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While the name "Lowrider Band" may not be familiar, their set-list certainly is, as a sweet harmonica riff wafts through funky material like "The Cisco Kid," "All Day Music," Slippin' Into Darkness," "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and "Low Rider." It's a War cover band, right?
Well, legally yes. But morally, no.
The existing official War lineup sports only one surviving member of the group's heyday lineup — keyboardist-singer Lonnie Jordan. Aside from ex-Animal and relatively short-tenured War frontman Eric Burdon, the other four surviving members — drummer Harold Brown, guitarist Howard Scott, harmonica man Lee Oskar and bassist B.B. Dickerson — are in the Lowrider Band.
"Simply put, we lost the right to use our name to Far Out Productions," explains Brown. Far Out is run by Jerry Goldstein, War's longtime producer and sometime songwriter. He was able to successfully argue in court that the actual membership playing in the group War didn't matter, "like the Glenn Miller Band."
"I don't hate Jerry or Lonnie, but Lonnie is just a hired musician," Brown offers philosophically. "I don't want to knock him, because he's got a lot of talent. But he's the one guy that [Far Out] could make a deal with. They offered me the same, but I couldn't do that to my brothers. Not when the children of [sax player] Charles Miller, who sang 'Low Rider,' are living on the streets of Los Angeles!"
Lowrider Band members have also filed suit against Far Out for unpaid royalties. To add further sting, on the "official" War Web site, Jordan is the only member mentioned by name in a highly subjective historical narrative that says the group is producer Goldstein's "brainchild."
Still, Brown doesn't sound nearly as bitter as he could. "I believe in natural justice. We don't get the gigs or make the money that they do because of the name. But you know what? The one thing we have that money can't buy is each other... and love."
Ironically, less than a week before the Lowrider Band's Houston gig, "War" will have played a "reunion" with former frontman Eric Burdon in England. Brown does scoff at that.
"They probably made him [Burdon] an offer he couldn't resist, but I don't know...I'm disappointed in him because he [knows] it's only Lonnie," Brown says, laughing. "And he was the one always talking about fighting against the establishment!"
The group that would become War had its roots in the Creators (later the Nightshift), a popular L.A.-based R&B cover act, co-founded in the early '60s by Brown and Scott while they were still in high school.
In 1969, ex-Animals vocalist Burdon was looking for a new musical venture. With Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar in tow, they began checking out Los Angeles bands. When Goldstein suggested the Nightshift, the jelling was instantaneous. A brief lineup juggle later, Burdon's seven-man backing band became War.
Two subsequent records — Eric Burdon Declares "War" and The Black Man's Burdon, were experimental affairs, the band's loose jamming percolating along behind Burdon's improvisational scat-singing on covers and originals like "Spill the Wine," which became a top-five pop hit and minor staple of classic rock radio.
After an amicable split with a burnt-out Burdon, over the course of records like War, All Day Music, The World Is a Ghetto and Why Can't We Be Friends?, War proved they had still more to offer on their own. They honed an instantly recognizable mixture of R&B, rock and funk with a heavy Latin influence. That groove permeated many hits, including their best-known effort.
"As soon as we cut 'Low Rider,' I knew it was going to be big," Brown says. "We were jamming one day and kind of ripping on each other, when I got behind on the beats so it sounded sort of like a ska rhythm. I knew it was a mistake, but I kept on playing. Then Charles came up to the mike and just started singing 'LOW. RI. DER.' Then Lee came in and put in those punches, then B.B. and Howard...It just kind of grew." Today, the song is frequently included in movies and commercials, immediately setting a mood. (And even toys, too. You can buy plastic convertibles that play the song.)
In 1978, the soundtrack to the movie Youngblood proved to be the swan song for the original lineup. Sporadic tours and records with revolving members followed. Miller was stabbed to death during a robbery attempt in 1980, and percussionist "Papa" Dee Allen died of a heart attack in 1988 after collapsing onstage while performing "Gypsy Man." But through the years, the band's legacy grew as a new audience discovered the music, and rappers found a plethora of samples to drop a needle on.
Brown says he cherishes his Lone Star State memories, from learning to play the "Louisiana backbeat" in Texas clubs while in the Creators, to going across the border for "cheap chicken dinners" in Juárez, Mexico, to headlining at the Astrodome during War's heyday.
But there is one more personal connection that Brown has to Houston — as a Katrina evacuee. (Brown moved to New Orleans in 1986, and works as a tour guide and historian in that city.) The kind treatment he received here, he says, is something he'll never forget.
That includes an auto dealership that fixed the air conditioning in his family's escape car for free, to dinner checks that were mysteriously "taken care of," and the Doubletree hotel downtown allowing Brown to keep his two dogs in his room.
"I just gotta give a big shout-out to Houston for what they did for me. I'm gonna get tears in my eyes right now!" Brown says. "Houston showed us a lot of compassion and love — and I'm going to bring some of that back there!"
So in the end, what's in a name? Brown feels that it's not what's printed on the marquee or ticket stub that matters, but what the band does onstage that counts.
"If instead of naming ourselves W-A-R, we named ourselves S-H-I-T or P-I-S-S, it doesn't matter!" Brown sums up. "It's the body and soul of the group that matters."
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