WAR was never a band with a particular plan. In the 1960s, the band members played their share of gigs and had quite a following in Southern California by taking the sounds of the streets and combining them into a multicultural vibe that easily blended with many genres. Their lives changed forever the night record producer Jerry Goldstein brought Eric Burdon to one of their shows at a topless beer joint in the San Fernando Valley.
Burdon, the former lead singer of the British band The Animals, was burned out on the rock music scene, ready to call it quits and head back to Newcastle. Burdon was desperate for a fresh, authentic sound. He found it with this carefree group headed up by singer and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. Burdon was so blown away by what he heard that he jumped on the stage to jam with them. Within a week, the band and Burdon were recording as WAR.
Burdon and WAR began playing live shows and immediately found themselves in front of sold-out audiences throughout Southern California before entering into the studio to record their debut album Eric Burdon Declares WAR. The album's key track, the erotic Latin flavored "Spill The Wine," was an immediate worldwide hit and launched the band's career.
From the beginning, WAR was conceived as a musical laboratory in the role of Burdon's backup band. It was a vehicle for Goldstein and Burdon to experiment with the blending of many musical styles and influences. It was an experiment that paid off — both through hits with Burdon as frontman, and three years later when WAR became a separate entity without Burdon.
With Burdon at the helm, WAR would stack up 17 gold, platinum or multi-platinum awards along with a triple platinum for The World Is A Ghetto and the double platinum Why Can't We Be Friends.
In late 1971, after Burdon had separated from the band, WAR released All Day Music that contained their first gold hit, "Slippin' Into Darkness."
In 1972, the band's sound was refined and deepened with the release of The World Is A Ghetto — a celebratory, reflective, and gritty album recorded in just 29 days. Its first single, "The Cisco Kid," shipped gold and brought the band a following in the Hispanic community that has remained loyal to WAR to this day. The thought-provoking title song "The World Is A Ghetto" fueled the album to the No. 1 chart spot in Billboard and was voted Billboard's Album of the Year.
WAR followed that album with more hit songs, including "Gypsy Man," "Me And My Baby Brother," and their monster signature hit, "Low Rider."
Their body of work lives beyond the lifespan of a mere hit record or two and beyond what's fashionable in the music industry. It has been featured in countless TV shows, films, and advertising campaigns.
Combining soul, Latin, Afro-Cuban, jazz, blues, reggae and rock influences, the music was as racially integrated as the group itself. They liked things loose and free and were known for their extended jamming. Many of their studio songs had to be edited together out of these self-indulgent sessions where the music came first and keeping track of the time didn’t matter.
We talked with Lonnie Jordan via a phone interview last time WAR was in town. Here's his take...
What are you up to these days?
We never stop touring. We play with a lot of different bands lately. We're a multi-cultural band so we play any and all venues. We love it.
We released our latest recording project, Evolutionary in 2014, pairing new music with greatest hits. We narrowed down the new stuff to 12 songs with a few cameo appearances with people like Cheech & Chong and Joe Walsh, formerly of the Eagles. He loved being on it. We haven't had a CD within the media in a long time so it's a shot in the dark. But we know Joe Walsh is safe with our song.
Who are your current band members?
We're still the lucky number “7.” In addition to myself on keyboards and lead vocals, there’s Salvador Rodriguez on drums and vocals; Scott Martin on saxophone and flute; Marcos Reyes on percussion; Stuart Ziff on lead guitar and vocals; Rene Camacho on bass guitar; and Stanley Behrens on harmonica and vocals.
What lessons did you learn from Burdon?
Eric gave us insight in how to improvise more and bounce off people in the crowd — how to execute music through that experience.
Before we met Eric, the band used to play cover songs — everything from James Brown, Otis Redding, a lot of blues, Latin and country — like Hank Snow and Hank Williams — all different varieties of music. Eric fell in love with that. When he saw us, he said, "that's me band mates." He came from the ghettos of England and we came from the Compton ghetto to share our experiences through music. Eric was the first white British guy to record a half-rap, funky, blues song with "Still the Wine." It was all that and a bag of chips. We took a chance with it — the rap was the hook and it was funky.
How did you come by "The World Is A Ghetto"
That actually was borne by Papa Dee Allen, who was our percussionist. He was writing a play called "Ghetto Man" and he inspired us to make the music behind the play. So we were in Long Beach in a warehouse shed making up songs, listening to the lyrics in his book and his play — and we made it into a song. At first we didn't know if we wanted to make it into an instrumental, but we turned it into a story on a record.
And where did "Slippin' Into Darkness" come from?
All of our songs are stories. In our younger days our parents would always tell us to be careful out there. We were playing all of these hole-in-the-wall clubs and they always told us to do the right thing and don't come home drunk or wasted smokin' weed. They told us, "no slippin' in the darkness," stay in the light, stay focused on the music — no calls to come bail us out of jail, and no fighting in those nightclubs with guys wearing mascara on their lips. Stay in the kitchen and not in the bar, because we were underage. Things like that were all part of the learning process. Some people thought "Slippin' Into Darkness" was a gospel song, and when you think about it, it did sound like gospel telling people basically don't slip in the dark.
Were you guys constantly trying to top your success?
Trying to up the ante to make music better than the last record? We didn't have that pressure for one reason. We didn't know any better. We came from the ghetto, so we didn't know much about recording and recording facilities. We'd go into the studio with an engineer who would take the jam and work with it. We didn't try to establish the same song from the last successful one. We did what we felt like doing because we could. We never knew how to write music and never wrote charts. I'd start playing piano or keyboards and the guys would jam in and that's how it came out. As long as the tape was running we'd have a record of what we did. If we didn't have tape running, we lost the music. That's the kind of band we were, improvising all the time. Everything we wrote was from experience.
What's the story behind "Low Rider?"
We experienced low riders in the hood because there were car clubs like the Dukes and the Imperials. We had this rowdy track that was half-rock and half-whatever else and all of a sudden my sax player, Charles Miller — who owned a low rider — started saying "low rider, a bottle of tequila and salt," and he kept saying it over and over and we wrote from that.
We're just starting the Up In Smoke Tour with Cheech and Chong. The first time "Low Rider" was played in a movie was in Cheech & Chong's “Up In Smoke.” They were riding in an ice cream truck and Cheech was stealing a ride in the street when that song first came on.
George Lopez used to be on 92.3 FM radio and he used to play "Low Rider" as his theme song all the time. He came to the conclusion that was his song and nobody else could use it. He still uses it in his shows. He opens with "Low Rider" and closes with "Why Can't We Be Friends."
What about "Cisco Kid?"
It came from growing up in Compton. We looked at the Cisco Kid as an ethnic hero with his beautiful outfit. He looked like the leader of a low rider club. Jimi Hendrix saw the Cisco Kid's horse as his low rider car. When they did a remake, they had Jimmy Smits as Cisco and Cheech Marin as Pancho. They used our original recording of "Cisco Kid" throughout the whole movie, along with "Why Can't We Be Friends."
The fans vs. the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
We've been nominated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice and we didn't get in twice. I'm not concerned with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My fans acknowledge me so from me to them — it's the "Rock and Roll Hall of Fans" — and that puts us in a fortunate position more than anything.
We respect the fans. We're still working for the same fans from the beginning. They're still alive and they come to see us with multiple generations — bringing their kids, who bring their kids. It's why our concerts are packed with a lot of kids. They're coming with the older generation who stay in the back of the room and sit down. The front area is filled with the younger people and they've come to party. All of our music has been covered by rap groups and they've heard our music in movies. When they Google us and realize that, "wow, we're the originals," they pack our shows. They come to see the real deal — to hear the same songs they know (as rap tunes), this time performed with a little Rogaine on them.
Talk about the live show.
Definitely remind people to drink plenty of water because it's going to be a smokin' hot stage. We're not going to play anything to make people bored. I hate when my favorite bands play everything but the hits. So we make sure we play all the hits that you heard on the radio — and we tell a little history about where and how the music was created originally. It's like school and church. It's nuts.