A founding member of one of funk rock’s great bands hangs onto the name and tries to maintain its lasting legacy.
By Steve Houk
So how does a band end up getting named War?
I mean, that’s a helluva moniker to saddle yourself with, and then have to live up to. Not many more direct and in-your-face band names than that.
Well the story might surprise you, or at the very least it should amuse you. And who better to tell it than a guy who was there, War co-founder Lonnie Jordan, the only member of the original lineup remaining in this band called War.
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It was 1969, in Japan of all places, where the Animals’ Eric Burdon was touring with his (hopefully) new post-Animals group, a bunch of talented mostly Afro’d, bell-bottomed musicians who had the exact funk vibe that Burdon was seeking. But his band still didn’t have a name.
“We went to a sushi bar for the first time, I never been to a Japanese restaurant, first time I ever had sushi or saki,” Jordan said on a break from War’s current tour that will bring the band to Wolf Trap on August 23rd. “So here I am, I’m young, big afro, bell bottoms, all of us were, and after we got done with dinner, we were walking with one of the promoters that was promoting the show, he was happy that Eric came down with his new band, and he and my manager Steve Gold and [soon-to-be War co-songwriter and producer] Jerry Goldstein turned around and watched us walking, we were all a little tipsy and buzzed from the saki. They looked at us and said, ‘My God, I’m glad I know you guys, otherwise man I would have started walking faster to get away because you guys look like you just came out of a battlefield.’ And that rung a bell in my manager and Jerry’s head, and bingo, they had decided on War. And later on, we pretty much caressed the name, realizing that the connection with our music is that we were like waging war against wars, like Vietnam which was happening at the time. Like raging against the machine, you know?”
Burdon would stay only two years, but this memorable band — a powerful blend of rock, funk, jazz, Latin, rhythm and blues and reggae — would go on to sell 50 million records, be twice nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and establish a reputation and musical legacy that continues to this day. The guys who were playing music before Burdon came a callin’ had come straight outta Compton, honing and developing their sound in the ghetto before they got their break with the former Animal.
“We came from the streets,” the enthusiastic and affable Jordan said. “It was Howard (E. Scott), me, Harold (Brown), out of Compton, Long Beach, Harbor City, San Pedro. They had a band called The Creators, and they asked me to join them. Coming together doing talent shows in the different schools, then a few singles, everything we did was a street vibe. And that’s why to this very day I call our music ‘universal street music.’ ”
Jordan and his cohorts eventually got a new bass player, Peter Rosen, who fortuitously for them, owed some money to a buddy of future music mogul Goldstein.
“And that person was Bruce Garfield, so Peter called Bruce and told him, ‘I know I owe you the money, but I tell you what, you’ll make even more money if you come down here and listen to the band I’m playing with.’ So Bruce came down to listen to us, and Bruce said, ‘I need to go back and tell Eric about this new band because Eric is looking for a new band. He would love this band.” So he went back, told Eric, told everyone, and they all got together and came down to the club The Rag Doll and heard us play and Eric fell in love at that point.”
When they got back from Japan and that first tour, the guys and Burdon would record their first record Eric Burdon Declares WAR (1970), and War was off and running. Songs like “Spill The Wine” and “Tobacco Road” would establish their funk laced sound, while also exuding a then-unique multi-ethnic band vibe. Also in ’70 at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, band friend and up and coming guitarist Jimi Hendrix would join War onstage for what would infamously and tragically be his last public performance.
“Jimi came down on a Tuesday night without his guitar, just hanging out. I said, ‘Where’s your guitar man? Because usually you always have a guitar hanging on you.’ So he said, ‘I promise I’ll bring it tomorrow.’ So he brought his guitar but no amplifier, we just had a little small little toy amplifier and he came up on stage and we all jammed for a whole hour on a ‘Mother Earth.’ Ironically, it’s weird that we did ‘Mother Earth’ and then he goes back to his hotel and dies the next day. I just had to look at it in a double entendre, like he went back to mother earth.”
In 1971, the band went on without Burdon who, after collapsing onstage from an asthma attack, would move on to a solo career and today has rock and roll legend status from his days with both The Animals and War. Although arguably the height of the band’s popularity was during those Burdon days when “Spill The Wine” caused rampant funk dancing everywhere, War kept making great music with songs that are recognized and played frequently on radio and streams today, like “Low Rider”, “Cisco Kid” , “World is A Ghetto” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” among others, plus they would record the best selling album of 1973 World Is A Ghetto.
After several personnel changes during the next twenty-plus years, including the murder of sax player Charles Miller, the band tried to unsuccessfully gain independence from Goldstein, eventually losing the band name War to a Goldstein lawsuit. In response, as Brown, Scott, Lee Oskar and a returning B.B. Dickerson (who had not worked with War since 1979) adopted the name Lowrider Band, Jordan opted to remain with Goldstein and create a new version of War with himself as the only original member, a decision that has obviously caused a rift between the founding members. Ironically, it has created its own war within the guys who went from the ghetto to superstardom together. But Jordan tries to be diplomatic and clearly still has love for his old friends.
“My relationship with the guys in the Lowrider band, all I can say about that is that I still have a lot of love for those guys, Lee Oskar, Harold Brown, Howard Scott, and of course the other guys that are not here today. But I have to say if there is any hate in their heart, they can’t help it. And because it’s automatic when people are upset about something that they’re not doing that they think they should be doing, but they’re the ones who made the decision not to do what I’m still doing. I still love them, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I’m at and visa versa. So we just had a bad marriage, but we had great kids, which is our music.”
Regardless of the issues with the original band members, Jordan remains ecstatic that he is still out there playing at 69, and giving audiences a heaping helping of the funk grooves that made War the legendary band that it is today.
“I know that my fans are my rock n’ roll hall of fans, so that’s what keeps me going, man. They uplift me and gives me a new fresh breath of air every time I perform on stage live. They need to be entertained. They need something different from what’s going on in the world today. And so do I. And that’s the bottom line. So it’s definitely a healing process for the mind, soul, spirit, body, everything.”