Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Drummer Harold Brown went to see War, the band he started 40 years
earlier but now includes only one original member, keyboardist Lonnie
Jordan. Legally barred from using the name of the band he founded
with his current group - which features four of the five living
original members - Brown was feeling somewhat frustrated.
When an emcee introduced Jordan as "the man who wrote all the songs,"
Brown yelled back. He jumped onstage, made a couple of comments, took
an uninvited bow and returned to his table, where providence placed a
pie. He threw the pie at Jordan.
"I didn't want to hurt him. I love Lonnie," Brown says on the phone
from his home in Pomona (Los Angeles County).
"We raised him. I asked his mom could he join the group. We got him
his first keyboard. I went to his mommy's funeral."
The first pie missed, but a second landed on Jordan's pants. Brown
followed the pies with a glass of water to help clean him off.
"The devil ain't made me do nothing," Brown says. "I did it all myself."
Brown and his other former colleagues from the landmark '70s
soul-rock band continue to play their music together - they play
Thursday through Saturday at Yoshi's in San Francisco - under the
name the Lowrider Band, a reference to one of the band's signal hits,
a song that earned the group lifelong respect in Latino car culture.
They lost rights to use the War name years ago in a court battle with
their former manager ("The judge decided we were sidemen and he owned
the name," said harmonica player Lee Oskar) and it grates on the
band's original members that what they see as a second-rate facsimile
of their group makes more money and gets more bookings.
"It upsets me terribly so," Oskar says from his home studio in
Seattle, "that phony War, when I see people out there taking the
glory, playing our music and pretending to be us. It's more than the
gigs. They're getting the acknowledgement."
Brown and guitarist Howard Scott started a group called the Creators
in Long Beach in 1962. The band evolved into a large funk band called
Nightshift backing a former football player named Deacon Jones, who
liked to do one-armed pushups while singing. Danish-born Oskar, who
moved to the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love, but had
relocated to Los Angeles, one night wandered into a North Hollywood
nightclub in the company of British rock star Eric Burdon, and wound
up onstage jamming with the band.
"They all thought I was Eric Burdon," he says.
Burdon hired the band - minus Jones, but including Oskar - to back
him on his next album, and "Spill the Wine" by Eric Burdon and the
band newly christened War was a Top Five worldwide hit in 1970. After
a second album, Burdon split and War carried on. The group's
signature funk-rock sound propelled a series of '70s hits, including
"Slippin' Into the Darkness," "All Day Music," "The World Is a
Ghetto," "The Cisco Kid," "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and "Low Rider."
So many rappers have sampled the band's catalog, an entire CD called
"Rap Declares War" came out in 1991.
A number of the members first came back together as War to make the
1993 album "Peace Sign," but the rapprochement didn't last. Before
long, four of the five living members were gone and only Jordan
remained. The others decided to regroup.
"Four out of seven ain't bad," Brown says, "good gambling odds. We
started bumping around. We don't make the money we should."
"We decided, the four of us, instead of all this legal stuff, let's
go ahead and play with a different name," Oskar says. "As important
as a name is from a marketing point of view, it shouldn't keep us
from doing what we were doing."
At first, the renegade members of War tried a few names - MIA or SOB
(as in Same Old Band) - eventually landing on Lowrider Band. They are
not allowed to use trademarked material, so they cannot even
advertise themselves as "former members of War." The musicians
continue to press lawsuits against their former manager and are wary
of doing anything that would prompt another lawsuit from him.
A recent article in Rolling Stone, "The Battle of the B-List Bands,"
rating different sets of competing touring acts working the same
catalog (i.e.; the Temptations versus the Temptations Review), landed
on the side of the original musicians. "Lowrider Band is clearly more
legit," ruled the Stone.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also spelled out the musicians being
nominated when War came up for selection last year. These are small
but important moral victories to the men of the Lowrider Band.
But Oskar called his lawyers after seeing clips of the original band
used to promote a forthcoming appearance by the new War on the Regis
"If they were legit," he says, "they should go out as a tribute band
with the keyboard player, who is a yo-yo for the ex-manager. They
pretend to be the real deal. It's pretty pathetic."
Brown looks at it somewhat more philosophically.
"You ain't in show business," he says, "unless someone throws a pie at you."
The Lowrider Band (Harold Brown, Howard Scott, B.B. Dickerson, Lee
Oskar) plays at 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Yoshi's,
1330 Fillmore St., San Francisco. Tickets: $20. (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com.
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.