musicians who would form the nucleus of Tower of Power. The integrated soul band initially scored some pop hits – "You're Still a Young Man," "So Very Hard to Go," "What is Hip?" – but its jazz rock, blues and funk never found a mainstream audience.
"Tower of Power was kind of over the general public's head in the early '70s," Gillette said.
Fellow musicians, however, understood the band's worth and particularly appreciated the powerful horn section anchored by Emilio Castillo, Steve Kupka, Greg Adams and Gillette. Even as Tower of Power cut such signature albums as "East Bay Grease" (1971) and "Back To Oakland" (1974), the horns began getting outside work.
At first, the gigs were with Bay Area acts, such as Santana, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, and Doug Clifford. As the decade progressed, however, the horns were in demand internationally, in time lending punch to best-selling albums such as John's "Caribou" and Stewart's "A Night on the Town." Gillette's credits include Little Feat ("Waiting for Columbus"), the Brothers Johnson ("Right on Time"), Jefferson Starship ("Freedom at Point Zero"), Molly Hatchet ("Take No Prisoners") and Heart ("Bebe Le Strange"), to name a few.
After decades on the road and in the studio, however, Gillette was ready to rest and spend time with family.
"I quit playing for a while," he said. "Tower of Power, they just traveled way too much."
Gillette took a six-year hiatus but is now back at it, both as a performer and music educator. His more recent recording credits including dates with the Rolling Stones, Sons of Champlin, the Ford Brothers Blues Band, Smash Mouth, Santana's mega-selling "Supernatural" and the Doobie Brothers’ CD/DVD project "Live At Wolf Trap."
Given his storied past and contented present, it's easy for Gillette to put his career in perspective. Ultimately, he said, it's the music that matters and making sure you're enjoying yourself.
"It's called playing," Gillette told me with a laugh. "You don't work music, you play it. People even pay money to come see you play."
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