Backstage Pass: War's Lonnie Jordan shares stories from the front

If one was to be glib about it, then one could call Lonnie Jordan a War survivor. 

Given that his band War has had both its victories and its casualties throughout its career, it would seemingly imply a rather bittersweet irony as far as that moniker is concerned. Then again, Jordan’s ability to navigate the band’s shifts in fortune while remaining at the helm some 40 years after its founding does affirm the fact that perseverance provides a victory all its own.

Jordan can be particularly pleased these days. Although he remains War’s only original member, the branding survives in the form of its current roster, which recently released a live album and DVD boasting many of the band’s biggest hits.

If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that War tallied quite a success story in its time, given sales of 50 million albums resulting in 17 gold, platinum or multi-platinum awards in the process. Then, too, there was the steady string of hits that reads like a roll call of radio-ready standards, beginning with “Spill The Wine,” spawned from what initially seemed an unlikely collaboration with ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon.

It was followed by an ample arsenal of chart-toppers released after his departure — “All Day Music,” “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “The Cisco Kid,” “The World Is A Ghetto,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Low Rider” and “Summer,” among many. They garnered universal appeal by breaking down barriers and embracing a sprawling demographic that spanned a vast cultural spectrum. In fact, few other bands proved so adept at mining their synthesis of styles — a mix that freely mingled rock, rap, funk, R&B and Latin — while effectively bringing that array of individual elements into the musical mainstream.  

All in all, it’s not a bad legacy for a band that had its modest beginnings as a club combo in Compton, Calif., in the early ’60s. Formed by two high school chums, guitarist Howard Scott and drummer Harold Brown, the roster later expanded to include Jordan on keyboards, Morris “B.B.” Dickerson on bass and Charles Miller on sax and flute.

Adopting an early repertoire that reflected the diverse influences of their neighborhood environs, they went through a series of name changes while honing their skills on the local club circuit. A series of singles on the tiny Dore Records imprint helped expand their following, as did some improbable collaborations, including a stint supporting saxophonist Jay Contreli (whose credits included work with Arthur Lee and Love) and football legend Deacon Jones, who chose the band to back him when he relaunched his career as a singer.

In the first of a series of ongoing personnel shifts, percussionist Papa Dee Allen — an ex-member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band — also joined the fold early on. Dickerson departed and was replaced by bassist Peter Rosen, only to return when Rosen succumbed to a drug overdose.

Whatever the odd circumstances, the band’s nightclub experience proved fortuitous. It was a gig at a topless beer joint in the San Fernando Valley that brought them to the attention of producer and future manager Jerry Goldstein.

Goldstein used his connections to introduce them to Eric Burdon, who had come to L.A. in search of a new backing band after his split from The Animals. Burdon, in turn, recruited Lee Oskar, a talented young Danish harmonica player whose extraordinary prowess added another new texture to the band’s ever-expanding musical palette.

The first fruits of the collaboration were manifest in the 1969 album Eric Burdon Declares War, which bore Jordan’s composition “Spill The Wine,” a h

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