The six founding members of War – the late Papa Dee Allen and Charles Miller, survivors Harold Brown, B.B. Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan and Howard Scott – were gigging around L.A. for nearly a decade before hooking up with Eric Burdon (ex-Animals) and Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar in 1969. Burdon and producer Jerry Goldstein named them War, and they backed it up with a steamy Afro-Latin R&B groove that rocked their debut hit “Spill The Wine.” Less than two years later, Burdon dropped out and War went their own way in 1971. A long string of Top 10 pop/R&B crossover hits established War’s status through the Seventies, always with a social message grounded by their distinctively breezy Southern California vibe. In this interview with War founding member Lonnie Jordan, he shares his first memories of playing, how War first connected with Eric Burdon and jamming with Jimi Hendrix during what would be his last public performance.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: How did you first become interested in playing music?
Lonnie Jordan: As a kid, I used to watch old black-and-white movies. Now keep in mind I'll be 65 this year, so when I say old black and white movies, I'm talking about movies that had a lot of musical themes in them, movies like Green Dolphin Street… Bill Evans, [John] Coltrane, Miles Davis – everybody used to play ["On Green Dolphin Street"]. I was into all that, and that's what really inspired me musically, because it was dreamy music, and it made the movies more romantic, and I was just drawn into all of that.
After that, I listened to all genres of music. I went from Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, Ray Price, Conway Twitty to Ray Charles, James Brown, Wilson Pickett – I mean, to all genres of music. They were all an influence on me.
LJ: My bread and butter is the keyboard. The fact that I can play bass, a little guitar and drums, they're all the same to me, but I prefer piano. That is the mother instrument of all. That's the mommy.
RRHOF: How would you describe War's music to somebody who'd never heard it before?
LJ: I would tell them it is a universal street music, a mixed salad bowl that never won any awards because no one ever knew how to categorize us. There was no library card – you go into a library, you'd find War either everywhere or nowhere.
RRHOF: With "universal street music" being the group's sound, what War tracks best showcase that?
LJ: Listen to our first album with Eric Burdon, Eric Burdon Declares "War." Listen to The Black-Man's Burdon album. The first one had some blues, but I personally love The Black-Man's Burdon. It was a double album, and it had a mixture of some other songs that we did by other artists, but within our own arrangement style, and then we had our own songs on there. I'd say you hear the beginning of what came out to be, what evolved into what we are today.
RRHOF: You mention Hall of Fame Inductee Eric Burdon. How did that partnership first come about?
LJ: Eric was looking for a band. Someone told Eric that there was a band – we weren't called War then, we were called the Nightshift Band – and he came out to this nightclub where we were playing at [in Los Angeles]. A whole bunch of guys came down… and that's also how Lee Oskar came into the picture, when he came down with Eric Burdon to this club, and Lee Oskar sat in with us. We were playing "Hang 'em High" by Booker T. and the MGs, and we had a horns section at the time, too. We heard this guy Eric Burdon was coming down to check us out, and we thought that was Eric Burdon who came up to jam with us on harmonica! I'm saying to myself: 'But wait a minute, I've seen Ed Sullivan; he doesn't look like Eric Burdon!' Eric fell in love with us that night, and immediately the next day, we started rehearsing. We were able to play anything and everything, and he loved that about us.
LJ: He taught me a lot. I take my hat off to him. He taught me how to improvise and just play and create music as you go. We were used to playing behind everybody as it was. We were already a backup band. Eric was just another person we were playing backup for. The only difference with him is that he was ready for us to create new music. We weren't playing actual cover songs, until he started wanting to play some Memphis Slim and stuff like that. We knew our blues – we came from blues. So, when he wanted to do "Mother Earth," and all this stuff… we did that. (Pictured: Jimi Hendrix's 1970 Fender Stratocaster, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)
RRHOF: That song "Mother Earth" fueled another epic jam with none other than Jimi Hendrix. How'd that come about?
LJ: We had first met in LA. Our first gig with Eric Burdon was at the Devonshire Downs Festival. That was a three-day festival with Jimi [Hendrix], us – Eric's brand new group, Eric Burdon and War that is; Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Doors, Grassroots, to name a few… it was a whole three-day thing.
[Hendrix] was already [in England] before us, I guess working on an album, some other stuff with Chas Chandler, who was also the bass player with Eric when he was with the Animals. I guess that's how [Hendrix and Burdon] knew each other. [Hendrix] just came out to support Eric's new band, like everyone else did. George Harrison was out there to see what Eric was doing. And Billy Preston came out. Billy was working on the Beatles album at the time. Jimi came down without his guitar – that was Tuesday night – and then we said, "Please, bring your guitar, jam with us man!" He said "All right, I'll bring it down tomorrow." So, Wednesday night he brought his guitar. The last night that he jammed, period, was with us at Ronnie Scott's in England. We did "Mother Earth" for a whole hour. He jammed with us without big amplifiers, without any of the gimmicks, just a simple hole-in-the-wall style amplifier, and we all jammed "Mother Earth." And then, ironically, he went back to Mother Earth, and it blew my mind.
RRHOF: What was the vibe on stage during that jam?
LJ: It was great. Basically the same way we grew up like in Compton, [Hendrix] grew up in Seattle. And the club atmosphere, playing behind people like he did – when he played behind the Isley Brothers, Little Richard – we played behind people who didn't have those names, but we were all emulating those people. So, we still had the chance to experience playing the same type of music, just in the different locations. That was basically the experience playing with him. It [was] like a flashback for all of us. We felt comfortable with each other.
RRHOF: You'll be taking to the stage on Saturday, May 11, 2013, for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Spring Benefit concert, also with Tower of Power and Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites. What can people expect from War's performance?
LJ: Bring plenty of water, because the stage will be smoking. That's what to expect. The stage will be hot!
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