Mic Gillette, a founding member of the legendary Oakland-based funk band Tower of Power, died of a heart attack Jan. 17. He was 64 years old.
In recent years, Gillette was a member of the Mic Gillette Band. The group featured his daughter Megan McCarthy on vocals and a variety of Benicia residents, including keyboardist and trumpeter Ryan Habegger, guitarist Jason Stewart and saxophonist Andres Soto.
“I met Mic about five years ago,” Soto said. “My friend started taking trombone lessons from Mic, and we all played together at my friend’s wife’s birthday party.”
A year ago, Soto learned that the Mic Gillette Band was looking for a new saxophone player, so he sat in on a few songs the group performed at Armando’s in Martinez and was asked to join the band in May.
“When I first joined, he put his arm around me and said ‘Welcome to the family,’” Soto said. “He treated the band as an extension of his family.”
Soto was thrilled to be working in a band with Gillette.
“Growing up in Richmond, we idolized Tower of Power,” he said.
Tower of Power formed in 1968 as The Motowns and quickly gained a reputation in the Bay Area after playing in clubs in Oakland and Berkeley. Within a few years, the newly christened Tower of Power went on to play large venues such as The Fillmore and scored six top 40 R&B singles in the process. Gillette was the lead trumpeter during the band’s peak period, and his trumpet lines on hits such as “What is Hip?,” “So Very Hard to Go” and “You’re Still a Young Man” are instantly recognizable to listeners.
“One of my fondest memories was standing next to him playing the introduction to ‘You’re Still a Young Man’ and hearing that amazing trumpet,” Soto said.
Soto enjoyed playing Tower of Power songs with one of its original members, and he also enjoyed being able to collaborate on original music with Mic.
“One of the big thrills for me was playing with him and hearing our sound blend into a singular horn section whether it was on trombone or trumpet or tenor saxophone,” he said.
One of the things Soto said stood out about Gillette was his sense of accuracy in playing.
“Mic was a very unique musician in that he could play trumpet and trombone with equal precision,” Soto said. “In particular, his ability to play high notes on trumpet as the lead trumpeter and also play trombone at the bottom end of the horn and the top end of the horn with equal precision was very unique.”
Gillette was also a member of the Bay Area bands Cold Blood and Sons of Champlin and played trumpet with Blood, Sweat & Tears in the early ‘80s. Gillette also worked as a session musician, having played with legendary acts like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Santana, Rod Stewart, the Doobie Brothers and numerous others. In 2008, he provided the horn arrangements for a few songs on Sheryl Crow’s holiday album “Home for Christmas.” Gillette would perform songs from many of his associated acts and would provide stories abut working with them at Mic Gilette Band concerts.
“We did The Rolling Stones’ version of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ where he had done all the horn arrangements,” Soto said.
Gillette left Tower of Power in 1984 to raise his daughter. He rejoined the band from 2009 to 2011 but found a new calling with the Mic Gillette Band. As lead vocalist, McCarthy would bring her sons Maverick and Wyatt to shows, and Gillette’s wife Julia booked a lot of the band’s shows and wrote them checks.
“It was a family operation,” Soto said. “At the core of his values, he was a family man.”
Additionally Gillette founded the Music in the Schools program to promote the importance of music education, and he performed the national anthem on trumpet before a San Francisco Giants game in 2014.
“He could do it all, and he did it all,” Soto said.
A private memorial will be held up in Oregon in December. Additionally, McCarthy is looking to put together a musical memorial on May 7, which would have been Gillette’s 65th birthday.
Mic Gillette, holding grandson Maverick McCarthy, performs the Tower of Power classic "So Very Hard to Go" at the San Luis Obispo Jazz Festival in 2014.
Photo courtesy of Megan McCarthy