"What Is Hip?" Tower of Power asked 41 years ago. Their song may not have definitively answered the question, as they simply sang "What's hip today / Might become passé" and even "Sometimes hipness is / What it ain't." One fact that remains unchanged is that the funk outfit Tower of Power is anything but passé. Their brand of horn-driven soul made regular appearances on the 1970s charts (including the aforementioned "What Is Hip?") and they backed such artists as Elton John, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Aaron Neville. While their 1973 track asking that eternal question may be their best-known hit, another standout from that era should not be ignored: "So Very Hard to Go," a tender mid-tempo track that allowed Tower of Power to showcase their sensitivity as well as their deep love of R&B.
Tower of Power began in Oakland, California, although their roots stretch back to Detroit. Tenor saxophonist Emilio Castillo grew up in the Motor City, and naturally began listening to Motown in the 1960s. After relocating to Oakland in 1967, he organized a band with baritone sax player Stephen "Doc" Kupka; they first dubbed themselves "the Motowns," later changing their moniker to "Tower of Power." As new group played gigs throughout the Bay Area, they garnered more members, at one point featuring ten musicians. Signing with Bill Graham's San Francisco Records label in 1970, they released their debut album East Bay Grease to little notice. But their 1971 followup, Bump City, garnered sales with their top 30 R&B and Hot 100 old school soul hit "You're Still A Young Man." To this day, Tower of Power fans still called themselves "Bumpsters" in honor of that disc.
Success continued with their 1973 self-titled album, this time featuring new lead vocalist Lenny Williams. Williams' pliant voice proved a worthy accompaniment for the tight horn section, his vocals adding spice to "What Is Hip?" However, he demonstrated his ability to sing with conviction and subtlety with "So Very Hard to Go," the track that earned Tower of Power their biggest hit. It also represents a turbulent time for the band; original singer Rick Stevens (whose voice graced "You're Still A Young Man") had suddenly departed Tower of Power, partially due to drug addiction. His downward spiral continued, culminating in his conviction for murder a few years later. Castillo and Kupka cowrote "So Very Hard to Go" as a farewell to their troubled friend and bandmate, but on the surface it also bids goodbye to a romantic relationship. Williams effectively communicates the deep emotions expressed in their lyrics with his radiant voice.
A bluesy guitar lick begins the song, setting the reflective mood. "Ain't nothin' I can say, nothin' I can do / I feel so bad, yeah, I feel so blue," Williams croons, the words applying to Stevens' departure as well as a breakup. The horns soar as the narrator mourns love lost, but recognizes that he must let her go: "Cause I could never make you unhappy," he sings.
Only wish I didn't love you so / Makes it so, so very hard to go." As the song enters the chorus, the jazzy chord changes reveal the group's multi-genre influences. The rest of the band softly harmonizes on the line "so very hard to go" as Williams answers with "I love you so," exposing the narrator's inner conflict. As the song fades, Williams utters lines that virtually anyone can relate to: "And it ain't easy to walk away / When a man loves somebody." Clearly this applies to romance, but it also addresses the end of a friendship. As the horns cry out, adding to the melancholy, they effectively underscore the turmoil expressed in the track.
Tower of Power may be primarily known as purveyors of funk and a go-to horn section for any artist. Their 1973 classic "So Very Hard to Go" highlights a more complex side to the band, offering a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an extraordinary 1970s R&B group.