British blues-rocker Eric Burdon was looking for a new direction after having a string of 1960s hits with his band The Animals. Lonnie Jordan was leading a SoCal band called Nightshift that seemingly had no direction, with its mix of Latin, jazz, R&B and rock that record companies couldn’t figure out what to do with and left unsigned.
Producer and then-Burdon manager Jerry Goldstein had an idea. He brought Burdon to a North Hollywood, Calif., bar called the Rag Doll to see Los Angeles Rams defensive end and aspiring singer Deacon Jones’ nightclub act.
Jones, a member of the Rams’ vaunted “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line at the time, worked in clubs around L.A. and often in Las Vegas, and his backing band was Nightshift.
Burdon was enthralled by the band and enlisted Nightshift – soon to be renamed WAR – to join him in the studio and see what magic might happen. More than magic, the collaboration resulted in a brief career revival for Burdon but, more notably, established WAR as one of rock’s first multiethnic, Latin-infused breakout superstars that is belatedly celebrating its 50th anniversary with box set releases and remixes of its biggest hits. And, of course, they continue touring.
Eric Burdon & WAR’s first single, a Latin-jazz-tinged, mildly psychedelic now-classic called “Spill The Wine,” went to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was RIAA-certified Gold with more than 500,000 units sold in 1970. It would be the first and only charting single for Eric Burdon & WAR – but with the singer signed to MGM Records and the band still unsigned by any label, they went their separate ways to avoid legal entanglements. WAR eventually signed with United Artists.
Jordan moved from singing backup to Burdon to taking lead vocals and WAR had a string of hits though the 1970s with songs like “The World Is a Ghetto,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Summer” and “Low Rider,” showcasing a multiracial band and powerful “progressive soul” sound, and ruling the Top 40 radio airwaves through 1977.
Though they didn’t stay together for long, Jordan speaks highly of Burdon, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with The Animals in 1994, with seminal recordings like “House of the RIsing Sun,” “It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” “Sky Pilot” and “Monterey,” among many others. WAR was nominated, but not inducted, into the Rock Hall in 2009.
But, back in 1969, if The Doors’ Jim Morrison had been a bit more forceful kicking down a piano lid and not missed Jordan’s hands during a Bel Air party thrown by Goldstein, none of it might have happened.
The night before Burdon and WAR hit Wally Heider’s L.A. recording studio to write what would become “Spill The Wine,” Jordan and Burdon were sitting at a piano in Goldstein’s expansive Hollywood Hills home during a party said to have been attended by Who’s Who of Hollywood music glitterati – Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, members of The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane (“Gracie [Slick] was skinny dipping in my pool,” Goldstein tells Pollstar) and more. Many of the attendees were in various stages of impairment, not least of whom was Morrison, who attended wearing a Superman costume.
“I was just playing some kind of salsa groove on the piano, because I didn’t know anybody there,” Jordan recalls. “Then we got distracted by this guy who stood up on top of this big grand piano with the Superman outfit on, and I had no clue who this guy was. I didn’t know any of these people, but they were all there out of respect for Eric and his new project, which was us. I’m just a guy from Compton with the big Afro and big bellbottoms, drinking whiskey and smoking weed.”
Morrison sloppily kicked the piano lid down over the keys, just missing Jordan’s hands. A drunken brawl ensued, and Burdon ran up the stairs and retrieved a handgun.
“It was like a movie, like in a cowboy bar. Eric comes down the stairs and he shot at the chandelier, and the gun just went ‘click.’ And then it did go off. It was totally insane,” Goldstein relates. Morrison, apparently unperturbed, eventually was found curled up in a fetal position, asleep in front of a fireplace until a girlfriend picked him up.
The next day, according to Jordan, the band reconvened in the studio. Passing around a jug of Gallo wine and Styrofoam cups, and feeling the worse for wear, Jordan spilled wine “from the bottle into the glass,” as the song goes. Some of the wine did not make it into the cup and shorted out the mixing board. A hit was born.
But for all the mayhem from the night before, WAR was and remains about more peaceful, brotherly, artistic ideals.
“Eric understood who we were and what we were about, whereas no one else did,” Jordan says. “We took that concept and idea about what we were about and just put it into a mixed salad bowl, because that’s who we were; like gumbo.
“There was almost no one like that back then. There was Santana, there was Sly & The Family Stone, but what we had was love.”
What the band also had was a global reach with the music – a mix of gospel, jazz, blues, funk, soul, rock and R&B that wasn’t easily pigeonholed. And it also had that name: WAR. Given they broke out at the height of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t readily understood.
“We were at WAR against war,” Jordan says. Not just Vietnam, but conflict of all kinds.
“You didn’t have a lot of bands like us that played a variety of music,” Jordan says. “First of all, you had that mix. Most of the groups were identified by genre. Not us. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go to places like South Africa and other countries because of the [racial] blend in the group. Not just because of that, but also because of the name ‘WAR.’ That was a threat in some countries.”
Jordan first came up in a band called The Creators, based in Long Beach, Calif., and first formed in 1962. The band absorbed the ethnic and musical diversity of their neighborhoods, and recorded for the Dore Records label – including with a saxophonist named Tjay Cantrelli, who went on to play for Love, another multiethnic band that went on to make a major mark in American music. The Creators eventually changed its name to Nightshift. But after meeting Burdon and Goldstein, another name change was afoot.
“We were in this Japanese restaurant and I’d never had sake before, and by the time we left, I was pretty tipsy,” Jordan explains. “We walked out into this alley, it was dark, and our promoter and our manager were walking in front and they looked back at us and said, ‘I’m so glad that I know who you guys are, because you guys look like you just came out of a battlefield.’ All of a sudden the light bulb came on. They came up with this name, ‘WAR.’ We thought it was too radical at first. But it fit because of the Vietnam War.”
Jordan credits Goldstein with helping the band put what was in their heads to music, as well as coming to terms with the name they were about to adopt.
“Jerry understood what we were about, musically. He started hearing in our music that we were relating to the streets and abroad,” Jordan says. “Things that were going on in a revolution, you know? He helped us put our music and understanding of what was going on around us, like the the world, together. And later, when we did ‘The World Is A Ghetto,’ ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends’ and all that, we were passing it right on.
“Jerry understood it, and he said, “We have to go with this name ‘WAR.’ There was controversy. We came to the conclusion that if we’re going to use the name WAR, then we’re using it as war – our choice of weapons is our musical instruments. We don’t shoot bullets; we shoot musical notes. Without even knowing it, we were rebels. So we took on the name ‘WAR’ collectively.”
WAR should have celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 but, thanks to the COVID pandemic, it’s been delayed – but will happen with no less gusto. Given that the band has had its music sampled more than 200 times in recent years, according to Goldstein, WAR’s legacy lives on with younger artists.
The band has in recent pre-pandemic years performed with contemporaries like Tower of Power, Average White Band, Cheech & Chong and Santana, which the band joined along with Earth, Wind and Fire for a sold-out Banc of California Stadium show in Los Angeles on June 18. As headliners, WAR has averaged 1,766 tickets sold for a gross of $73,468.
WAR is currently booked by Seth Shomes, CEO of Day After Day Productions.
On the recorded side, WAR fans can rejoice: In addition to Greatest Hits 2.0, an expansion of its 1976 original, the band is in the process of releasing remixes of all of its hits, and there is a box set of WAR’s five seminal albums via Rhino Records / Warner Bros. Music, including a pressing in green vinyl.
“The green vinyl doesn’t represent money, but the Earth, you know?” Jordan says, in keeping with a lifetime of conviction. “It symbolizes who we are. Living on this planet that was green, and hopefully will stay green. Green is not money, but the Earth, you know? It symbolizes where we are. Living on this planet that was green, hopefully it’ll stay green, and keep people happy. But it’s also spiritual. It works.”