There were four things Francis “Rocco” Prestia and I had in common. We both started out playing guitar. Like me, Rocco’s first electric guitar was a Sears Silvertone guitar where the guitar case was also the amplifier. We both switched from electric guitar to bass guitar. Neither one of us could read music.
And that is where any similarities end.
“Rocco” Prestia, the longtime bassist for Oakland funk pioneers Tower of Power, died last Wednesday. After a long battle with various illnesses, he died at the age of 69. He leaves behind an incredible legacy through his unique bass playing style of ““Finger Style Funk,” recordings and videos.
Saying Rocco “played” bass guitar is like a saying Michelangelo was just a “painter” or that Marie Curie was just a “scientist” or that Shakespeare was just a “writer.” Like many aspiring bass guitar player, once introduced to the music of TOP, we were in awe of Rocco’s innovative and unique musical genius.
In interviews, he pooh-poohed any acknowledgment of his iconic style of playing. In a TOP 40th Anniversary video, Rocco sums up the bewilderment of his fame. “Over the years people define who you are as a player, which is pretty mind boggling to me. It’s a piece of wood and some wire,” as he describes his bass guitar. That’s like comparing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to a piano tutorial on Chopsticks.
According to the Billboard website, TOP never had a No. 1 hit or made it to their top 10 list. Don’t tell that to a diehard TOP fan like my son-in-law Carlos. He explains, “I can easily name the band’s most famous songs but can’t name one band member.” And unless you are a musician, you weren’t expected to be familiar with TOP band member names like Stephen “Doc” Kupka, Emilio Castillo, Dave Garibaldi or Rocco Prestia.
I spoke to one of my local bass heroes, Billy Haynes, originally from Bakersfield, and asked his reaction to losing Rocco. Billy toured with Tina Turner, Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers, played with TOP’s guitarist Bruce Conte and now has a regular gig with the Buckaroos. Billy took time from a recording session to say, “These are sad times. Rocco was a true trailblazer. Him not reading music meant he played with his heart.” He adds, “Thank you Rocco for the music and your professionalism.”
Does TOP have many fans in Kern County?
If you ever attended a TOP concert at the Kern County Fair, you would know.
It was an annual and unofficial reunion every September in the Budweiser Pavilion at the Kern County Fair. When TOP, played you could count on seeing friends from your old neighborhood, high school chums you were grateful to still see alive and co-workers you would have never thought were fans of the powerhouse Oakland based band. Their style of brassy soul fusion funk and jazz may have been known as the “Oakland Stroke,” but every city in which they performed adopted TOP as their own, especially Bakersfield.
And equally important to their eclectic style were the eclectic fans from all backgrounds, ethnicity and age who attended each Kern County Fair TOP show. As soon as TOP played their hit single “You’re Still a Young Man,” the filled-to-capacity Pavilion turned into a huge dance floor with couples slow dancing while singing the song note for note. “You’re still a young man… baby… whoo-ooh… don’t waste your time.”
I am thankful for living at the same time as Rocco. There was no one like him before or probably will be long after. In my opinion, he falls into the same category as the Funk Brothers' James Jamerson, the Beatles' Paul McCartney, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and many other great and influential bass guitar masters.
Bassists are often overlooked and undervalued, even in their own bands. Believe me, I know. I have played bass in bands locally for more than 50 years.
And that is where any similarities end with me and Rocco.
Rocco was admired and respected. He was the heartbeat and helped define the TOP sound.
As one of TOP’s biggest hits asks, “What is Hip?” The answer has always been “Rocco Prestia.”
Rest in peace, my bass brother.