War's distinctive mix of funk, Latin, and jazz kept the group on the chart for most of the 1970s. In 1970 War scored its first hit as ex-Animal Eric Burdon's backup band.
War's roots reach back to 1962, when Harold Brown and Howard Scott cofounded a band called the Creators. Still in high school, the two later met up with Leroy "Lonnie" Johnson and B.B. Dickerson, and in 1965 Charles Miller joined. Through the mid-'60s the Creators worked various L.A. and West Coast clubs, opening for such acts as Ike and Tina Turner. The group came to a temporary halt when Scott was drafted and Dickerson moved to Hawaii. The remaining group members stayed active in music, and at one point found themselves working under the name the Nightshift backing L.A. Rams football star Deacon Jones' ill-fated efforts as a singer. By then percussionist Papa Dee Allen, whose past credits included playing with Dizzy Gillespie, had joined, and the horn section had been expanded.
Around this time the group met Jerry Goldstein, a former member of the Strangeloves ("I Want Candy") and writer and producer for the Angels ("My Boyfriend's Back") and the McCoys ("Hang On Sloopy"). Goldstein, who, as manager, producer, and cowriter, would play a key role in War's success, also knew Eric Burdon [see entry], who was then seriously considering quitting music altogether. After Burdon heard the band, he and his friend, a young Danish harmonica player named Lee Oskar, joined them in a series of rehearsals. The Creators were rechristened War. After just a few dates, Rosen died of a drug overdose, and Dickerson returned.
The band recorded two albums with Burdon (three, if you count Love Is All Around, which consists of material recorded in August 1969, several months before sessions for the group's debut album). "Spill the Wine" (Number Three, 1970) was their biggest hit together; a followup, "They Can't Take Away Our Music," went to Number 50 in early 1971. War and Burdon were on tour in Europe in the fall of 1970, performing to rave reviews and sold-out halls. Suddenly, shortly after the death of Burdon's friend Jimi Hendrix, the singer abruptly abandoned the group. Left on their own, the members of the band continued to tour and to fulfill their commitments.
War proved itself as a creative force in its own right with War (Number 190, 1971), but its breakthrough came later that year with All Day Music (Number 16, 1971), which featured the hit singles "All Day Music" (Number 35, 1971) and "Slippin' Into Darkness" (Number 16 pop, Number 12 R&B, 1972). From that point, War rolled on through the decade with four Top 10 albums, including the Number One followup, The World Is a Ghetto. Hits of the period included "The World Is a Ghetto" (Number Seven pop, Number Three R&B, 1972), "The Cisco Kid" (Number Two pop, Number Five R&B, 1973), "Gypsy Man" (Number Eight pop, Number Six R&B, 1973), "Me and Baby Brother" (Number 15 pop, Number 18 R&B, 1973), "Low Rider" (Number Seven pop, Number One R&B, 1975), and "Why Can't We Be Friends?" (Number Six pop, Number Nine R&B, 1975). Deliver the Word (Number Six, 1973), War Live! (Number 13, 1974), and Why Can't We Be Friends? (Number Eight, 1975) all went gold; Greatest Hits (Number Six, 1976), which included one new song, "Summer" (Number Seven pop, Number Four R&B, 1976), was certified platinum.
Around this time War also worked on movie soundtracks for Youngblood and The River Niger. Three tracks for The River Niger soundtrack and other previously released and unreleased cuts comprised Platinum Jazz (Number 23, 1977), the first platinum album in the history of Blue Note Records. In 1977 War moved to MCA Records, and the title cut from Galaxy was a disco hit (Number 39 pop, Number Five R&B, 1978). In 1978 the group suffered its first personnel shift since 1970, when Dickerson left the group during the recording of The Music Band. Just two years later, Miller was the victim of a robbery, during which he was murdered. Subsequent albums had neither the commercial nor artistic impact of their early and mid-'70s releases, although the 1982 debut on RCA, Outlaw, promised something of a comeback, boasting "You Got the Power" and the title cut, but neither entered the pop Top 40.
Beginning in the mid-'80s, War, buffeted by more personnel changes and their audience's shift to disco, ceased recording and split with Goldstein. But the act never stopped touring. During an opening performance of "Gypsy Man," Allen died onstage of a brain aneurysm; the group has retired the song from its live repertoire. Not long after Allen's passing, War reunited with Goldstein. With several musicians (including Brown's son, Rae Valentine) augmenting the original core membership of Brown, Jordan, and Scott, the band made a triumphant return to recording in 1994 with the acclaimed Peace Sign (which featured such guest musicians as Lee Oskar and José Feliciano) and a successful tour. Following more touring and the departures of Brown and Scott, Jordan and War soldiered on and released Colección Latina, a 1997 ode to Hispanic culture featuring Feliciano, an acoustic remix of "East L.A.," and a Spanish version of "Low Rider." Meanwhile, Brown and Scott wrote new material with original War chums Dickerson and Oskar. With Goldstein and Jordan in control of War's name, the quartet dubbed itself Guerra ("war" in Spanish) and later, Same Ole Band. Throughout the '90s, War's early work has been sampled or covered on hits by TLC, Janet Jackson, Korn, and Smash Mouth.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus