WASHINGTON — Their music conjures a range of emotions, from the urgency of socially-conscious peace anthems to the joy of cars bouncing on hydraulics.
But the band War is far more intertwined in history than most folks even realize, starting its run alongside gridiron great Deacon Jones and jamming with Jimi Hendrix on the last show of his life.
“I have to write a book,” War founder Lonnie Jordan told WTOP with an epiphany of influence.
This week, that rich history comes to The Birchmere in Alexandria for a pair of shows Wednesday and Thursday, bringing timeless hits like “Spill the Wine,” “Low Rider” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
“Our stage will be smoking and we will send them home smiling,” Jordan promised. “Just all the hits. I wouldn’t want to go listen to any group that I like and start playing stuff I’m not familiar with. I’d get bored and get mad. I came there to have a flashback. That’s what I would want. I think like a fan.”
Founded in Long Beach, California, in 1962, the band originally went by the moniker The Creators, consisting of Jordan, Howard E. Scott, Harold Brown, Charles Miller and Morris “B.B.” Dickerson.
“We were playing talent shows, and we had to have a green paper in order to play in nightclubs,” Jordan said. “During the breaks, we couldn’t be seen at the bar, we had to stay in the kitchen.”
Soon, The Creators morphed into Nightshift, playing backup for Pro Football Hall of Famer Deacon Jones of the L.A. Rams, nicknamed “The Secretary of Defense” for his dominant pass rush.
“He was looking for a band to back him up at his nightclub, so we became his backup band,” Jordan said. “Deacon was the kind of person, he did more push-ups than anything. That was the base of his performance. He did have two singles — ‘Lovin’ a Pro’ and ‘It’s Not Whether You Win Or Lose, It’s How Well You Play the Game.’ That’s a long name, but it made it on the record though!”
It was here that the band caught the eye of record producer Jerry Goldstein (“My Boyfriend’s Back,” “I Want Candy”) and distinct vocalist Eric Burdon, who was looking for a new band after serving as the frontman for The Animals (“House of the Rising Sun,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”).
Soon, Burdon began touring with the group, which added band members Lee Oskar and Papa Dee Allen to form War in 1969. Together, they recorded War’s debut album “Eric Burdon Declares ‘War'” (1970), which was certified gold and featured “Spill the Wine,” which hit No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts.
“I accidentally spilled wine into the recording board,” Jordan said. “Eric was in the vocal booth and it was pretty dark in there. The track was playing and I couldn’t see that clear through all these windows … then all of a sudden I noticed there was someone else in there with him! … Come to find out there was a young lady in there. She was the one singing the Spanish part of ‘Spill the Wine.'”
While gazing through the booth, Jordan fumbled his bottle of red wine.
“I sat the Styrofoam cup on top of the board and … I poured the wine into this cup,” Jordan said. “It tilted over and went into the board and fried the board. You could see smoke coming up and Eric started yelling, ‘He spilled the wine!’ The brains started working, ideas popped up, a light bulb went on: ‘Spill the Wine’ should be the name. … I had to pay for it, but I only paid after the song was a hit!”
The success of the debut album put War on the map, allowing them to start touring the world.
“After we recording it, we traveled to Europe,” Jordan said. “We traveled over there and that’s when I started experiencing a lot of new worlds and new everything. I even had the great opportunity to meet Jimi Hendrix and a whole bunch of other entertainers that were living over there.”
In fact, War performed with Hendrix at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club the night he passed away.
“We were the last band to perform with him,” Jordan said. “Keep in mind, Eric’s earlier band, The Animals, the bass player Chazz Chandler was the one who actually introduced Jimi Hendrix to the music industry. So that was the connection and Hendrix always supported Eric, anything he did.”
Hendrix showed up on a Tuesday night to watch War, saying, “Wow, you got a great band, man.” The next night, he brought a guitar, got up on stage and plugged into an amp for an impromptu jam sesh.
“We jammed on Memphis Slim’s ‘Mother Earth’ for a whole hour. Everyone took a solo,” Jordan said. “Ironically, he went back to his flat and he passed away that following morning. … It was pretty eerie the fact that, here we are playing ‘Mother Earth,’ and then he [literally] went back to Mother Earth.”
After that, War returned to the U.S. and cranked out albums: “The Black-Man’s Burdon,” “War,” “All Day Music” and “The World is a Ghetto,” which featured two Top 10 hits with the title track (No. 7) and “The Cisco Kid” (No. 2). The next album, “Deliver the Word,” brought the No. 8 hit “Gypsy Man.”
But it was the band’s seventh studio album that would become their seminal record. The 1975 album “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts, No. 16 on the jazz chart and No. 8 on the overall U.S. albums chart. The Grammy-nominated album spawned the groovy mega hit “Low Rider,” immortalized in the opening credits of Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke” (1978).
“When we recorded ‘Low Rider,’ it was pretty much for the low riders in East L.A.,” Jordan said. “We went out to East L.A. with some cameras and a Nagra sound system to film some of the cars, because no one in the world had ever seen low riders before. We brought two rival car clubs together, The Imperials and The Dukes … and we gave everybody a cassette to put in their car, and they were all playing cassettes in their cars, loud. They were digging it. They were the first to get a demo tape.”
The videos introduced other parts of the world to West Coast culture.
“We took the film on the road with us to places beyond the West Coast where people had never seen low riders before, to Japan and Germany,” Jordan said. “People were amazed and shocked to see these cars bouncing up and down. … No one had ever written a song about low riders. Only one song came close: ‘The In Crowd’ by Dobie Gray. That was about cars, but it wasn’t about low riders.”
Still, the album’s most enduring hit was the title track. “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was later featured in the film “Dazed and Confused” (1993).
“There was this one incident where we had to be held up for about 45 minutes before we went out to play,” Jordan said. “We always had a mixed audience. Unfortunately, some people wanted to rule the territory of us and say, ‘War is our favorite group!’ ‘No, they’re our group!’ And there were fights!”
Stuck in a holding position backstage, the band made the most of the situation.
“Finally, we had enough. We had our instruments backstage and just started playing reggae grooves backstage. Finally we came up with this idea: Why can’t everybody just be friends? And we just started singing this melody over and over, ‘Why can’t we be friends? Why can’t we be friends?’ When we went home, we remembered it, we went into the studio and we started writing the lyrics to it.”
To this day, you’ll hear the song’s opening “hoots” in TV commercials, its theme every bit as relevant.
“Basically because of what’s happened today, from the time we wrote it and what’s been happening in between, nothing’s changed,” Jordan said.
In this way, the band continues to embody social change with its intentionally ironic name.
“‘War’ is against war,” Jordan said. “The Vietnam War was going on. There was the Watts Riots. Pretty much everything that’s going on today. So we call ourselves ‘War’ to wage war against wars. There were just too many soldiers coming home from war and finding themselves fighting another war at home in backyards. So then our music pretty much followed the message of our name.”
In recent years, War has received nominations for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but so far no dice.
“We keep losing to metal bands,” Jordan said. “Winning something like that doesn’t really bother me much, because I always look at my fans. They are my ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fans.’ One of the reasons we never won any awards was because no one ever knew how to categorize us … because of the genres of styles that we play: reggae, calypso, Latin, funk, jazz, classical, gospel, country. We did it all.”
By declaring war on genre conventions, War has showcased its range with its own unique versatility.
“Universal street music,” Jordan said. “That’s where it comes from. The streets.”
Click here for ticket information. Listen to the full interview with War’s Lonnie Jordan below: