Jerry Cortez

By Ross Boissoneau

It’s not easy to stand out in the middle of a rhythm section in a band that boasts five horns and a dynamic lead vocalist. But Tower of Power guitarist Jerry Cortez manages just fine, thank you very much. Since joining the titans of funk in 2010, he’s been praised for his fiery leads and his soulful rhythm playing.

Long before Tower of Power, before all his many other gigs and studio dates, there was a youngster who saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. “George Harrison was really special. His lead (playing) was so impressive,” Cortez says. He was enamored of virtually all the sounds of the British Invasion, from bands like the Beatles, the Who and the Zombies to vocalists including Petula Clark and Lulu. Then he was exposed to James Brown and jazz by the likes of Wes Montgomery. He was enthralled by all of it.

Cortez grew up in a musical household in the San Francisco Bay area. His brother played drums and his father was a gigging tenor sax player. One night as a child, his dad took him and his brother to a nearby club to hear Lydia Pense and Cold Blood. Still in their pajamas, they listened to the show from their car through an open door. “It made for an entertaining story to tell Lydia when I joined Cold Blood 20 years later,” Cortez says in his bio on the TOP website.

Jerry Cortez Guitar

Jerry Cortez Guitar

Though the band has passed the half-century mark, few outfits can boast the sizzle and steak of Tower of Power. Bandleader Emilio Castillo won’t let these road warriors rest on their laurels, and with aide de camp Doc Kupka on bari and three other zesty horns, plus the inimitable David Garibaldi on drums, they still deliver the same visceral punch as in decades gone by.

That’s in large part because the players that gather on the bandstand are always at the top of their games. Other than mainstays Castillo and Kupka, the group has seen a spinning wheel of players over the years. Some – Garibaldi, trumpeters Lee Thornburg, Mike Bogart and the late Mic Gillette, and the revered bassist Rocco Prestia among them – have been in and out of the band. Others stuck around for an album or tour before moving on. Not to mention the fact the band changes lead singers as often as some people change their socks.

But no matter who’s in the group, the soulful sound remains. And there in the middle of it all is Cortez, praised by Castillo as the best guitarist the band’s ever had. He became part of the band almost 14 years ago, though he’d been in the orbit of numerous TOP members for many years. “I played on Mic’s album. He called Emilio and said I’d be perfect for Tower of Power,” says Cortez.

At the time there wasn’t an opening, and Cortez continued to play shows and work in the studios. “I played gigs with David Garibaldi. Tom Politzer (lead saxophonist) and I go back to the 80s. I did sessions with (keyboardist) Roger Smith too. Eventually word got out they needed a guitar player. I did an audition, and now here I am.”

Cortez was preceded by the likes of Willie Fulton, Bruce Conte, Carmen Grillo and others. He pays homage to his forebears. “I’m a big Willie Fulton fan. I studied with Bruce, took some lessons. He introduced me to a lot of cool people,” says Cortez.

Since joining the band, Cortez has contributed to the band’s last three recordings, Soul Side of Town, Step Up, and 50 Years of Funk & Soul: Live at the Fox Theater. “Before recording (Soul Side), Emilio said, ‘Anybody with ideas, bring them to me.’” Cortez remembered a song he’d previously written called “Ivory Tower.” “I had recorded an instrumental for the Muzak environmental channel called ‘Ivory Tower.’ I gave it that title because the song reminded me of Tower Of Power,” he recalls. This was at least a decade or more before he joined the band. Muzak turned down “Ivory Tower,” stating that it was “too funky.”

“I thought, ‘Thank you.’ I sent it to Emilio with the original backing track, with me singing a new melody, but I didn’t sing any words, just ‘scooby doo’ nonsense.” Castillo told him he wouldn’t get around to listening to it for a few days. Turned out that wasn’t the case: “He calls me back two hours later, said he’d come up with a new melody,” says Cortez. “He sends it with him singing new lyrics. It was the first one we recorded.”

Jerry Cortez

Jerry Cortez

Renamed “Stop,” Cortez says the tune, now credited to Castillo and Cortez, became a fixture in the band’s set list. “We had it in our regular rotation. Marcus Scott would get the crowd singing along.”

When not on the road – Tower of Power continues to tour heavily, playing more than 100 shows a year – Cortez calls Massachusetts home, having just relocated there from Utah. He’s part of the String Masters online teaching platform, alongside people like Alex De Grassi, Joe Deninzon and Tracy Silverman. He’s friends with cellist Crispin Campbell, a longtime instructor at Interlochen Center for the Arts and another member of String Masters. Campbell was part of the string section for the live recording of 50 Years.

Cortez is now readying for the releases of his upcoming solo CD. The first single will be released January 5, with another every month or two. “By the end of the year I’ll have a full CD release,” he says.

So, about his guitars and strings. “My main axe when I (joined) the band, I was playing a Paul Reed Smith with Elixir strings, Nanowebs. I was breaking strings like crazy. I went back to D’Addario and stopped breaking strings. I use XS acoustic and electric strings.”

Today he uses a Gibson Byrdland, Gibson Les Paul 175, Gibson ES-390 and a Gibson CS-356. “I grew up playing a ’57 Gibson Les Paul Junior that I still own and cherish. I’ve played about eight different Les Pauls during my tenure with Tower Of Power, including a double cut Junior and two different Les Paul Specials. I’m a big fan of P-90 pickups, for sure.

“I am currently really loving the Gibson Byrdland and ES-175 for their sweet resonance. They both have more spank than I thought they would for the TOP stuff. I tend to favor Gibson guitars for the feel. That being said, I have been putting my Telecaster to use on a number of songs on our current tour.”

He says the large Gibson hollowbodies like the L-5, Byrdland and ES-175 harken back to some of the music he grew up on. “Early r&b, soul and funk were played on guitars like that. Freddy Stone (Sly and the Family Stone), James Brown’s guitarist. It’s been a favorite.”

On his Martin D18 acoustic he uses Martin 13 gauge Flexible Core Strings.

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

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