Thank You Rocco
I want to say I was maybe ten years old. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was around that time.
In those days — and honestly, for my entire childhood — Mom and Dad had a pretty volatile relationship at times. Lots of late night screaming fights. Of course, I thought this was all normal. All mommies and daddies yelled at each other with very thin walls separating their drama from their first born son.
This isn’t about that. My therapist and I will resume this conversation in our next session.
But this one night when I was around ten years old, Mom and Dad woke me up with some of their drama. I believe it was maybe 12:15 this particular night.
Since I couldn’t go back to sleep, I grabbed my remote and turned on my little 13” Sony TV. That TV, Lord was I grateful to have at times! It was that TV where I finally saw Bowser meet his demise in the first time I ever beat Super Mario Bros. 3 — which was one of the proudest moments of my childhood.
That night I started flipping channels and landed on NBC. A dramatization of this scene that I’m about to share with you is early on in my new novel. Which I swear, I want to get published ASAP.
I landed on an episode of Late Night With David Letterman. I’d seen a few episodes — keep in mind, my parents’ relationship was pretty volatile at times. David Letterman introduced me to some of — to this day — my favorite music.
That night was one of the most magical things I’d ever heard. The musical guest was playing with Paul and the band. They were playing these horns — saxophones and trumpets.
The guy singing also played trumpet, and he had long dark hair (not unlike my Dad at the time) and a mustache. And one of the saxophone players had this really big horn that was low and big and mean sounding.
“How about a big hand for the mighty Tower of Power?!” Dave says after they get done playing their song.
I asked Dad about them a couple days later. “They’re been around a long time.”
Not too long later, I was flipping channels and landed on VH-1 one Sunday morning. They played Jazz music videos every Sunday morning.
Yeah, I was that fifth grader who knew who Manhattan Transfer and Pat Metheny were. I mean I AM Tony Hall’s son after all.
“Tower of Power — Credit.”
Holy Jesus what a sound! This was when I learned that it was an entire band, and not just horn players with the singing trumpet player who looked like a pirate.
This song is still one of my favorites of theirs to this day. It has this blues shuffle feel with big horn stabs and a kick-ass tenor sax solo in the bridge.
But I already knew. This song had a bassline that was completely infectious! And I had to hear more from these guys.
I think it was my next birthday, I got a cassette of that very TOP album that Credit appears on. Ironically, the album really isn’t my favorite compared to their classic stuff (which I hadn’t heard yet.)
When I pulled out the liner notes for the first time, my eyes immediately went to “Bass guitar — Francis “Rocco” Prestia.”
Legend has it that band leader and founder Emilio Castillo befriended “Frank” in Junior High School. Rocco was originally the guitar player in the Motown cover band that Emilio first formed, but he was — to put it mildly — a crappy guitar player and wasn’t getting any better.
An old teacher of theirs handed Rocco a bass guitar at their next lesson and he took to it like a duck to water. Developing a very intuitive style that when meted with the right drummer, sounded like two drums.
It’s a sound that cannot be duplicated.
The first CD of TOP’s that I bought with my own money was an album that came out in in 1991 called Monster On A Leash. And in my opinion it’s better than that album with Credit. But the lead track on that record was the one that helped me fall in love with that band — and him.
A Little Knowledge (Is A Dangerous Thing) definitely has a 90’s feel to it. It’s soulful, intricate, and oh so nasty.
But Rocco’s work…my God! He plays this 16th note walking bassline until after the guitar solo. That’s when the layers pile on.
The next time I walked into that record store, I found the CD for Tower’s seminal 1973 record Tower of Power. And the first time I pressed play on that CD was the first time I was asked the eternal question…
Have you ever heard a musical freight train? If you haven’t, then press play on TOP’s most famous song What Is Hip? and remind yourself what that freight train sounds like.
I was well into my 30s before I first heard TOP live. 2010’s Seabreeze Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.
I had matured a great deal in my musical tastes by this point. But I knew what I was going to hear that night was going to be magic. And I wasn’t wrong.
David Garibaldi on drums with Francis the man on bass — these two could finish each other’s musical sentences. They never had to say a word to each other, but you could tell when Rocco wanted to go somewhere different. David followed instinctively. And vice versa.
It was one of the most beautiful musical conversations I’ve ever heard.
Every time I’ve seen them live, when Emilio did the band introductions, Rocco always got the biggest round of applause. They knew!
He was dismissed from the band for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. Like many musicians who came of age back in those days, Rocco ran afoul of certain chemical diversions. Truthfully, as did many of the guys in TOP in those days.
They did a couple albums without him…but it wasn’t the same. They didn’t FEEL like Tower of Power to me.
Over the past 20 years or so, Rocco has been through the ringer with his health. He received both a liver transplant and a kidney transplant over those 20 years.
At a 2013 show in Jacksonville, FL, I noticed that there was no bass player that night when Tower took the stage. Rocco’s gear was set up, but he wasn’t there. During the show, Emilio and former lead vocalist Larry Braggs both mentioned that Rocco fell ill during soundcheck and was taken to an area hospital.
I could feel like something wasn’t right. As empathic as I am, I could feel the energy in that room, and it wasn’t right.
My most recent show was at BB King’s in NYC (may she rest in peace) in 2018. By this point, Rocco was no longer on the road as his health wouldn’t allow it. They had a Dutch bass player named Marc van Wageningen who was highly, HIGHLY influenced by Rocco. The guy is damn good.
No slight against him, but he ain’t Rocco.
We lost Rocco a few days ago. He fought for so many years, but he finally went home. He was 69.
I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out why his passing has hurt me so deeply.
I never met the man. I saw him play only a handful of times.
I met several of the guys in TOP over the years, but never Rocco.
I think I’ve figured out why his passing has hit me so hard.
When an artist makes it his or her life’s work to pour their heart and soul out to you every night, you feel it. Make no mistake, you feel it!
For our purposes, I’m only going to speak on music artists here.
Let’s say that a singer does a song differently one night — they might have had a fight with their significant other — and sings the song with an extra layer of soul and sadness. Gregg Allman made a damn fine career for himself doing this.
If an artist is in a particularly good mood and feeling extra confident one night, they perform with a little extra pep. I mean, there’s a YouTube video of Joni Mitchell from the early 80s when she featured Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny (among others) in her band. And Joni was an in an amazing mood this night and it showed. Just a magical show!
Or when you write a song about a particularly painful moment in your life, and it becomes a smash hit, your fans don’t know how you’re able to perform that song so much. I still don’t know how Eric Clapton did Tears In Heaven so many times.
My point is that when an artist pours themselves out for you, night after night, year after year, you grow to know them. You grow to love them. And you grow to trust them.
That’s a helluva connection.
There’s a great verse from a later Allman Brothers song called Desdemona (which is a glorious song, by the way) that I think encapsulates the relationship that we have with artists.
“I make my living, pouring out my pain. Trying to make it through another day. Arms reach for me on the wind I can feel them. They’re a thousand miles away.”
And that’s why Rocco’s passing has hit me so deeply. We felt his pain and his triumphs. And he poured his pain out on that bass every night for adoring crowds on stages around the world for close to 50 years.
He poured out his pain, and we loved him for it.
Thank you, Rocco. I’m sure you’re up there chopping it up with James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorius as we speak.
Rest greasy, Rocco. Thank you for pouring your pain out for us.