OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Francis “Rocco” Prestia, the longtime bassist for Oakland funk pioneers Tower Of Power, died overnight Wednesday after a long battle with various illnesses, according to friends and family. He was 69.
Originally a guitarist, Prestia played with the band for three decades and developed his own style of bass playing that was described as “FingerStyle Funk.” His performances on tracks such as “What Is Hip?” “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of the Stream),” “Soul Vaccination” and “You’re Still a Young Man” helped establish Tower Of Power’s reputation as one of the genres best groups.
“To say that Francis Rocco Prestia was a huge part of the Tower of Power sound is a gross understatement,” Tower Of Power bandleader/saxophonist Emilio Castillo wrote on Facebook. “When people listened to Tower of Power it was always Rocco that they walked away talking about and he had a major impact on the music world.”
Born on March 7, 1951 in Sonora, Prestia’s father died when Rocco was just five years old. His mother remarried and moved the family to Fremont not long after. His mother gave him a guitar when Prestia was just 10 years old and he joined the band that would become Tower Of Power just four years later.
According to Castillo, when Prestia joined the band in 1965, his friends knew him as “Frank Hueton.”
“Frank was a very sweet kid with really cool hair when we first met in junior high school and we actually brought him into our band because of his hair; he was a horrible guitar player,” Castillo wrote. “My father had hired a teacher named Terry Saunders to teach us one song a week and the first thing Terry said to Frank was, ‘You need to play the bass!!!’ How right he was!!!”
Inspired by bassists like Motown’s James Jamerson, Prestia developed a style of playing that utilized a mix of “staccato 16th notes, ghost notes and muted left hand techniques,” according to Bass Musician Magazine. Prestia and drummer David Garibaldi became the band’s rhythmic backbone for its hard-driving funk sound.
“My brother Francis Rocco Prestia has gone to be with the Lord. This evening he peacefully passed away,” the post read. “I’m still in kind of shock with this reality…he’s gone. He was a one of a kind person and player, and was a gift. We had a magical, unspoken connection.”
Prestia told Bass Player Magazine back in January that he had a simple technique that allowed him to fit so many notes into his bass parts: “The key to playing that much without getting in the way is to lay it in the groove.”
His syncopated style would prove to be a substantial influence on other bass players during the 1970s, most prominently Jaco Pastorious, who incorporated Prestia’s approach in his own busy contrapuntal playing.
Serious health problems struck Prestia in 2001 and led him to limit his participation in the group. The issues, which were never identified, led the band to start a foundation to help him with his medical costs. In 2014, Prestia received a kidney transplant.
Before he died, Prestia spent a short time in hospice, according to Prestia’s Facebook page.
“It’s a terrible loss to the music community,” Brian Rachlin, an administrator of Prestia’s Facebook page, wrote after his death. “Many tributes will follow. Many words will be said. He leaves behind a legacy through his recorded music and videos and will live on in the memories of all the fans all over the world that he thrilled with his work.“
Watch Prestia discuss bass playing in this interview from 2015.