War Wages On

Funk legends War play at the Pima County Fair

Funk is eternal. It's an element like earth, wind, fire and water, a force of nature. Indeed, it's a soulful mother lode that only certain musicians can tap to find musical treasures. Which kind of explains why there are so many classic funk bands on the road these days, despite the fact that they haven't had a hit song in years. You can't give up the funk once you've found it, apparently.

The legendary '70s band War appears this Saturday at the Pima County Fair, only one night after another hoary '70s band, Rare Earth, opens the show for seminal rock singer Johnny Rivers at the Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater.

Later this year, AVA (the Casino del Sol concert venue) will host more funky goings-on. When Welsh crooner Tom Jones plays there on June 27, the horn-fueled Bay Area band Tower of Power will open. And on Aug. 14, Earth, Wind and Fire will hold court.

Although many fans may most easily remember War for its iconic monster hit "Low Rider," the group has an important role in rock and soul history, having been formed in the late 1960s around English blues-rock singer Eric Burdon, formerly of the Animals. It was also one of the first and most successful early integrated pop bands.

In 1969, Burdon showed up in Los Angeles and, with the help of producer Jerry Goldstein, recruited the core players of War, busy street-level musicians who played with the versatility of jazz session men, adding Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar. Something of a music-biz impresario, Goldstein, who had helped craft such classic tunes as "My Boyfriend's Back," "Hang On Sloopy" and "I Want Candy," wrote songs with the group and helped commercialize its sound throughout the 1970s.

With Burdon at the front of the band, the group had a couple of hit tunes, such as the hippie soul "Spill the Wine" and revivalist blues of "Tobacco Road." But not until he left the group did the hit-making machine that was War kick into overdrive.

Goldstein and the band quickly devised a winning marketing powerhouse boasting a unique blend of funk, Latin percussion, blues, jazz and R&B. Most remarkable, for many years the group lacked a proper lead singer, with different members trading off duties.

In addition to "Low Rider"--which arguably has evolved from being little more than a gimmick song to an become an American musical institution--among War's top-selling singles in the 1970s were tunes such as "Why Can't We Be Friends," "Me and Baby Brother," "Summer," "All Day Music," "Slippin' Into Darkness," "The World is a Ghetto," "Gypsy Man" and "The Cisco Kid."

Nearly two dozen musicians have been members of War over the years. These days, the band includes surviving members Lonnie Jordan on keyboards, Howard Scott on guitar and Harold Brown on drums.

It may seem quaint now, but choosing War as the name for a pop band was somewhat controversial during a time when the world was in the grip of the Vietnam War.

"Our mission was to spread a message of brotherhood and harmony," said Jordan a few days ago, after the band returned to Los Angeles from a concert in Maui.

"Our instruments and voices became our weapons of choice and the songs our ammunition. We spoke out against racism, hunger, gangs, crimes, and turf wars, as we embraced all people with hope and the spirit of brotherhood. It's just as apropos today."

Although War faded from view after the 1983 album Life (Is So Strange), the group reappeared to record Peace Sign in 1996. War has stayed in the public eye since then, thanks to subsequent greatest-hits compilations (the most recent being the Rhino Records anthology The Very Best of War in 2003) and near-constant touring that has it playing some 150 shows a year.

To date, the band has sold more than 25 million records. Just as War once performed early covers of songs by such artists as Johnny Cash, many contemporary artists--such as Janet Jackson, Smashmouth, Macy Gray, Korn and Shaggy--have recorded or sampled War tunes.

Which means that artists have been making money off of War for years, but War has been making a tidy sum through royalties as well.

Rap Declares War, a 1992 collection, also on Rhino Records, included a variety of songs that sampled War's inimitable music. Artists on that recording include such diverse hip-hoppers as Ice-T, 2Pac, Too Short, De La Soul, Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost, Brand Nubian, A Lighter Shade of Brown and Poor Righteous Teachers.

Considering the state of our nation and its role in global politics, the poor and disenfranchised from our backyards to halfway around the world, one might easily argue that our planet is more in need of War's positive message than ever.

Indeed, said Jordan, the world is still a ghetto.

"There will always be a reason to play our songs. When you come back to reality, you pull down War, because War is reality. We have a lot of second-generation fans, and they're seeing the same things their parents saw. They're hearing the same messages. We're like Levi's, and there's nothing nostalgic about Levi's. In fact, they're not really good and funky until they've been worn awhile."

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