Like B.B. King’s string bends, chuck berry’s two-note chords, and Larry Graham’s thumb slaps, Francis “Rocco” Prestia’s groove-defining use of muted 16th-notes has become an instantly recognizable fingerboard innovation that has remained a soul-soothing constant in a fast-changing world.
Forged in the iconic R&B horn band Tower Of Power, the magic and mystery of Prestia’s playing—and how he’s able to fit so many notes seamlessly into the pocket—remains, 50 years on. Some have tried to explain the propulsive, percussive mastery found in such Tower bass anthems as What Is Hip?, You Got to Funkifize, Soul Vaccination, Squib Cakes, and Credit.
TOP saxophonist/bandleader Emilio Castillo surmised, “Rocco is an original. He doesn’t have the technical knowledge of a lot of other great bass players, but that’s what makes his playing so special. Everything comes from the heart, the gut. A lot of bassists try to emulate his style using their heads, and that’s why none of them have come close to his feel.”
Will Lee feels that “constant” is a better adjective for Rocco than “busy,” which implies a lot of moving lines across the neck. He points to Prestia often playing in one root-5th-octave position and developing patterns within that shape.
Jeff Berlin cites Prestia’s mastery of space within a chain of 16th-notes, mostly created by applying muted or ghosted notes. For Rocco, it’s a simpler answer: “The key to playing that much without getting in the way is to lay it in the groove.”
Alas, Prestia’s milestone year hasn’t been as in the pocket. After sudden health bouts led him to be hospitalized while on the road and at home late last year, Tower Of Power has officially decided to move on, replacing him with Sheila E bassist and TOP sub Marc van Wangeningen.
However, Prestia does appear on all but one track of TOP’s latest, Soul Side of Town, applying his unique approach to straight and swung R&B romps and chivalrous ballads. It’s a tone-and-taste trademark that once led then-TOP drummer Herman Matthews to tell BP, “Without Rocco’s motion on the bass, we would be just another horn band.”
The seeds of that signature style can be traced to Northern California, where Rocco was born in Sonoma, on March 7, 1951. After suffering the loss of his dad just five years later, his mother re-married, moving him, his sister, and his two brothers to Fremont, California, where they were first exposed to rock & roll.
For his Christmas present at age 10, Rocco’s mom got him a Sears Silvertone guitar and amp, and lessons. He recalls, “I liked rock, but what I didn’t like was having to practice guitar, because I just wasn’t any good at it—it never clicked for me.”
Nonetheless, he stuck with it long enough to successfully audition—“because I had good hair”—for classmate Emilio Castillo’s band at age 14. Castillo’s dad hired local jazz guitarist Terry Saunders to teach the band members their instruments, leading Saunders to switch Prestia to a white P-Bass copy.
“All I knew about the bass was that it was bigger than me!” Before long, Emilio got into R&B via an East Bay band called the Spiders. He added four more horns to the group, and they transitioned from covering Stax/Volt and Motown at dances to writing and performing originals at clubs as Tower Of Power.
After seeing a successful performance at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, legendary music promoter Billy Graham signed TOP to his management company and prepared the band for its first recording, 1970’s East Bay Grease. We chose that as a starting point for a funky trip down memory lane with a reflective Rocco.
Let’s talk about the bassists who influenced you leading up to TOP’s first album.
Once the band got hip to soul music—James Brown, Motown, Stax/Volt, Muscle Shoals—that’s when it all started for us. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I was influenced by players like James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Chuck Rainey, Jerry Jemmott, David Hood, and Willie Weeks.
Locally, I got to meet Larry Graham, whose percussive approach had an impact on me. And I met and became friends with Paul Jackson, whose creativity certainly rubbed off on me.
You credit TOP drummer Dave Garibaldi with helping to shape your style.
In a major way. When Dave came onboard, three months before we cut the album, he had all kinds of ideas he wanted to try, and we clicked right away. Looking back at it now, we complemented each other because he was a busy player, and I had a simpler, more laid-back approach.
We met in the middle, and it was magical. I think I was moving toward busier lines naturally, but he opened me up rhythmically. I started adding notes and accents, and playing with a sense of moving the music along.
In addition, I realized that playing more percussively, with staccato notes, seemed to lock better with Dave’s drums, so dead notes and ghosted notes became a big part of my style.
Bump City from 1972 had such TOP classics as You Got to Funkifize, Down to the Nightclub, and You’re Still a Young Man.
Grease was energetic but raw; we were kids amazed to be in a recording studio for the first time. We recorded Bump City in Memphis, with [Booker T. & the MG’s guitarist] Steve Cropper producing, and he reeled us in and tightened everything up. I was playing whatever I felt, but I have to credit Mimi [TOP bandleader and saxophonist Emilio Castillo] as another key to developing my style.
He had a great ear for bass, and he would constantly say, “Try this,” or, “Do this,” and I would say, “Huh?” And he’d say, “It’s what you do naturally,” and he’d help polish up the part. I remember struggling with “Young Man” because it’s in 6/8 and I wasn’t feeling it. Dave said, “Just play in four and it will come out right,” and that song established my approach to ballads.
Then came 1973’s Tower Of Power, which included the bass anthem What Is Hip?, the shuffle This Time It’s Real, and Soul Vaccination, with its turned-around feel.
Hip was Dave’s concept of having one note droning throughout the song, inspired by the Ben E. King tune Way Down Low. Everyone was skeptical: “Really?” Little did we know. I also thought the bass was too hot in the mix—wrong again! Real was the first time I had to play a walking bassline, and it scared the crap out of me.
I’m not a traditionally trained player; I didn’t know how to walk like the jazz cats, who would hit all the right notes. So that was a good period of growth. As for “Soul Vac,” Dave was doing that from day one, moving everything over by an eighth-note or 16th-note.
Sometimes it flows naturally and it’s fun, and other times you’re holding on for dear life. Dave would tell me, “Just count”—he’d even play the passage while counting it—and I’d still struggle. I’ve never been good at counting; if I don’t feel it, I have to rely on a horn or vocal cue to know when to come in. The best example of that is Oakland Stroke, where I wait for the hi-hat swishes to know when to come in.
That song was from 1974’s Back to Oakland, which also had long jam tracks like the Chester Thompson instrumental “Squib Cakes.” Were those fun or more of a challenge to get through?
We loved them because we all had a chance to be free, with few or no boundaries beyond the head. The solo sections could go anywhere, especially when you have the pleasure of playing behind Chester’s organ or Lenny Pickett’s sax. Those guys can carry you along when you’re running out of ideas and inspire you to play new things that take the energy way up.
After four more albums, and with addictions raging in the band, in 1977 you were made an example of and fired. What do you remember about the seven-year period until your return in 1984?
First I did blues gigs in the Bay Area with Frankie Lee and Bobby Murray, and I got to jam with Albert King and Albert Collins. It was great because it opened me up to a whole other area of music, and it was the first time I grasped that I had a style and didn’t have to play blues in the traditional way—I could play me inside the blues.
From there, through a drummer friend, Kevin Cloud, I moved to Las Vegas to play with Lola Falana. The conductor, Frank Fiore, was a TOP fan, he knew I didn’t read music, and he was nice enough to teach me the parts. Then in 1984 Mimi called out of the blue asking me to rejoin the band.
I told him I’d think about it, and when I hung up, Kevin and my girlfriend, who were in the room, said, “Are you nuts? Call him back!” I was used to having my own room by then, so when I called back to accept, that was my one stipulation [laughs].
I moved to L.A. on Mimi’s advice, but then the horn section left to go on the road with Huey Lewis for a few years, leaving the rhythm section to all but starve between occasional TOP gigs.
So we formed our own band called Flex, and we started a regular Monday-night jam at a string of clubs. When the horns finally returned and focused on the band, they fired the rhythm section except for me!
That led to the 1987 album Power, with the monster shuffle “Credit,” which also became TOP’s first music video. What’s the story behind your bass line, with its cool double-time feel?
The band had recorded that tune, and when I rejoined, Mimi wanted me to play on it. He told me to make it a funk shuffle, and that’s what I came up with.
I’ve had bassists play it to me their way, and I say, “Man, you’re making it way too complicated.” Then I show them, and they go, Ahhh. The way I play, a lot of things are implied because there are so many ghosted and muted notes—so your hear stuff that isn’t really there.
The Epic Records era, which began with 1990’s Monster on a Leash and yielded four albums, seemed like a productive period.
We got a new manager named Michelle Zarin, and she was instrumental in making a lot happen for us; you need that in the music business. There was some new blood in the band, and many of the songs on those albums stayed in the book and are fun to play. I got my first co-writing credit on Believe It.
During that high-profile period—we played the talk show circuit—I remember thinking, When is it gonna be enough? When are we going to finally cash in? We had fame, but where the heck is our fortune? That has always baffled us.
Early on, we saw horn bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears have radio hits—and, granted, they wrote more commercial songs. But record companies always had problems marketing us, largely because we didn’t look like we sounded.
You also put out your solo album and instructional videos in the ’90s.
I pursued a solo deal and I met someone from a Japanese label who made it happen. They didn’t have the budget to properly support it, but Everybody on the Bus was a blast to do, and it came out great. The two instructional videos [Fingerstyle Funk, 1993, Video Progressions, and Live at Bass Day, 1998, Hudson Music] were eye-opening for me.
They made me zone in on what I do and how I do it, and they came at a time when I was becoming aware of the bass community, meeting other top players, and figuring out where and how I fit into it all.
The 2000s included TOP’s Oakland Zone and the band’s cover record Great American Soulbook, plus your health issues.
Zone was one of the most creative albums we’ve done, even though I was ill when we made it. I was less excited about Soulbook. We tried to make a more commercial album, and it took us out of our comfort zone, and I think fans can feel that.
We saw everyone else having success doing covers, but ultimately we weren’t true to ourselves; I felt doing a few covers was okay, but not the whole album. As for my health problems, I had my first surgery in 2002, to replace my liver. Then in 2006, I had open heart surgery.
In 2007, I moved to Las Vegas and I fell ill again in 2012, leading to my kidney transplant in 2014. Through all of that, from the first surgery forward, the outpouring of love and support from friends and fans has been beyond belief. I’m very blessed.
Let’s talk about your basses through the years.
After starting on a P-Bass copy, I had a Vox Cougar and a Gibson EB-O before returning to play Fender Precisions through the ’70s and ’80s—one of them given to me by Paul Jackson, which I still have.
Around 1990 I got an endorsement from Fernandes. They were very nice instruments, but they promised me a signature model and after six years it hadn’t happened, so I moved on to Conklin. Those were great, but Bill Conklin had tried the signature-instrument route and didn’t want to go back there, so I began looking again.
Around 2013, [War and Rex Brown bassist] Pancho Tomaselli told me about ESP. I spoke to [Senior Vice President] Jeff Moore, and he had me check out the LTD Series, to which he let me add my tweaks. That included having a P/J pickup configuration with the [P] pickup in the reverse position, rounding the body edges, and having a C-shaped neck profile.
The instrument sounds and feels terrific, it has Seymour Duncan pickups, and I play with both pickups all the way up. I also remained close with Mike Conley from using Dean Markley strings, and I’ve followed him to his new company, MJC Ironworks. We’re about to launch my signature string set.
Can you walk us through your technique?
I generally play by jumping to different positions with my left hand, instead of spreading my fingers to play across a wide span. My hand lies flat over the fingerboard, in a three-fret space, and I mainly use my index and middle fingers to fret the notes, and my 3rd finger and pinkie to dampen the strings—although I occasionally fret with those fingers, as well.
With my right hand, I use alternating index and middle fingers to pluck the strings, about midway between the neck and the bridge, anchoring my thumb on the pickup or the E string. I combine dead notes and ghosted notes, but not in a planned way; they come out naturally.
Dead notes involve fretting the note and then muting it with my third finger and pinkie, as well as how I attack and stop the note in my plucking hand. For ghosted notes, I place my finger over the note but I don’t press down on the fret, so that finger is muting the string.
You’ve played a lot of the songs in the TOP catalog for over 40 years.
Yup, and there are tunes I love and ones I’m less wild about. The key for me is to take a fresh approach to each bass line every night. I challenge myself to stay in the moment and get the part right, section by section, as opposed to going on automatic pilot and having my mind wander.
I think about the audience, who may be seeing us for the first time, as an incentive to stay sharp. If I can maintain that focus, then inevitably as I’m going through the tune, I’ll find something new to play every time.
Which answers the question of how your style has changed.
I would say it has evolved more than changed. The constants are the 16th-note-based feel and the muted and ghosted notes; that will remain until I put the bass down. But I listen to the early stuff and sometimes I’m amazed; how the heck did I do that? Because today I’m playing those tunes differently. My hands won’t let me execute like that anymore, yet at the same time, I often don’t want to play like that.
Do you think that the band gradually developed a sense of, Let’s leave this space for the bass?
Probably so, in parts of the tunes—or subconsciously they knew I would fill those spaces. The main songwriters have always written with the personnel in mind. They know our creativity and our limitations.
When you hear local bands as you travel through towns, what are your bass pet peeves?
Crappy tone, for one; that drives me up the wall. What the heck are you listening to that you think a bass should sound that thin? I want my bass to sound as fat and punchy as possible. Overplaying is another. If you’re overplaying, you’re under-listening. Being too loud is the other. Bass can be very overbearing. People are always asking me to turn up. I try to play to fit within the volume of the band, not stand above it.
Let’s talk about the new album, Soul Side of Town. When and how did you track your parts?
The rhythm section went in for a few weeks, in early 2014. We actually have another album in the can, as well, which includes two of my tunes. We mostly cut to scratch vocals, and there were some tracks where Dave’s drums were already down. I played my ESP bass, recorded direct and through my miked TC Electronic rig.
Some of the songs feature very specific arrangements for the rhythm section, which somewhat takes away from the classic TOP feel.
That was my challenge on about half the songs. There were a lot of little stops and rhythmic breaks, lines to play, and changes to make, so it wasn’t the usual, free-flowing grooving. As a result, I probably played less on songs like Hangin’ With My Baby, When Love Takes Control, and Selah, and I just focused on making the parts.
On the other hand, you stretch in the rideout of On Soul Side of Town, you drive the B section of Do You Like That with motion, and on Stop you prove what you don’t play is as important as what you do play.
Rideouts are always the time to have fun, and I’m also conscious of developing my part where possible, inspired by Jamerson. On Do You Like That, it was a matter of contrasting the two sections, which has always been a part of my concept. And “Stop” is proof once again that space is as important as the notes. I always try to find my spots to put my stamp on a part, whether it’s from a demo bass line or my original line. That’s the fun and the challenge of playing bass within a rhythm section: You have to find where you can be creative within your part. When everyone feeds off each other and finds their sweet spots, that’s when the magic happens.
Looking back over your 50-year career, do you have regrets?
Sure—I should have involved myself more in the business and leadership side of TOP, instead of just going along for the ride. I might have gotten into writing sooner and helped with decisions on some of the directions we went in. I also should have learned to read music. Not being able to read handcuffed me drastically, because there’s so much work that can be had with that one skill. I gave up on it early; I just didn’t have the patience required, and then my career got underway. I’ll follow chord and even notated charts as best I can, but best for me is when someone calls out the changes. And of course I wish I had curbed my partying habits and substance consumption, for which I paid the price health-wise.
You’ve always had a hard time accepting your legacy as a bass innovator.
I’m still taken aback by my notoriety in an era when you can go into a corner bar and find a great bassist. I don’t read, I don’t count, my ear is limited to hearing things in 3rds and 5ths and not much more, and I’m not a soloist—not that I aspire to be. I just play the way I play, by instinct. But people seem to like it. That’s remarkable to me.
Has anything caught your ears in recent years?
Bruno Mars—I dig him and his band. You can hear that he has borrowed from many of the old-school greats: James Brown, TOP, Earth, Wind & Fire. He’s been able to corral that with his own thing and make it work on a massive level.
I’ve seen some interesting bassists on YouTube. My brother sent me a clip of a young lady playing What Is Hip?, and she nails it. In another clip, a bassist breaks down Hip, and I was like, Holy cow—I’d never explain it that way, but it was very thorough and pretty cool.
What are your feelings about TOP deciding to move forward without you?
It’s sad and disappointing. I feel like I’m being put out to pasture. My health was an issue, but after my last hospital stay in November for a recurring urinary-tract infection, I decided to see a homeopathic doctor. The first thing she prescribed worked, and I’ve had no problems since. I’m feeling great. But they made their decision, and it is what it is. It’s time for me to move on.
What projects do you have coming up?
With the help of my friends at matchingdonors.com, we’re going to be doing some fundraising to finance a solo album. I pretty much have all of the material, which I co-wrote with [former TOP guitarist] Jeff Tamalier. In addition, I’m putting together a band here in Las Vegas.
I’m an original member of TOP, so we’ll start playing that music and integrate originals as we go. We’ll be more rhythm-section-focused, and we’ll have a percussionist. I’m also going to accept private students here in Vegas and maybe get set up to do it online. Fans can follow my activities via my website [roccoprestia.com].
How do you reflect on your half-century of playing?
I’m proud of the body of work with TOP; I think there’s a lot of great music. Audiences seem to enjoy it and how it makes them feel, which is all the more reaffirming.
I’ve been blessed to have spent my career in a band that plays original music, giving me the opportunity to create my own parts. Out of that came a style that has apparently influenced other bass players. You can’t ask for more than that, and I’m not done yet.
Tower Of Power’s 2018 statement on Rocco
Asked for an update on Rocco Prestia’s status in Tower Of Power, bandleader Emilio Castillo sent BP the following statement: “While touring in Europe in October of 2017, Rocco was hospitalized in Hengelo, Netherlands. We were forced to play a few gigs with no bass at all before finally getting Dewayne Pate flown out from the States to fill in. This had happened several times over the last few years, and we were forced to make a difficult decision.
“Our plan at that time was to use Rocco only when the air travel was an hour or less, and we also decided that if he was hospitalized again, we would pull him off the road permanently. Soon after, he was hospitalized in Las Vegas, and so we made the decision to use Marc van Wangeningen from that point on.
“Marc had filled in countless times for Rocco and, as is prone to happen, we all got very comfortable with him playing with us. Rocco played some songs with us at our 50th Anniversary Celebration in June, but we now think of Marc as our bass player.”
Rocco will remain on the band payroll.
Rocco Prestia, Everybody on the Bus [1999, Lightyear]; Tower Of Power, Soul Side of Town [2018, Mack Ave.], Great American Soulbook [2009, TOP], Oakland Zone [2003, TOP], Rhythm & Business [1997, Epic], Souled Out [1995, Epic], Monster on a Leash [1990, Epic], Power [1987, Cypress], Urban Renewal [1975, Warner Bros.], Back to Oakland [1974, Warner Bros.], Tower Of Power [1973, Warner Bros.], Bump City [1972, Warner Bros.], East Bay Grease [1970, Warner Bros.]
Basses ESP LTD RB-1004
Strings MJC Ironworks NPS Nickel-Plated Steel Medium Light (.045–.105)
Rig TC Electronic Staccato ’51 head with one RS410 cabinet and two RS212 cabinets
Other GoGo Tuner