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70s funk was at its most chilled when WAR exploded on to the scene via their hit and miss double stint with former ANIMALS kingpin ERIC BURDON. Subsequently responsible for some all-encompassing Latin, soul, blues, jazz, reggae rock/pop tracks (and more or less the inspiration for the equally racially-integrated AVERAGE WHITE BAND), WAR fired out several big hits, including `Slippin’ Into Darkness’, `The World Is A Ghetto’, `The Cisco Kid’, `Gypsy Man’, `Me And Baby Brother’, `Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ and the mesmerising `Low Rider’. At their leanest, the group was among the most adventurous, exciting musicians of their day; it’s just a pity their passion for social justice and racial integration was so often substituted for “bitches” and “uzis” among their musical descendants.
Back in 1962; several years prior to the formation of WAR, guitarist Howard Scott and drummer Harold Brown had instigated The Creators, a Compton/South Bay, L.A.-based covers combo with a strong Latino influence, though they failed to make much of an impact outside of their native California; from 1965 onwards they’d slowly but surely added bassist Morris “B.B.” Dickerson, keyboardist Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan, and saxophonist/flautist Charles “Chuck” Miller.
After a rare as hen’s teeth single in 1966, `Oh How I Love You’ (on Dore Records), backing Little Johnny Hamilton, The Creators did, however, pre-figure their soul/blues/rock partnership with white R&B merchant ERIC BURDON, by hooking up with LOVE sax player Tjay Contrelli for a series of local club dates; actual recordings of this bizarre partnership are rumoured to exist although they’ve never been commercially released.
In 1968 after Scott’s induction into military service, the group – with the addition of bassist Peter Rosen and ex-Dizzy Gillespie percussionist Thomas Sylvester “Papa Dee” Allen – metamorphasised into Nightshift, and duly backed American football figurehead, Deacon Jones, who was attempting to re-invent himself as a club crooner. Meanwhile, Chuck Miller moonlighted with SENOR SOUL, a funky covers act who dispatched several singles and a couple of LPs between ’68-’69. Further personnel changes came about in ’69, when Rosen sadly overdosed; his berth taken by a returning Dickerson, whilst Danish-born harmonica player Lee Oskar was introduced just as the ensemble went through another sweeping development.
The 7-piece were subsequently saved from possible extinction by producer/songwriter, Jerry Goldstein, who introduced the band to Newcastle-born singer ERIC BURDON, a man looking to further gel in to the West Coast scene. It’s no secret that Eric renamed the group WAR, and hastily went on to make the most of the weirdly wonderful connection on two albums in 1970: “Eric Burdon Declares War” and “The Black-Man’s Burdon”. Though the strangely infectious rhythms of Top 3 hit, `Spill The Wine’, bode well, both sets sounded stodgy and directionless despite some success. The group nevertheless toured America and Europe to critical acclaim and mass adulation. The union was to be short-lived, however, and following the death of close friend JIMI HENDRIX in September 1970, BURDON bailed out of the tour. WAR battled on alone, fulfilling their live commitments and beginning work on their own album. Although the group was still officially working as Eric’s backing band, Goldstein (now their manager) secured them a separate deal with United Artists. The eponymous WAR {*7} album was released in spring ‘71, a promising collection of psychedelic soul, gospel and jazz-funk, underpinned with the group’s trademark Latino rhythms. The set opened with `Sun Oh Son’; mellow flute, harmonica and close harmonies kicking into a stone-heavy bass/organ groove; dynamic tactics which would see the septet develop into one of the fiercest progressive soul combos of the decade. One of WAR’s secret weapons was the aforesaid Oskar; his harmonica playing at its bittersweet best on the beautiful `Back Home’, a sun-kissed, hymn-like ballad which stood among the cream of their mellower work. Their more experimental tendencies emerged on `War Drums’ and `Fidel’s Fantasy’; the latter a bizarre spoken-word monologue berating Cuban leader Fidel Castro; its mocking message driven on a hypnotic groundswell of insistent piano and Latin percussion. There were apparently fears for (writer and narrator) Papa Allen’s safety after the record’s release.
The band were now certainly big enough to attract unwanted attention, especially after the considerable success of ALL DAY MUSIC (1971) {*8}. For many fans the consummate WAR set, it was certainly their most consistent; boasting the seminal spookiness of `Slippin’ Into Darkness’, a shadowy blues/funk epic that had the atmosphere of an old-time confessional. It was saddled alongside the defiant funk clarion call of `Get Down’, the horizontal Top 40 title track and the groovy `Nappy Head’. `That’s What Love Will Do’ meanwhile, was an old Creators tune, updated in moody, melancholy style. Again produced by Goldstein, some of the flab had been trimmed off since the debut, resulting in a leaner, more radio-friendly sound. Upon its release as a single, `Slippin…’ eventually hit the Top 20, becoming WAR’s first gold release as well as boosting sales of the album and cementing the group’s position as one of the foremost funk/soul attractions in America.
It came as little surprise then, when WAR scaled the charts with their third set, THE WORLD IS A GHETTO (1972) {*8}; the record spawning two Top 10 singles in the compelling mock-western fantasy of `The Cisco Kid’ and an edited title track that stretched to epic proportions but was overshadowed by the 13-minute, `City, Country, City’.
The ambitious and progressive, DELIVER THE WORD (1973) {*8}, was a hybrid of mantric jazz-funk and soothing soul, coming together in one big ball of fusion in the 11-minute `Gypsy Man’; cropped to size for their third Top 10 single in a row. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly sequel single, `Me And Baby Brother’. It was indeed a fine time to get to grips with an all-encompassing concert double-set, and recorded at the High Chaparral, Chicago, back in November ’72 – though released in March ’74 – the simply-titled LIVE {*7} was engaging to say the least.
WHY CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS? (1975) {*8} and it hot-to-trot title track both went Top 10. The song continued WAR’s anti-war heartfelt pleas for an end to racial segregation, which was even beamed into space for US and Russian astronauts’ listening pleasure! The swimmingly sublime, `Low Rider’, meanwhile, became another Top 10 smash and their first to break the UK Top 20 (in early ’76), where they were signed to Island Records. It proved to be somewhat of a signature tune thereafter, and started the ball rolling for a series of exploitative 45s that had `Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ hit No.21. Back on home soil, a “Greatest Hits” package unearthed WAR’s last missive into Top 20 territory, `Summer’.
Things started to go slightly awry in the latter half of the decade, beginning with a move to the famous Blue Note Records. Though the two-disc PLATINUM JAZZ (1977) {*6} was indeed the label’s only Top 30 jazz-rock release, musically it fell way short of expectations with its noodling, instrumental hotchpotch of old and previously unreleased tracks; an edited `L.A. Sunshine’ was its only saving grace in terms of moderate singles success.
Switching allegiances to MCA Records, GALAXY (also 1977) {*6}, wasn’t much of an improvement; the group all at sea by attempting to come to grips with the all-pervasive disco revolution. Still, the stellar Star Wars-name checking Top 20 set did unveil an equally performing UK title track hit that seemed to procure its riffs from CHAKACHAS’ sexy funk opal, `Jungle Fever’. At a time when prog-length cuts were almost outlawed by the new wave/punk kids, the OTT anchor piece, `The Seven Tin Soldiers’, was proverbially shot to pieces.
Coming as late as it did, it was debatable whether the soundtrack to B-movie, YOUNGBLOOD (1978) {*6}, counted as Blaxploitation; it certainly never gets a mention in commentaries on black film and looks to have even been conveniently written out of most retrospectives of WAR themselves. All of which was a funky shame because this album arguably deserves a mention in the same breath as the soundtrack efforts of WILLIE HUTCH, ROY AYERS, JJ JOHNSON et al. There were few old-guard funk bands kicking grooves as hard or as organic as the title theme, `Youngblood (Livin’ In The Streets)’. A 10-minute-plus monster and a distant cousin of `War Is Coming! War Is Coming!’, the track thundered along on a relentless piano riff, which descended into an extended deep synth coda, and echoed to close-harmonies as ominous as only WAR could marshal. `Flying Machine’ – a tune that has now occasionally featured on blax comps – was the album’s other tour de force; a brilliant, near 8-minute master class in Latin jazz; rarely would Lonnie Jordan’s piano lines dip and snake from spry, seductive repetition to blistering improv. Bookended between these epics, the likes of `Sing A Happy Song’ and the FATBACK BAND-like `Keep On Doin’’ were more in the mould of the era; lifted clear of the competition by the urbane rhythms. The accent’s likewise on rhythm with lithe, dialogue-fronting cues such as `The Kingsmen Sign’, `Junk Yard’ and, wait for it, `Superdude’, while `Walking To War’ shuddered to a stethoscope pulse and dissonant sound effect. The only real mis-step was the verging-on-parody P-FUNK of `This Funky Music Makes You Feel Good’.
With the addition of singer Alice Tweed Smith to the line-up, another dimension was in place for THE MUSIC BAND (1979) {*4}. Though this set stalled one place from the Top 40, WAR’s jazzy jams and syncopated soul was going down like a damp squib; the fact that Dickerson had bailed during its recording, and bassist Luther Rabb filled in, was probably a clue to that fact that the combo was running short of ideas.
Proof in the pudding THE MUSIC BAND 2 (also 1979) {*3} did very little to pave over the cracks; even newbie horns specialist Pat Rizzo (ex-SLY & THE FAMILY STONE) and drummer Ron Hammon couldn’t save the set; indeed sax maestro Charles Miller bailed after laying down only one track, `I’ll Take Care Of You’; poignant in the fact he was stabbed to death on June 14, 1980, after a botched robbery. It was a barren time for WAR; made even worse when the delusional THE MUSIC BAND LIVE (1980) {*4} was dispatched.
Without Alice and signed to R.C.A. Records (after a brief spell on Goldstein’s LAX), the 8-piece ensemble tried to push the boat out for a semi-successful comeback a la OUTLAW (1982) {*5}. Bolstered by a pair of lowly Hot 100 hits, `You Got The Power’ and the title track, the album added a modicum of value to their CB – but not much.
Trimmed somewhat down to a respectable quintet (Scott, Brown, Jordan, Oskar and Allen; plus session people and of course, co-composer/co-writer Jerry Goldstein), WAR continued to find it almost impossible to regain the exposure they’d once effortlessly gleaned. 1983’s LIFE (IS SO STRANGE) (1983) {*4} – with a colourful sleeve depicting a nuclear explosion – hit the buffers. Brown then took a back seat for the Coco Plum-endorsed 1985 set, WHERE THERE’S SMOKE {*3}, an album that re-introduced Hammon and Rabb. Further strife came when Papa Allen died from a brain aneurysm on stage in 1988; the group having split from Goldstein and given up recording.
In August ’91, Latin Alliance featuring WAR hit the Top 60 with `Lowrider (On The Boulevard)’. And with this life extension, the group were eventually coaxed back into the studio in 1994 for PEACE SIGN {*5}; their profile having been revived via an extensive re-issue programme for Avenue Records (through BMG in the UK) and the continuing patronage of various hip hop artists. The line-up on this occasion was headed by Jordan, Brown and Scott – vocalists all – plus Tetsuya “Tex” Nakamura (harmonica), Rae Valentine (keyboards/percussion), Kerry Campbell and Charles Green (sax), and Sal Rodriguez (drums, percussion); Oskar and Ritzo were auxiliary members.
For the next decade and a half, various members came and went. By 2008’s Rhino Records-sanctioned GREATEST HITS LIVE {*6} only Lonnie Jordan remained; he retained Sal and added Stuart Ziff (guitar), Marcos Reyes (percussion) and Francisco “Pancho” Tomaselli (bass); Mitch Kashmar (harmonica) replaced Nakamura. Six years later, David Urquidi (sax/flute) and Stanley Behrens (harmonica) – not Kashmar – returned to the fray with studio set, EVOLUTIONARY (2014) {*5}, which contained an addendum version of `That L.A. Sunshine’, featuring CHEECH & CHONG, and a bonus CD “Greatest Hits” record to compare.
© MC Strong 1994-2009/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Nov2019

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