War - Biography
By Jonny Whiteside
The story of funk-soul innovators War is more like a saga, one that began when it's members were still in high school and actively chasing a dream--and a sound--that took almost a decade to come to fruition. When it did, first accompanying former Animals lead singer Eric Burdon, they scored a hit record almost immediately and after the band went out on its own, they became the biggest selling group of the mid-1970s. War's funk work outs, characterized by ragged, passionate vocals and an adventurous application of Latin and Afro rhythms, achieved immortality: songs like "Low Rider," "Cisco Kid," Slippin' into Darkness" and "Why Can't We be Friends" are inescapable staples on oldies radio, have been used innumerable times in motion pictures and television programs, sampled endlessly by subsequent generations of hip-hoppers and remain cherished touchstones in both the 'hood and the barrio. Yet the band itself splintered apart after years of touring and wound up in a bitter, years-long series of lawsuits and counter-claims, tearing apart what had formerly been a true brotherhood, with one original member awarded rightful ownership of the band name while the others toil in the shadow of obscurity and on the verge of poverty. It's a story as complex and intense as the band's music, and the only sure thing, after more than a decade of withering crossfire litigation, is the greatness of the music they created.
The band's origin lies with drummer Harold Brown, who as teenager in Long Beach California, employed the same stunt that R&B great Joe Turner did to master his own musical fate: dressing up in their father's clothes, using mama's eyebrow pencil to draw on a moustache, than sneaking into a nightclub that presented the most irresistible music--in this case, Long Beach's Cozy Lounge. As luck would have it, one night Brown ran into another fifteen year old sporting the oversize wardrobe and Maybelline cookie-duster, an aspiring bassist named Howard Scott. The pair began jamming together, and in short order Scott switched to guitar and drafted his cousin, Morris "BB" Dickerson, as bassist, and spent a long stretch as a cut-rate dance band whose repertoire necessarily incorporated everything from James Brown to Johnny Cash covers--whatever it took to keep couples on the dance floor. After they graduated high school circa 1963-64, the trio began landing jobs where ever they could. They called themselves the Creators; their fathers drove them to shows and waited in the car. The kids got noticed; bandleader Johnny Otis wanted to use them, but their increasingly progressive R&B style just did not fit Otis’ old school blue revue. Before long, Brown said, "We got good enough that we were the first all black band to play the Strip."
That was quite a leap to make--a little more than ten years earlier, it was an eyebrow-lifter for many in Los Angeles when Sammy Davis Jr. was allowed to headline at Ciro's, and the Strip's horde of beat bands were all stone ofay acts. But the Creators transcended the color barrier by their innate skill, having developed an ability to jam seamlessly in an eloquent musical dialog, mainly to stave off boredom on the bandstand. "Whatever song we were doing, we'd play the main motif and in the middle just go into one of those jams," Brown said, "and when it was time to get out, just cut right back. It gave us the ability to have that conversation--I'd know exactly what Howard was gonna do, I'd feel it when BB started goin' certain places."
They added the consummate horn man, Charles Miller, and the superb conga player Sylvester "Papa Dee" Allan, a former percussionist for Wayne Henderson & the Jazz Crusaders; Brown also discovered another talented teenager Leroy "Lonnie" Jordan, and knew the kid had what it took. "You'd better buy him a keyboard," Brown told the Jordan's mother, "because he is going to be famous one day." Soon, the band began working the road in the mid-1960s, appearing at Las Vegas' Thunderbird and touring as far as Texas, where they were offered a dream gig--to serve as Otis Redding's road band; the offer fell apart due to Jordan's youth and his family's reluctance to green light such a move.
More vexation followed: Scott and, later, Dickerson were drafted, but the remaining players re-tooled as Nightshift. When Scott and Dickerson returned from the service, Nightshift kept the music rolling, gigging as much as they could and in 1969, landed a gig as backing band for former NFL star Deacon Jones during an engagement at San Fernando Valley club the Rag Doll. One night the band was set up, but Jones never showed; they began playing, and during a break were approached by harmonica player Lee Oskar, a recent arrival from Denmark, who asked to sit in. The band agreed and the results particularly impressed one member of the audience, British rock singer Eric Burdon. The former Animals singer had been shepherded there by manager Jerry Goldstein as, at that point, Burdon was on the verge of quitting the music business, and Goldstein hoped Burdon would share the same opinion of the band’s potential. He did, and after joining Nightshift on stage, suddenly found himself in a reinvigorated frame of mind. Oskar, the emigre white boy with an ultra-maxi Afro, joined the band that night, and they were all hired by Burdon, who, on a flower power-contrary whim, re-named the band War.
They began gigging right away as Eric Burdon & War, drawing SRO crowds and solidifying the newly formed unit; their debut album Eric Burdon Declares War (MGM Records, 1970) produced the eccentric stream of consciousness, talking-funk single “Spill the Wine,” which hit number three on the pop chart (the album reached number eighteen) and was followed shortly thereafter by a less-well received LP The Black Man’s Burden (MGM Records, 1970), But it was their live performances that generated tremendous word of mouth and they departed on an extensive European tour; their UK debut, at London’s Hyde Park, drew rave reviews and when the band set up at fabled London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, attendee Jimi Hendrix was compelled to join them for a lysergic funk jam session (it was not to be repeated--Hendrix died later that same night). The unstable and worn out Burdon opted to quit the band midway through the tour, but War simply steamed on, successfully finishing all the dates themselves.
Back in America, and freed from Burdon’s influence, they signed to United Artists and began issuing a series of albums, War and All Day Music (both United Artists, 1971) that sold respectably, but with The World is a Ghetto (United Artists, 1972), the band came into it’s own; the first single, “Cisco Kid,” sold over a million copies as soon as it hit and the album hit number one, becoming one of the biggest sellers of the year, recognized by Billboard’s Album of the Year nod. They were at the top of their game, delivering deep soul, Latin-tinged funk jams that carried irresistible appeal; the follow ups Deliver the World and War Live (both United Artists, 1973) were number one R&B albums, but Why Can’t We Be Friends (United Artists, 1975) and its vastly influential single “Low Rider” that represented the band’s peak. “Cisco Kid” had already won the ear of the Mexican-American audience and “Low Rider” sealed the deal for eternity (it’s worth noting that this was hardly a contrived work--Harold Brown, a skilled metal worker and welder by day prior to commercial success, built his first lowrider car in 1963). The band kept touring and recording throughout the late 70’s, scoring a strong run of R&B Top 5 singles but by 1980 seemed only to crack the lower reaches of the R&B Top 100. First disco and then hip-hop took a toll, and they were burned out by life on the road and the band began to fragment; that year, horn man Miller was stabbed to death during a street dispute Los Angeles, deepening the pall hanging over the group, and Brown relocated to New Orleans, while Scott and Dickerson soon after took a hiatus; conga master Allan died from natural causes in the mid-1980s and soon, keyboardist Jordan, who never contributed a lead vocal to any of their records (Scott and Dickerson were the primary vocalists, respectively singing lead on “Low Rider“ and "World is a Ghetto"), was the only one actively gigging as War.
Jordan and Goldstein wrested away not legal control of the name War but also all royalties earned, excluding the surviving founders and touching off a series of litigious challenges that culminated in a 1997 decision where the judge ruled in Jordan and Goldstein’s favor, stating "It's like the Glenn Miller band--it doesn't matter who the musicians are." While Jordan and his revolving troupe of imitators toured constantly, the others drifted around the country and only Lee Oskar maintained a high profile professional career, manufacturing his signature line of harmonicas and instruction books; Brown played in various R&B and zydeco bands in New Orleans but following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he accepted Oskar’s invitation to move into Oskar’s Washington state home. Slowly, the original line up came together and begin gigging and recording as the Lowrider band, with all their formidable skills intact; repeated entreaties to Jordan to bury the hatchet went unanswered. . In 2007, they filed a $10,000,000 lawsuit against Goldstein for fraud, breach of contract and a litany of similar charges--all were song writers, yet had not been paid in decades.
It’s an ugly way for such a glorious, socially-aware and inclusive band to end up, but also an all too typical example of the greed and back-stabbing that has always characterized the music business. Jordan does not publicly speak of his former colleagues, but Brown reflected on the issue on 2007: “When we get to the name thing, that's touchy, because it's our birthright," he said. "But it's like that song we did with Eric Burdon, 'You Can't Take Away Our Music.' You can't--and we've still got our souls."