Few bassists have a style that is as instantly recognizable as Francis “Rocco” Prestia’s funky, bubbly ghost and 16th-note playing. His work with Tower of Power has shaped what is expected of a funk bassist in terms of playing in the pocket and has subsequently inspired countless bass players.
Prestia himself is humble about his contributions, citing James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins as influences to create his own brand of bass playing.
“Being a so-called ‘legend,’ well that’s flattering and all but believe me, I don’t spend a lot of energy thinking about it!” he’s quoted saying on his website’s bio page. “A lot of guys tell me, ‘I know all your licks.’ And I’ll tell them, ‘That’s nice, now learn your own!’
My thing has always been to steal and incorporate, then take those influences—Motown, James Brown, Memphis – to another level.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Prestia, and years of dealing with life on the road have taken a toll on him. In 2002, he received a liver transplant. Currently, he’s taking a break from touring with Tower of Power while he awaits a kidney transplant. He’s kept strong through it all, reporting that he’s feeling ok and is in good spirit.
We caught up with Rocco after a benefit concert held by Poetown Music at the Tally Ho Theatre in Leesburg, Virginia to ask about his start on bass, Tower of Power’s upcoming album, and what fans can do to help.
How did you get into bass?
I joined the band Tower of Power when I was fourteen years old. That was 1965. I joined as a guitar player. The band at that time was only five pieces and we were called the Extension Five. We used to have a guy come in – his name was Terry Saunders – and he would teach us the latest stuff. The stuff we were doing at that time was like Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Rolling Stones, The Animals… stuff like that.
When [Terry] first came in and assessed the band, he looked at me and I could only play about three chords [laughs] – not very well though. Every time I would make a mistake I would stop. Anyway, we didn’t have a bass player, so he said, “You – you’re playing bass.” We all kind of looked at each other and said, “What’s a bass?” [laughs]
So anyway, we went down to the local store and got a bass. That’s how it started.
How was the transition from guitar to bass for you? How quickly did you pick it up?
Pretty quick. Like I said, [Terry] would come in and show us everything. It just progressed from there. Actually, [band leader] Emilio Castillo had an ear for being able to listen and pick out the parts of a song. He was a lot more adept at grasping all of that and being able to show everybody else what to do and where to go. He kind of took over that role after Terry stopped coming in.
Of course, you’re well known for your 16th note groove and style. That doesn’t come natural to most people, so how did you get into that?
Well, it was actually very natural for me. Once we got hip to soul music in late 1967 or something like that, we started adding horns and such. 1968 is when we changed the name to Tower of Power, and in 1969 we were pretty much on our way. 1970 is when we acquired Mr. David Garibaldi. When he came in, he was a very, very busy player. I came more from that R&B background, so when the two styles collided what came out of it is pretty much what you hear from me today. It naturally happened. I was already on the road to playing like that, but when he came in it just all clicked – it wasn’t thought about or anything. It wasn’t like, “I want to play like that.” It was just the clash of both of us. I brought him back a little bit and he brought me up a little bit, if that makes sense.
So I understand you’re more into growing through collaboration rather than individual practicing. You’re not really into sitting in the practice room all day.
No. Practicing is very boring to me. I don’t really get a whole lot of enjoyment out of it. But the thing is that in the early days, if we weren’t gigging, we were rehearsing. We would rehearse every single day. We all lived in the same area. We were all in the Bay Area back then. Now we’re spread all over. But that was our practice – literally rehearsing the band.
Do you have any bass exercises for building up dexterity?
I say whatever works for you [laughs]. I don’t have anything in particular. I do a little warmup on stage before we play and that’s about it. I run through some scales up to the 12th fret and that’s about it. That’s right before the show. I mean, I don’t sit around and dwell on it. If I’m not ready, I’m not ready. But believe me, I will get ready.
You’ve done so much recording and playing, but what can you tell me about the first Tower of Power album, East Bay Grease?
Well, that was a long time ago. The biggest thing that I remember about it was that me and Dave had only been playing together about three months and then we went straight into the studio. We just laid those tracks. I think there was only six or seven tunes on that album. It was like, “Okay, just go for it.” And that’s what we did. When you hear that particular album, you can hear the rawness in it. By the second album we had started to refine what we did and kind of corral everything to not leave it quite so far out there all the time.
On the other side, people are wondering what’s going on with you now. Tower of Power is hitting the road this summer. Are you able to go out with them?
They haven’t stopped being on the road. I’ve been off the road since October, and it looks like I’ll continue to be off the road until I have surgery. Then I’ll be able to go back.
Tower of Power is getting ready to go out with Journey, I think the whole summer tour starts in May. We’re also working on a new album so we’re looking to finish that up.
What can you tell us about the new album?
We’ve recorded about 25 tracks. We’re getting all of them ready, but not for just one album. It was a lot of collaboration from a lot of different people, not so much just the original writers. They obviously have some stuff, but there’s a lot more from other people. Hopefully it will be out by the end of the year.
There’s no guarantee with these things – you work on it in your down time, and Emilio is doing almost all of the production work. I think he’s in the studio as we speak, fine-tuning and overdubbing and adding things. It’s time consuming. When it will actually be ready for release is hopefully the end of the year, but it could be early next year. We’ll see.
What’s your health situation like right now, and what can people do to help?
What I would suggest people do is to go to the site MatchingDonors.com. I got hooked up with these people about a month ago. It’s a site for people who need and people who want to give can go to. They have about 13,000 donors in the bank, as it were, that are willing to donate something. That’s where I would suggest people go. That’s the site that I’m using.
We have people who are being tested and people and are waiting to be tested if these ones don’t work out. So we’re pretty good as far as donors are concerned. If someone is willing to give that gift – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be for me – if they’re at that place in their life where they want to give back they could be part of that organization and get hooked into the system.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Donnie Walton and Jamie Leonard for their help in this interview.