While prepping for an interview I’m doing with legendary Animals frontman Eric Burdon for The Houston Press, I was inspired to revisit the discography of his onetime collaborators and backing band—who went on to produce a lot of fine music on their own—War.
After splitting from Burdon (with whom they made radio favorite “Spill the Wine”), War produced a hot, stewy gumbo of R&B, funk, rock, blues, jazz, and—most noticeably—a Latin tinge on records like All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Why Can’t We Be Friends, and Galaxy. Their most famous song, of course, is the inescapable “Low Rider” which has appeared on countless movies, TV shows, and commercials.
They’ve been on the ballot for nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice now (but not made it in) and are—in my mind—criminally underrated.
The classic lineup included (in above photo, left to right) Papa Dee Allen (congas, percussion), Lonnie Jordan (keyboards), Harold Brown (drums), Charles Miller (flute, sax), Lee Oskar (harmonica), Howard Scott (guitar), and B.B. Dickerson (bass). All members contributed vocals.
So where is War today? Well, sadly…living up to their name. With Miller’s tragic murder in 1980 and Allen’s onstage heart attack-related demise eight years later, five members are left, but showing little of the harmony they did on so many records.
In a nutshell, due to lawsuits, counter lawsuits, and disagreements about royalties, publishing, band name, and song rights—many involving the band’s former manager/producer Jerry Goldstein—the official version of War touring today includes only Jordan and a list of hired guns, while Scott, Brown, Oskar, and Dickerson tour as The Lowrider Band. They are unable to use the name that made them famous, or even mention that they are former members in any advertisements, even as they play all the same songs that came from their pens.
I interviewed Brown and I got to spend time with when they came to Houston in 2008 for a one-off gig. And I mean real time.
Driving around in a van with Brown…picking up Dickerson at the airport in my fabulous Honda Civic (where he immediately told me a filthy joke at the baggage carousel)…hanging out at the modest Sun Suites where they were staying…eating and downing plenty of wine at an Italian restaurant.
It is probably one of the greatest regrets of my life that I turned down Brown’s offer to visit their full rehearsal and hang out more the next day because I didn’t want to take two days straight off from day job. What an idiot!!! Oh well, I do have that harmonica and a singing “Low Rider” toy car that Oskar mailed me afterwards.
The outdoor show that weekend was incredible, the playing was solid, and the harmonies intact. I was especially happy to see what looked like original era fans, blissed out on lawn chairs, reminiscing in their heads.
Along with touring members Lance Ellis (sax) and Chuk Barber (percussion) the band also brought out special guest (and Houston resident) Alice Tweed Smith—a member of a later lineup—on background vocals. The sheer joy on her face for that entire show stays with me still.
“I think things are really going to happen soon. We’ve got a lawyer who worked on the Elvis estate,” the energetic Brown told me back then while piloting the van through the streets of north Houston. “Those songs—and that name—belong to us.”
Unfortunately, that was almost five years ago, and the lawsuits drag on with seemingly no end in sight, Goldstein/Jordan vs. the Lowriders. It’s a shame that, during a time when they could be doing such great things together, collecting accolades and playing as a single band under a single name,—War (and Goldstein) continue to battle.