Last summer, the Miller Outdoor Theatre presented a multi-racial '70s band who performed such recognizable FM radio classics as "Spill the Wine," "Why Can't We Be Friends?" "The Cisco Kid," "All Day Music," and -- of course -- "Low Rider."
This summer, Miller presents another multi-racial '70s band who will perform all those same hits. But with a different name, though this group has four times as many members who actually played on those records.
Confused? Welcome to the 2014 strange saga of two groups: War and the Lowrider Band.
"You can take away our name, but you can't take away our music!" says Lowrider drummer Harold Brown, who was...also the drummer for War, invoking the title of one of their earliest songs.
In a nutshell, after they split with English singer and ex-Animal Eric Burdon, War went on to a hugely successful career of their own.
The classic seven-member lineup includes Brown, Jordan (keyboards), Howard Scott (guitar), Lee Oskar (harmonica), B.B. Dickerson (bass), Charles Miller (sax) and Papa Dee Allen (percussion). All members contributed vocals.
After Miller and Allen passed away, and much, much legal wrangling and lineup shifts, the rights to use the name "War" became the sole prerogative of the band's former manager/producer, Jerry Goldstein and Far Out Productions. Jordan (under Goldstein's direction) now leads the group War, while the other four surviving members perform as the Lowrider Band, with a few additional players.
At the heart of both bands' shows is a rich catalogue of music that blends rock, jazz, R&B, funk and Latin sounds, probably better than any other group ever. The energetic 68-year-old Brown says that the sonic stew was just the result of what members (except for the Danish Oskar) were exposed to growing up in southern California.
"Our music is a cornucopia of all types of music," he says. "What I feel is when we came along, our music came along at a time period in the world -- not just America -- where we had a message in the music. It was right after the Vietnam War, civil rights, and so forth."
Brown also notes that The band's music was both "spiritual" and from the streets, and for the people who walked on them.
"That's what Bob Marley told me, we were a street band just like his," he continues. "We were saying things that related to the everyday person on the street. Not the politicians. And we were relaying what we felt."
One song whose inspiration came from the streets (literally) has turned out to be their most famous. Inspired by the Latino car culture around Long Beach, California, "Low Rider" actually had an inauspicious beginning.
"What happened is that it was just an [instrumental] jam we were playing," Brown recalls. "And we were doing the dozens, just talking about 'Man, you're old lady is so ugly' stuff. And I was offbeat, playing on the upbeat, doing it wrong. But I just kept going, I was thinking, 'Don't panic, Harold!
"So all of a sudden we hear...all of a sudden Charles got up to the mike and went 'Low...ri...der' And that was it," he adds. "When you hear that song, you're hearing it for the first time. It was a jam!"
Allen later overdubbed the cowbell that formed the song's unmistakable intro, and the group had a hit. As with War's other material, the song has also had an amazing afterlife as a source of sampling for rappers, making frequent appearances on movie and television, including as the theme to The George Lopez Show.
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"Low Rider" has also been covered by a wide range of acts from Korn and Phish to Santana and Barry White, and was recently inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Brown claims that recent agreements have resulted in the four Lowriders (and the estates of Allen and Miller) getting more and more regular royalties. But he still hopes that the five members can eventually come together again and tour and record under the name that made them famous.
Brown even envisions a record of new material where the reunited band records with younger, admiring artists that would jumpstart their career in the way Santana did with 1999's Supernatural. However, he is also keenly aware that time is not on their side if they want to make it happen.
The Jordan-led War has just released the first recording 20 years under the band's name, the double CD Evolutionary. Interestingly, it features one disc of new material and second disc of the familiar greatest hits remastered as performed by the original lineup.
Surprisingly, Brown still speaks fondly of his sometime nemesis.
"Jerry Goldstein, is one of the best producers that I've ever been around. He had the knack to take that music that we recorded and make it into something," he says. "A lot of our stuff was jams, so it had to be cut and pasted together. We weren't like 'we're going to practice for three weeks and then go into the studio and record.' And the machines had to be ready."
Brown has even warmer feelings for the city of Houston, where he fled with an amalgamation of possessions, relatives and pets as Hurricane Katrina was pounding New Orleans, where he was living at the time. He says great kindness was shown to him by the staff at the Doubletree hotel downtown, a Ford dealership that replaced his car's air conditioning free of labor, and even toll-booth workers who would see his license plates and wave him through.
He even considered relocating here permanently (some family still resides here), but says a dream urged him to "Go West" to continue chasing his destiny, and that included seriously regrouping the Lowrider Band even while members were flung across the country.
"I felt Houston and its people after Katrina. Houston took care of us. ," Brown says, actually choking up a bit. "The [Doubletree] even took my rottweiler and my boxer! And we were there when the levees broke,"
"Houston has a special soul...and when you do things right and you treat people right, it will come around. And I choose to stay positive...about a lot of things."
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