Hard as hell to imagine that anything good came of Hurricane Katrina, but in one case it did. Los Angeles drummer Harold Brown, who in 1960 assembled the core players that eventually became known as multiplatinum-selling, funk-jam revelators War, had been living in New Orleans for years; suddenly homeless, he received an invitation to move into the Washington state pad of War harmonica wizard Lee Oskar. While they and co-founders B.B. Dickerson and Howard Scott had lost all rights to the name War in 1997 (after a judge bought their management’s nefarious argument, “It’s like the Glenn Miller band — it doesn’t matter who the musicians are”), they had already gigged — the first time in a long spell — at Seattle’s Experience Music Project in 2003. Brown’s displacement was the final element that allowed them to shake years of frustration and launch a new campaign as Lowrider Band.
A band still fronting as War tours constantly, but it really may as well be Glenn Miller’s band (the only original member is Brown-discovered keyboardist Lonnie Jordan). As for these four originals, sure, you can’t even call them War no more, but their hit list — “Lowrider,” “Slipping Into Darkness,” “Cisco Kid” — stands as a flat-out stunning set, rich with the ghetto-roasted appeal that brought them the world’s ear. Weird thing is, and you realize it after hearing today’s jams, War was just a halfway tease, because these motherfuckers, who always went far beyond what could ever fit on a 45-rpm single, were never even properly recorded. And if the way they’re playing it now is just some old men’s fancy, heaven help the youth.
And today, fucking Harold Brown is sitting in my garage, hollering into the tape recorder, revealing personal minutia, citing complex sociocultural equations and sorting through the group’s very tangled history. At 61, Brown is intense, warm, a live-wire motor head prone to bursts of maniacal laughter. “They call me ‘fascist,’ because I’m the only one who has been keeping this band together .?.?.” a pause “.?.?. for 47 years!” he shouts. It’s a bold tale of dogged drive, bizarre curls, coincidental twists — a split-lip, knockdown saga, and one that, for Brown, is strictly musical. But there is also the matter of a $10 million lawsuit they filed this same day against War manager Jerry Goldstein for fraud, breach of contract and similar blights. All were primary writers, yet ain’t been paid in decades.
Apparently, Brown, Dickerson and Scott have remained as starry-eyed gullible as when they began. “Howard and I met at the Cozy Lounge in Long Beach, we were about 15, take our daddy’s shirts, use some darkener to put on a little mustache, so, ‘You want a rum & Coke?’ ‘Yes, Sonny,’?” Brown tells me, “and we put a band together to play at sock hops around the area.” Brown’s accelerated recall follows multidimensional lines: “We got going, and Howard, who sang ‘Cisco Kid,’ switched from bass to guitar, and we got his nephew B.B., who sang ‘World Is a Ghetto,’ to play bass. Yeah. Big family — Howard is his uncle. We’d play James Brown, Johnny Cash, whatever would get people to dance. And we got good enough that we were the first all-black band to play the Strip.”
They called themselves the Creators; their fathers drove them to shows and “waited in the car.” Plucked up any oddball rhythm and influence that appealed, threw them into every number. “Whatever song we were doing, we’d play the main motif and in the middle just go into one of those jams, and when it was time to get out, just cut right back. It gave us the ability to have that conversation. I’d know exactly what Howard was gonna do. I’d feel it when B.B. started goin’ certain places.”
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The kids graduated from high school circa ’64. Added some key players: Jordan (who got his first keyboard after Brown told his mother to buy one because “Lonnie’s gonna be famous”) and consummate horn man Charles Miller. Hit the road and started staking out some unspeakably fertile, progressive funk-rock territory. After several mad false starts, now with the final key player, haunting conga master Papa Dee Allan, an ex–Wayne Henderson Jazz Crusader, they found themselves one night, billed as the Nightshift, playing behind NFL star Deacon Jones at Ventura Boulevard’s Rag Doll. It was 1969 and Deacon didn’t show, but Lee Oskar, a white boy with an outsize Afro and an otherworldly way with a mouth harp, fresh off the boat from his native Denmark and sitting in for the first time, did. So did the Animals’ former main man Eric Burdon. Before the weekend was over, Oskar was in the band, the band was Eric Burdon’s, and they were called War. “Do you believe in destiny?” asks Brown. “I do.”
The rest of their glorious tale is pretty well known, best characterized by that post-amicable-Burdon-departure string of hyper-boss albums (and several self-indulgent, late-in-the-game fusion misfires), but soiled by that familiar backdrop of possibly less than a forthright managerial technique that seems to have sucked all their royalties down a rat hole. Papa Dee passed naturally, and Miller was stabbed to death. They’ve invited Lonnie Jordan to reunite, but he’s not interested.
It doesn’t matter. Fleshed out with some capable young bloods from New Orleans, when the Lowriders lift off, it’s a transformative flight that sends familiar hits on stratospheric scenic-view safaris, and that bandstand conversation continues to expand in complexity and color. Devised at late nights in low-down joints and headlining high pleasure domes, they’re operating at a cataclysmically profound level, and the success to it lies, very simply, in what they had at the very beginning: pure artful instinct and the spontaneous action taken on it. It still thrives; get a load of “Ordinary Man,” a contemporary Lowrider number that gracefully arcs through — and beyond — their distinctive sound and fully delivers the soul, depth and unlimited musicality that so glaringly distinguished them decades ago. Still, reality’s a bitch. “When we get to the name thing, that’s touchy, because it’s our birthright,” Brown says. “But it’s like that song we did with Eric Burdon, ‘You Can’t Take Away Our Music.’ You can’t — and we’ve still got our souls.”
Lowrider Band appears at the fourth-annual Peace & Unity Day celebration at El Sereno Recreation Center, 4721 Klamath St., L.A.; Sun., June 17, 5 p.m. (323) 225-3517 or (323) 356-3236.