Blending an irresistible mix of funk, Latin, rock, soul and jazz, the legendary band WAR returns to Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Saturday led by co-founder vocalist/keyboardist Lonnie Jordan.
With more than 50 million records sold, WAR created an impressive catalogue of timeless hits from “Low Rider,” “The Cisco Kid,” “World is a Ghetto, and “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” to “All Day Music” “Summer” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the current lineup includes saxophonist Scott Martin, who spent years with the Pancho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band, and recorded with Ray Charles and Mongo Santamaria; harmonica player Jimmy Behrens, whose credits include jazz legend Jimmy Smith and blues great Willie Dixon; bassist Rene Camacho, who spent years with Latin legend Celia Cruz and recorded with Ry Cooder, Rickie Lee Jones and Angelique Kidjo; and drummer Sal Rodrigues, who toured with Duke Ellington, Tom Jones and Jose Feliciano.
Still creating an intoxicating stylistic amalgam, WAR’s most recent album, “Evolutionary,” was packed with memorable tunes from the breezy “That L.A. Sunshine” (with the U.S.C. marching band and a Cheech and Chong cameo) and the reggae-flavored “Mamacita,” featuring the Tower of Power horns and Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh,” to the 10-minute jam “It’s Our Right/Funky Tonk” and the rap updating of Edwin Starr’s classic anti-war anthem “War.”
“I call it the universal street music; it’s got that mixed salad bowl,” Jordan describes their signature blend. “We came out of Long Beach, Compton, Watts and San Pedro in L.A., and that was known as the ghetto. On the radio, we had a lot of R&B and Latin music coming out of New York, or the blue-eyed soul of the Righteous Brothers, country and western music with Patsy Cline, and a lot of blues, a mixture of everybody. That was our environment, so we couldn’t help but mix a little James Brown with Hank Williams or Mahalia Jackson.”
The musicians of WAR first found fame performing with former Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon. The veteran musicians met Burdon in 1969, when he was seeking a new backing band. “Eric introduced me to Jimi Hendrix,” he recalls. “He and Eric loved each other. We knew him because we passed each other on the road years before when Jimi was playing behind Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. He hung out with us a lot and jammed with us at Ronnie Scott’s (Club) in England the night before he passed away.”
In 1970 they released their first album, “Eric Burdon Declares War,” featuring the dreamy hit single “Spill the Wine.”
It was Jordan who inspired the song’s title by accidentally spilling a bottle of wine on a recording studio board. “I had created a Latin groove on piano and it was at a party where Jim Morrison was wearing a Superman outfit and he was out of control. We recorded the track in the studio and Eric came in and we hadn’t come up with lyrics, and he was in the vocal booth with a girl. He was improvising, rapping before we knew what rap was. The lights were dim and I was trying to see what was going on and I had a big bottle of Gallo wine and it flipped over and fried the board out. It cost me $25,000.”
When Burdon quit in the midst of a European tour in 1971, the group continued on their own. WAR’s second solo album sold close to two million copies and included the hits “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “All Day Music.”
Jordan says “Slippin’ Into Darkness” influenced Bob Marley’s classic “Get Up, Stand Up.”
“We were on tour with Bob Marley and we were one of his favorite groups out of the States,” Jordan explains. “With the name war, he figured we were like a revolutionary band like he was in Jamaica. He heard ‘Slippin’ Into Darkness’ and the horn line and got turned on by it, and the next thing I know, he had this song with pretty much the same line.”
WAR really hit their stride on the follow-up album, “The World Is a Ghetto,” which topped the charts and sold over three million copies, making it the best-selling recording of 1973. It also produced two Top-10 hits in “The Cisco Kid” and the title ballad.
Success continued with “Deliver the Word,” which spawned the hits “Gypsy Man” and “Me and Baby Brother.” Then “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” which sold more than two million copies, provided the gold-selling title track and one of their most famous songs, “Low Rider.”
The success of the funky hit — hailed as “the Chicano national anthem,” by comedian George Lopez — totally surprised Jordan. “I never thought it would even play on the radio. I didn’t think any of our music would play on the radio beginning with ‘Spill the Wine.’ It wasn’t the norm, it wasn’t what was on the radio. We promoted our own records, we didn’t depend much on the record label. ‘Slippin’ Into Darkness’ was a big surprise, no one understood it.”
After a few fallow years, by the 1990s, War’s potent music began to attract a new following with rap artists like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Geto Boys, Eazy-E and Cypress Hill sampling their songs. The Latin Alliance released an updated rap version of “Low Rider” in 1991, and Hawaii’s Simplisity recorded “Cisco Kid.”
Then the album “Rap Declares War” was released in 1992, featuring top rappers such as Ice-T, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Kid Frost, Brand Nubian and 2Pac, along with contributions from WAR’s musicians.
Two years later, the studio album “Peace Sign,” found WAR delivering another spicy stew of jazz-influenced gritty funk and positive messages. Musician magazine noted, “this comeback sounds like a ripe nugget from their funkiest years.”
Proud of his band’s influence, Jordan says: “I listen to a lot of rock groups today and I hear a lot of samples or simulation of our tracks. ‘Low Rider’ was so different, the bass line and the drums a lot of rock groups simulate that, or even the guitars on ‘Cisco Kid,’ I hear in rock.”
And there’s “Beetles in the Bog” from their “Ghetto” album, which sure sounds a lot like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.”
“A DJ told me, ‘did you know Fleetwood Mac did a song almost similar to ‘Beetles in the Bog’?’ He played a little bit. I never realized they pretty much did the same thing using a marching band where we used a lot of voices. I’m honored that a lot of people listen to our music.”
* WAR plays the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. There will be a dance floor for those with orchestra level tickets. Tickets are $15, $40, $55, $65, $85, and a limited number of premium $125 seats (plus applicable fees). For tickets or more information, visit the box office, call 242-6469, or go online to www.mauiarts.org.
via The Maui News