The Sounds of War
Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan and his group of musicians known as War low-ride their way into town this weekend, happy to still be touring after more than four decades of live performances, but still wondering whether they’ll ever be honored for their contributions to the American music landscape.
“Even though I’ve been blessed to be doing something that has kept me alive for so long, I’m a little surprised that we’ve never been given an award for our music,” admits Jordan, the group’s only remaining original band member and still its keyboardist/vocalist. “I think the problem has been that people haven’t really decided how to categorize us.”
Four years ago, War was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but came up short of the number of votes required for induction. Although disappointed with the result, Jordan insists this award vacuum doesn’t negate all that his band has accomplished.
“We’re still able to play all the venues, all the festivals,” he tells me. “And wherever we play, we’re always acknowledged by our very own ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fans.’ I suppose that’s the most important thing.”
Exactly. Since bursting onto the music scene in the late ’60s with its fusion of funk, rock, jazz, R&B and Latin sounds that blended perfectly with its members breezy, laid-back California lifestyles, War has churned out a number of classic tracks that generations of music lovers have enjoyed, including Spill The Wine, Cisco Kid, Why Can’t We Be Friends and the timeless Low Rider. Maybe more importantly, the group’s willingness to integrate multi-ethnic musicians into its lineup at a time of intense social unrest – highlighted by the Vietnam conflict, the Black Power and Chicano movements in Los Angeles, and the Watts Riots – has served as an example of how to achieve what Jordan calls “universal street music.”
“We were just a bunch of guys who liked to jam in the studio and have fun,” confesses Jordan, whose band joins another dynamic California-based group, Tower of Power, in concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Neal Blaisdell Arena. “And yes, we were able to help knock down some racial and music barriers with our music. While a group like Sly and the Family Stone was breaking down barriers within pop and R&B circles, we were making inroads with gospel, pop and Latin music stations. I’m quite proud of that.”
Here’s what else Jordan told Musical Notes:
MN: Before you became War, the band was first known as The Creators, then Nightshift. At one point during this time period, the group performed back up to former NFL great Deacon Jones on vocals, right?
LJ: That’s right. Deacon and some other pro players invested money in a California club, and Deacon asked us if we could back him up. He really wanted to be an entertainer.
MN: Eventually your band hooked up with Eric Burdon of the Animals and changed its name to Eric Burdon & War. What’s the significance behind the group’s current name?
LJ: When most people think of the word war, they think of bloodshed. But whereas some might be picking up guns, firing bullets and killing people, we chose to pick up our instruments and shoot out lyrics, rhythms and melodies. Our philosophy was simple: Yes, the world is a ghetto, but we’ve always sought to make people more aware of their surroundings, and present our messages in a positive way that had a lot of groove.
MN: One of the grooviest tunes of the ’70s is War’s Low Rider. Take us on a little trip here and explain how the late Charles Miller, whose signature saxophone playing and deep vocals can be heard on the track, came up with such a classic tune.
LJ: I still remember Charles pulling up to the studio in a low rider one day holding a bottle of tequila in his hand. When he came in, the band already had this groove going and Charles listened to it and began singing the line, The low ri-dah is a little hiyah. And we were like, yeah, we may be on to something here! Later on, Charles added the saxophone part to create the melody line and the rest, as they say, is history. At the time, you had to be in California to know anything about low riders. So, I suppose we were able to take something from our culture and introduce it in song form to the rest of the country.
MN: Many people may not know that your band was the last to jam with Jimi Hendrix before his death in September 1970.
LJ: Right. Jimi and Eric Burdon were really good friends, so Jimi agreed to come in and play with us during an informal jam at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. I think we played for about an hour and Jimi joined us for Mother Earth and Tobacco Road. After we were done, he left and went back to the hotel where he was staying. Less than two days later, he was dead.
MN: Is War releasing a new album soon?
LJ: We are. We’ve been collaborating with several young artists for this project. I can’t say who, but if I did you’d recognize their names. The album will be called War: Evolutionary, and we’re targeting a March 2014 release. It will be our first album since Peace Sign (released in 1994).
MN: What else can you say about the album?
LJ: Our first single will likely be a song we did with the comedy duo Cheech and Chong. In fact, we’ve been touring some with Cheech (Marin) and Tommy (Chong). If you may recall, they used our song Low Rider on the soundtrack of their movie Up in Smoke. Anyway, we’ve been doing shows with them where they present their comedy routine and music, and we do our music as well. It’s been a lot of fun.
SMALL-KINE NOTE: Gerardo “Jerry” Velez, the veteran percussionist and drummer of the jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra, will be part of a 45-minute live jam session this week to benefit Hawaii public school music programs. The jam will include local musician Uncle Willie K. and feature the music of legendary psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, whom Velez played with at the 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York. The live session is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Dole Cannery’s Oceanic “VIP” Music Hall. Donation is $100 and comes with cocktails and pupus. Proceeds will go to Supportmyclass.org, which assists Hawaii’s public school classrooms by providing teachers with “wish lists” for items their students need to thrive.