As drummer for the band War, Harold Brown was part of the vibrant music scene of the late-'60s and early-'70s that included Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. With War, Harold came up with a distinct and influential drumming style, and was a key contributor in a band that leaves a lasting legacy of fellowship and funk, with songs like "Low Rider," "Spill The Wine" and "Why Can't We Be Friends?"
In the mid-'90s, the band's manager Jerry Goldstein won control of the name, and with his authorization, original keyboardist Lonnie Jordan began touring as War with other musicians. The four other living original members of the band, including Harold, cannot use the name and perform as The Lowrider Band.
The business side of the story is complicated and a little shady; especially sad considering the spirit of unity that drove the band. In this interview, Harold tells the inside story, covering the Eric Burdon years, playing with Hendrix the night he died, the stories behind their famous songs, and where it all went wrong in the end.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You've done other stuff besides just play music in your life, haven't you?
Harold Brown: The band, we actually started together when we were in high school – Howard Scott and I. I can remember just as vividly, Howard's father, BB's (Dickerson) father, and my daddy used to take us to gigs because we were too young to drive. We were doing our first gig in Compton, and we were taking our equipment on some wagon to do the show. It was just wild. So we started back in about 1961, and we made ourselves The Creators. And that was because at that time, all the little clubs that we'd play in South Los Angeles, and then Long Beach and the South Bay area in California, they always said, "You've got to play what's on the juke box." So we would get the records and we would learn how to play those records, but after we played the main motif of the music, we would go right to the middle, we would go into a big old jam session, we'd just start playing anything we wanted to play. We had one rule: whoever's leading the song came back, go to the head, go to the top, then comes back to that main motif. So if we were doing a James Brown "I Feel Good" or something, we'd play the whole thing all the way through, then we'd go into our jam, then we'd come out. We were playing Bobby Blue Bland, Booker T and the MGs... there were so many different people that we'd emulate. I remember Old Man Jeffty, South Los Angeles - we thought we were just as hot as James Brown, because our band was tight, we were just kids - and he looked at us and he said, 'Let me ask you this question: if you were playing here and James Brown was down the street, who would they go see?' Well of course, James Brown. So that's when we started consciously trying to come up with our own sound, not trying to imitate somebody else.
It's probably still Jeffty's Lounge. We were seeing all kinds of musicians. T Bone Walker would come through there, Don and Dewey - I mean, we were just right in the middle of all the blues. We had a chance to go up to the Five Four Ballroom, which was up in Los Angeles, and that's when we could see, like, Rufus Thomas, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, all kinds of people. But right at that time, Carl, in those early years, like in the late '50s and early '60s when we were coming up, they didn't have what they call a race station. You'd listen to Texas Tiny, and he would be playing Johnny Cash as well as Fats Domino. A little Willy Junior, Johnny Ace, or Johnny Otis. It was all integrated at that time, so we were being bombarded with all types of music. We'd hear Country and Western, we'd hear Latin music, we'd hear Blues, we'd hear the early funk, the R&B, which was James Brown and those guys.
So, anyway, right there about '62, '63, when we were able to start driving around, we just started playing in a lot of car clubs in the Bay area. They would have hotrods and stuff they were into, and they would like for us to play. So right about '64, we came out of high school. I had a full scholarship to Valparaiso University, but I turned it down in order to be a professional musician.
Our band was the first black band to be booked up on the Sunset Strip. They had just the Knickerbockers, which was the answer to The Beatles at the time. We're talking like roughly about '63-'64. Well, when we came out of school, I had gotten everybody, we went down to join the Musician's Union, Local 47, but the thing was they were working with Desilu Productions, you know, Lucille Ball. The next thing I knew he were booked at the Palladium and Whiskey A Go-Go. Then we hooked up with Bob Eubanks, and he had a bunch of clubs called the Cinnamon Cinders - there was a song out called (sings) 'See see, Cinnamon Cinders, I see see a Cinnamon Cinder.' We were opening for the O'Jays. We were kids of the National Guard Armories and stuff. I mean, it was like destined that we were gonna be who we are. Then, the Vietnam War was coming, it was about '66 or so. I had my own business, because I didn't want anybody telling me when I had to come to work and when I left, so I went into the body and fender auto detail business. So I always had transportation, and had money – cash flow. So then that way the band, we could go for auditions and stuff. But right about '66 we had an opportunity to go to play the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas, and all of a sudden the guys started getting drafted. But just before that happened we were in El Paso, and that's when Johnny Cash was coming across the border and he got busted with amphetamines. We used to try to buy liquor and bring it back, and the border patrols would stop us and dump it in the Rio Grande. So there was Old Man Fulbright. I used to think he was a figment of our imagination, but since then I've read about him in various books, especially anything involving Clifton Cheniere. He came through there, and he heard us playing. He said, 'I've got a young man that you guys would be a great band for, and he's upstate in Memphis.' It was Otis Redding. We didn't take the gig because our keyboard player was too young at the time.
Songfacts: Too young to do what?
Harold: To go out on the road. He was only 15. He hadn't even finished high school. We were about 18, 19 years old. We had a few guys older than us. But who knows? If we'd been with Otis Redding, maybe that plane wouldn't have crashed. That's amazing, isn't it? So anyway, all of the sudden, the guys started getting drafted. Oh boy, Bobby Nicholson, our trumpet player, got drafted. The next thing I know Howard, him and I are still playing music together, Howard got drafted into the army. Our band started getting fragmented, so we kind of like bumped around, myself, BB Dickerson, along with our keyboard player at that time.
Songfacts: How come you didn't get drafted?
Harold: Well, because I was in business for myself. So they wouldn't take me. Because nobody would run my business.
Songfacts: So if you owned your own business you didn't get drafted?
Harold: Right. That was one of the exemptions. So then when things started falling apart, my business started going down, I wound up in a class in machining. I'm the one that helped show Lee (Oskar) how to design his harmonica, got him started, because I was a Class A machinist. I was doing projects for, you know, like when they're shooting the monkeys into outer space, then they had me making bomb parts for the effort over in Vietnam.
Songfacts: That's kind of ironic. So you actually made bombs?
Harold: They would send you around different parts, different machine shops.
Songfacts: Who's "they"? Is this your training?
Harold: The government contract. Government contracts the different machine shops would get. So you would wind up making one piece of this part, another guy over in some other place is making a piece of this part, then we'd all come together, they'd put it together. Like, we were doing parts for oil drilling. I would be doing the cones, where somebody else would be doing the pipes. Just like module building.
When Kennedy came back they escalated it to even guys that were married, which, I hate to say it, I think we're repeating history. That's another story. But they wouldn't bother me because I was a machinist, I was doing government work.
So we were doing all this playing, trying to keep things together. About 1967 or so, Howard came back out of the military, he was getting ready to take a job down at the Harbor General Hospital in the South Bay area outside of Los Angeles towards San Pedro. At that time they were offering him something like $6.45 an hour. See, as a machinist I was making $400-500 a week in the '60s, and I said, 'Howard, let's try it one more time, and if we don't succeed, we'll go about our own business.' Oh boy, we did it, we went at it. It looked like we were about to not make it - I was going behind on my house note, they were getting ready to kick me out, I had three kids, and stuff - and I went looking for a job. This is how fate works. So then, I go up to North Hollywood, Thousand Oaks, and I've seen this ad for a job at some major chain company. When I got up there, they looked at me and said, 'You're in the wrong place. You go down to Los Angeles.' That's where Affirmative Action can work both ways. In my case, Affirmative Action did me a favor: They just looked at me and said, 'You're chocolate, you need to go down there.' So I'm on my way down, Carl – this is the truth. I'm driving, all of the sudden I had to take a wee-wee, and I said, 'I'm just coming to Sunset.' Well, all through those years when I had my body and fender shop, I had a good friend at that time Marshall Lieb. Marshall Lieb was a producer. He produced 'What the world needs now is love, sweet love.' Jackie Deshannon. And also 'Last Night.' He was producing those songs. Well, when I had my body and fender shop and detail, he had Ferraris, and he only trusted me to take care of his Ferrari, because they were show cars out at Disneyland. So I'm coming down – this was about 1967, and I said, 'Let me see where Marshall's at.' Because he was working at United Artists Records, which was Liberty Records at the time, right across the street from Hollywood High on Sunset Boulevard. So I go in there, and I'm looking for Marshall. Remember, I only had about seven dollars on me. They were getting ready to kick me out of the house, I had to buy gas, got my kids at home, don't know my next move. So I go in and I asked the secretary, 'Is Marshall Lieb here?' She says, 'No, he's not here.' My heart dropped. She said, 'But I can tell you where he's at.' So I started driving on down to Jim Head Productions, which was in the 9000 building, which is on Sunset, and it's on the left-hand side just before you go into Beverly Hills, over across from the Rainbow, up in the Whiskey A Go-Go area. I get up there and there's a lady sitting behind the desk. I said to her, 'I'm trying to locate Marshall Lieb.' And she says, 'He's not here.' And my heart dropped again. But she stood and she said, 'You see out the window, over there across the street? The little white house? He's in there.' So I go across the street, I see all these gold records and stuff and everything. I walked in, there's Marshall Lieb on one side of the desk, and he looks at me, and he says, 'Harold, this is Sonny Bono. Sonny, this is Harold Brown.' He said, 'Hello, what are you doing?' I said, 'I'm not doing anything.' He said, 'Wait for me,' so I go outside and I sat down. Finally the meeting was over, and Marshall says, 'Come on and go with me to the studio.' He started asking questions... all of the sudden the phone rings: 'Yeah, Timi. Oh, Timi, you need a drummer? Oh, you got a big gig? Oh, I got one of the best drummers in the city. I'll send him to you.' I was probably eating a dollar burrito, probably at that time gas was 25 cents, so I had put about a full gallon, so I drive back towards Beverly Hills and she was right on King's Road. It was Timi Yuro, the famous Jazz singer. There's this band, and these guys are telling her, "We need cars, we need amplifiers, we need this and everything." Well, I was varsity captain of our track and cross country team 4 years straight, I was one of the top distance runners in the state of California, I was in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, everything, I was a quartermaster, I was gonna be prepared. So I'm sitting there and I'm listening to these guys giving all these problems. So I say to myself, "I'm not gonna say anything, I'm gonna go back, tell Marshall Lieb to call Timi Yuro, fire all those guys, I got a band, we got cars, we got instruments, ain't no problem." Well, I go back and I get there and there's a guy sitting there on the stoop, and he says, "They always take my band." It was Sonny Charles, R&B great. He was just a little guy. I looked at him and said, 'Man, you mean you got gigs? I got a band." Oh, my heart started jumping, he had a gig coming right up. I ran back out of that studio door – we're right there on Sunset, there was a gas station, there was a telephone booth next to the hotdog stand. I called up Howard, I said, "Howard, our luck is about to change. You call everybody else and tell them to get ready for rehearsal tomorrow, and we're gonna roll." The next day I get with Sonny Charles. We had like a 13-14 piece group. I got the guys, we named the group the Night Shift because I was working in the steel yard at night. The singers with us, they wound up singing with Dr. John on that Night Tripper. That's when I got Deacon Jones, the football player, for part of the revue, and Roman Gabriel... that was the skinny, wiry guy that was an athlete. I would sit there, and they would like to be in front of their girlfriends, they'd take off their shirts. I remember old Deacon Jones looking at me saying he'd like for me to punch him in his chest, and he just started laughing. And then I looked at him and I said, 'If I ever have to whoop your ass, I know how to do it. I'm just gonna pick up a mike stand and hit you with it.' And then we can get a chuckle out of it, you know.
I like exemplary people around me, I don't judge you by your name, your color, or your money. I judge you by whether or not you're an exemplary person. Because if I know you're an exemplary person, and I want you to move this equipment from here to there, or you're building a house or you're shining shoes or stuff, then I know you're gonna do it the best you know how. That's the bottom line. See, that's where people keep falling off of America here, because we get inferior people in positions they have no business being in. I don't want a guy working on my heart, and he's a mechanic. Well, we were at the Rag Doll in North Hollywood, and Jerry Goldstein, who later on wound up being our producer - he always liked to put up he found us in a topless bar, and flat out, that's a lie. We were not in no topless bars, they'd be watching the women more than they would us - but The Rag Doll was North Hollywood, and the owner of the club – I'll never forget – he took me to the back and he showed me all these gold records, gold albums and stuff. The Spiral Staircase, they played there. Deep Purple played there. And he looked at me, he says, 'Harold, everybody that's ever played in this place winds up being famous.' I think that this was the night Deacon Jones didn't come back. Hindsight, Deacon didn't show up that night because he didn't have the heart to tell us that was our last night there. But ironically, my bass player that I had was Peter Rosen at the time. He was out of New York City, he's since then died. But Peter Rosen kept telling me, 'I got a good friend, his name is Eric Burdon, and he's gonna come and watch us one night.' And then I had another guy, Jaye Contrelli, he used to play with the group Love. It just so happened this was our last night, and he says to me, 'Eric is coming.' So the word started going around the house, 'Eric is here. Eric Burdon is here.' I'm sitting up there behind the drums, and I see this wiry guy... now, all the time when I working in machine shops and stuff and drilling all them – making all them parts, I was hearing this song, Sky Pilot. I'd just hear it over and over and over. I didn't really know what Eric looked like, but I seen this wiry, thin guy coming up with this huge afro, and I said, 'Oh, that must be Eric.' Well, he had a harmonica - key of C or something of that nature, and he wanted to jam with us. Well, we're still jamming to this day. So he comes up and I'm thinking that was him, but then we started going into this Blues. The next thing I knew we went from a blues, and what was interesting – because we were the Creators we knew how to jam, we would go into all types of modes. We would start off with a shuffle, then we'd got to a 6/8, all kinds of different rhythms. It went on for about 30 minutes. We just played straight through. When we finished, everybody was standing on top of the tables, clapping and cheering, they were going crazy. So I go in the back, and you know how brothers are, we got in the back, we start giving five – 'Hey, man, we kick.' Some guy walked in, and one of the waiters or somebody, says, 'There's a gentleman here would like to meet you.' That's the first time we got a chance to meet Steve Gold. He says, 'You guys are great. Maybe we can get together. Let's meet.' Well, that was on a Saturday, probably February of 1969. The next day we went up to Benedict Canyon, which was out up above Beverly Hills, Hollywood.
Songfacts: Just so I'm clear on this – Eric Burdon was not in the club that night?
Harold: He was there. We didn't get a chance to meet him.
Songfacts: Okay, but Lee went up… when did you realize it was Lee and not Eric Burdon?
Harold: I think I kind of realized it after he didn't sing. All he did was play.
Songfacts: All right. So Eric Burdon's in the club that night, but you don't meet him that night.
Harold: Yeah, we don't meet him. So that next day, we go to Benedict Canyon. Well, it was up in the hills, you know, Bohemian type thing. A wooded area. And we got up and we opened up the door, and the first thing I see is the secretary, I think her name was Lois or something, came up and she had one of them Hollywood black bikinis. Whoa. So we go in, and the first time I met Eric, I went out to the swimming pool, and there he was laying reclined on the swimming pool with this black swimsuit on and Ray-Bans. It was all pictured out, you know, you be over here when they come and you be over there. So I go out and the first thing he started with me, he said something about how he got beat out of a million dollars. I said, 'How could somebody do that?' Well, guess what, in the music business that can happen. Duh. But we didn't know, so he started talking to me and we got to knowing each other. The guys that were there were Eric Burdon, Lee Oskar, Howard Scott, Charles Miller, Papa Dee Allen, Steve Gold, Jerry Goldstein, Lonnie Jordan, and then there might have been some peripheral people. That was on a Sunday. The next day, we had the meeting. That's when things started happening. We sat there, Steve Gold, which wound up being a very good friend to the band later, was really instrumental in a lot of things happening for us.
I gotta say something about Steve Gold. He's been demonized, he's been Stalinized, it's hard to write him away out of history. But Steve Gold was a real record man. You don't find record men. They're sort of like that thing that they did years ago, that movie with Neil Diamond, how they built and made him a star? He was that way. He was rounded. He knew when the music sounded right, he knew when the magic was there. Like he always told me, there's a whole lot of talent out there, but there's very few people that know what to do with it. He could come up with things like the 99 cent concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The Creedence Clearwater, and I mean, so many different people. That's when Richard Pryor was there. He was so brilliant that he would go and buy billboard ads, and he would buy the back cover upside down and make it look like it was the front cover and put an ad on there for us. That kind of stuff.
So Steve Gold was sitting there, and he started saying, 'We're going to take Eric, and we're going to build on top of him.' He used the analogy of the Sputnik, how Eric was going to be the missile to take us out, and then we were going to be released from there and launched like the Sputnik. Now, this is where Lee and everybody come up with different things. I was straight, I was not into drugs, so I know my mind is real clear. I don't know what everybody else is doing, I can't speak for them. Steve got all red in the face, snot started coming out of his nose, he says, "You guys are really a motley crew. I've got a great idea, let's just call you War." And then Lee says that before that him and Eric was riding along, they see a billboard with Yoko Ono and they were talking peace - the direct opposite with the War, but the way I remember it, Steve Gold sat there and said, 'We're gonna name you War.' That's when we started going in the studio. It was unique then, because they didn't ask us to sign any kind of agreements or any contracts. Steve wanted first to see what we could do, so for about a year we just kept going in and out of studios. And then one day we were up in San Francisco, just playing and stuff. Lonnie came in acting all drunk and stuff and out. They had a bottle of wine, and some of that wine got spilled over in the console. Lee says he felt that the song didn't have anything to do with the wine going into the console, but all I know is after that they moved out of the A studio, they moved us into the B studio, and then we were playing a Latin thing, and even if Eric had been writing 'Spill The Wine' all along, and writing the concepts, that's when it all came together. That's when we went into the studio, we started playing it, Eric was putting stuff together, and all of the sudden there came our first hit, 'Spill The Wine.' It was different. It was '69 or so, that's when Jimi Hendrix would hang out with us a lot, right during that time period. It was the Chateau Marmont, located above Sunset. The hotel is still there, and in that day, they had a series of bungalows back there. At that time, Steve Gold and the company they were putting together, they had gotten a bungalow, and that was where everybody would kind of meet.
Songfacts: So are you guys playing at the same time you're recording?
Harold: Yeah, we were playing. The first gig that we played was June 6th and 7th, 1969, at Mother Liz's in San Bernardino, California. At the Chateau Marmont, after we played and stuff, it wasn't uncommon for Jimi Hendrix to be up there just sitting there with us. Him and a couple of ladies. We weren't doing drugs and stuff. They were eating a lot of pizza and drinking cokes. He used to like to sit around us because we would just start jams. Somebody would get on the piano and started playing, we'd get some pots or something out of the kitchen, be playing on it, and we'd be playing music. They would be sitting up there digging on it. I remember some of the most fun things about Jimi, we'd go to Europe, and in London, we were walking through an alley, and Jimi was in front of me, and he looked... I said, 'Jimi, where are you taking me?' And he looked back over his left shoulder at me with his floppy hat and his crushed velvet jacket, and says, 'Brown, I'm gonna show you how to eat when you come to Europe.' His favorite food was chicken tandori, and chutney and rice. The last memory I have of him is when we were all sitting up with Eric. It was in Munich, Germany. We were sitting up there and we were all eating together, sitting around a table and stuff. They had a game, he liked to pass the tequila around, and whoever would get the worm, they were the winner. Well, I would chicken out after about maybe 2 or 3 hits, but everybody else... I'd see people dropping under the table and stuff. So I think Eric is the one that got the worm, if I remember, that night. So then, Eva Maria, she comes in. Eva Maria is the woman that Jim Brown tossed over the side of the balcony years back. She heard there was a Brown, she came up there, I looked at her, 'Oh, that wasn't him.' She left. I found that was the same woman. Then after that we got on a cruise. We took a train, and we were gonna catch a ferry and go over to London. Coming down that Rhine River, we were all sitting there, Jimi started calling, naming to me all the different castles along the Rhine River. We went and we got on this ferry, we came across, then the last time I actually remember him, and hearing him talking to me, was when we were there at Ronnie Scott's, they were doing a jam that night. If I remember, I think Paul McCartney was there, and Morrison was there. We got off the stage, and then he wanted to jam a little bit. He was standing right behind me, and I remember looking to my right, seeing his fingers moving, and then him talking in my left ear. Because he liked that... one of them loping-type shuffles. And he said, "Yeah, Brown, right there, right there. Right there."
Songfacts: And this is Jimi saying this to you.
Harold: This is Jimi saying this to me. So that night we finished playing, and I had some friends there and they invited me to stay with them at some penthouse somewhere in London. The next day, that's when I got the call from Eric that Jimi had made his transition.
Songfacts: Oh, my God.
Harold: We were all tripped out, sad. Steve Gold was down, because Steve is the one that really introduced us to Jimi, because he was traveling around Europe filming Jimi. They'd been really good friends, and they'd hang out together a lot. So we come on back and we went through that transition of that part of history. And it taught some of us some valuable lessons at that time, too. You've just got to be careful. Gotta know when to hold, when to fold. We'd have parties with Morrison from the Doors. Sly Stone. We were all hanging together during that time period.
So anyway, so we got back in the studio, we started recording with Eric. We came up with a couple of more songs, couple of albums. 'Love Is All Around,' 'Black Man's Burdon,' which was on MGM. Now, 'Black Man's Burdon,' Mike Curb was the president at the time, and he wanted to be a lieutenant governor for California at one point. But he had it in for Eric and Steve Gold and different companies, because he thought he was getting us, too. And some kind of hook or crook, that 'Black Man's Burdon' never really got distributed in the United States. It was put up on the shelf to get back at some of the guys against the business deal. We go forward, and finally we were in Europe touring with Eric. Now see, Eric and I know exactly what happened, why he left the group. Because he came to my room, because him and I had an unusual kind of relationship. Years before that we were out somewhere, and I'm walking around and I come back in and Eric is all mad at the band, I guess because of a bad show or something. He started poking me in my chest and I pushed him back and I said, 'No. I don't work for you, I work with you.' After that he started giving me Porsches and stuff. He'd come by New Orleans and see me. So he came to the room, he was burned out. He'd been traveling all that time, he'd just gotten married... he was just burned out. I looked at him and I said, 'Eric, you know what? We can handle the show. If you want to go back, I say go back.' So that's when he left us there in Northern England. That's when we became our own. We started playing songs that we had on our first album War that went vinyl. That's our joke - it never made platinum or gold, it went vinyl. We had enough of our own new material, and old songs that we'd been playing before we met Eric, so we just started playing them. Our first big hit that we got for our group, we were touring in Europe. We all help write, but Howard Scott was a primary writer. Papa Dee would be in there. Charles Miller, my partner, he was like my big brother, him and I grew up together, he was two doors down from me, he's actually the one that sang "Low Rider." But he had an early… some… well, he got murdered. I don't know… it was pretty sad. But at that time we had all those writers.
At this point, our tape ends, and while I flip it over, we talk about Flavor Flav from Public Enemy as part of a discussion on how some singers who are known for their image actually have a great deal of musical talent.
Songfacts: He can actually play music, huh?
Harold: He can play. He puts on a certain act. His mama's a concert pianist.
Songfacts: Jim Morrison, so he actually had musical skills?
Harold: Oh yeah, Jim Morrison was a musician. He wasn't just a rock star. He was really a musician. And then he'd get drunk, I'd look over, he'd be curled up asleep knocked out in his Superman outfit or something. He just didn't know when to back off. Janis Joplin, same thing.
Songfacts: Because you had mentioned you were never too into the whole drinking and drugs kind of thing.
Harold: No, you know, we had our different time periods where, you know, you did certain things, and there's certain things I knew were just taboo. And you know, one point where they got into the cocaine. I got liberated, and I didn't have to go to a funny farm, go and get dried out. I just knew: one day I woke up, I said, 'Wait a minute.' First of all, I don't like the way it made me feel. Because I'm an extrovert, and I go out and I talk to people. When I do that drug it makes me an introvert, and I feel like I'm canned up inside, I don't like that feeling. And then the friends and stuff that were coming around, they would want to be working with me on a project and do a lot of blow and stuff, and then they still want you to pay them. So I don't like the people around it.
Songfacts: So this whole scene, is it like at night you're at somebody's house, you're at a club…
Harold: Oh yeah, we used to have house parties. The one that I remember the most was having a birthday party for Eric, and it was at Boris Karloff's old house. And I remember, boy, it was crazy, guys would come over, be throwing kegs and stuff in the swimming pools. They'd come flying through there. Shoot a .357 up in the air.
Songfacts: And there really were drugs just flying all over the place?
Harold: During that time period, it would be around, it was acceptable. It was just the thing.
I left the group when I was about 37. I was just burned out, I think I hit that same point that Eric did when he left. And there were business things going on with the different record company, I could see certain writing on the wall. So I just kind of backed off, and for a long time, Carl, I thought I'd made a mistake. But later on when I got to be 50, the spirit came to me and said, 'No, there was no mistake.' Because 1) I would have never taken the opportunity to go to college. I would never have been who I am now. I wouldn't have grown, I've grown spiritually, I've grow as far as academic structure, computers, music – I went back and I learned how to play. I didn't start playing piano 'til I was 40. I wouldn't hire me as a piano player, but I can tell you everything on the paper, and I can write. In these past 3 years I went back and I studied architecture, geology, history. People get on this euphoria of drugs. Because, let's say you go and play to 10,000 people, 5,000, 50,000, or even 10 people. Well, you get up there, and the adrenaline, when you reach a certain point playing and communicating musically, and everybody's synched in, that's a helluva high. That's something you can't manufacture or buy. So what happens is being a musician or being an artist, that adulation, you want to try to obtain that, and then you start finding synthetic things to get you there, to that high. That was happening with Jimi and those guys: 'Oh you're the greatest, you're the greatest.' But then, I got lucky. I started achieving certain things, like get a whole new War. Get two of them. Or take in a great golf game. Or creative writing a nice piece of music, going through and achieving computer science or mastering or learning this. And then I can go back, like I'm getting a buzz when I talk to you about these things. So I replaced it. What happens to a lot of people that wind up strung out on drugs is they don't have something else they've got to replace it with. You can't just say, 'Just say no,' you've got to give them something else in place of that.
Songfacts: All right. Now, when you're talking about how Jimi… could he be stone sober throughout the day and on stage, and then it was after hours that he would get into the drugs?
Harold: I would say that would be a thing like that. You know, some people were doing cocaine and stuff, they'd be buzzed up, so then they would try to take another pill to bring them down. And so you never know where they're at.
Songfacts: So these musicians who were on drugs, they could be under the influence at just about any time, including when they're on stage?
Harold: You can, yeah. And see, I've been so far away that sometimes people tell me people are on stuff, I can't even recognize them.
Songfacts: All right. I just wanted to go back a little. Could we talk a little about "Spill The Wine"?
Songfacts: Is Eric responsible for the lyrics?
Harold: Yes, Eric was responsible for the lyrics, but there was a glitch. If he had written the lyrics, MGM, they would have been entitled to a deal that he had made. They would have been able to administrate it, and it would have just gotten nasty for him. So we did the music and then he just gave us all the lyrics. Which, one day, you know, like Lee was saying, we just like to give it back to him. Because we've got enough of our own songs now.
Songfacts: On that song, there's the lady speaking Spanish in the background. What's all that about?
Harold: It was Eric's girlfriend. We went back there and we put up a little tent-like, candlelight, and some wine back there, and they were behind there, and Eric was doing things to her and making her talk. So we recorded the song.
Songfacts: So the whole "Spill The Wine" concept, is there a deeper meaning? Is there anything besides just, hey, somebody spilled some wine on the console, sounds like a good lyric?
Harold: I think that Eric was already working on an idea about leaking gnomes, waking up in a grassy field, and then when the wine inadvertently got knocked over, whether it was part of the song or not, it all just came together right at that moment.
Songfacts: And is he saying, "Dig that girl?"
Harold: "Spill the wine, take that girl. Spill the wind, take that pearl."
Songfacts: Okay, so it's "girl" and then it's "pearl."
Harold: Yeah. And then you know what the pearl is, you know, all the little maidens are trying to save their pearl anyway for their future loves.
Songfacts: Oh, you're going to need to explain that to me. What's the pearl?
Harold: The pearl, you know, the jewel, the jewel. The pearl is their…
Harold: Their nut.
Songfacts: So that's a sexual reference, that pearl.
Harold: Yeah, right.
Songfacts: What else is in there that we don't know?
Harold: Oooo… all ladies are beautiful. You've got to look at them... it's just like, when you put someone in a field of grass and tall ones, short ones. God, I believe, put all of us here and made us all different so we could be like the flowers, you know. Like women. I look at them as beautiful flowers. Even when they get older, the flowers and so on, and that's what it really boils down to, they can be skinny, big, fat, I've seen some fine voluptuous women. And then I've seen some that are skinny, and if you look at them, they could be beautiful, depending on personality and stuff.
Harold: Okay, 'slippin' In The Darkness,' Howard was working on some lyrics and he had this concept, thinking of how one could slip into darkness, and your mind could just go on, and you just go off to the left - you have to be careful, you have to say, "Don't go there." It's like that wall between sane and insane. We all figure we're sane, and we all once in a while we look past that wall, that wall opens up and our head pops over and we look and we say, "Here's Johnny." I always like that. You look over there and you see certain things, and some of us have been known to go over there and stay, and there's some that pop their heads right back. Because that's just right on that borderline of sane, insane, and really close to being a genius. Because you get in that moment of creation and you start thinking, and you start seeing things different than the way a lot of other people are seeing it. Most of the stuff we're seeing, they're here, and it's all accessible to all of us, but then when we go and take these different words or materials, and it's how you rearrange it that makes it different and it presents itself. Like a tree. I look at a tree, and I say, Okay I could do a couple of things with that tree. We can let it stay there, it's beautiful, I can cut it down, make firewood, or I can make furniture with it but rearrange it. So… but we're in our creative mode in that sane and insanity. You have to watch that balance, because if you step over there, the next thing you know, you could be out there like I said, that's when guys start getting all blown out on drugs and stuff, and become crazy. Get on speed and stuff and they think they're seeing bugs and stuff, and you say, "Man, what's wrong with you? I don't see any bugs." And you find out the people that have the highest amount of creativity, there's a fine line between them being sane and insane. They're the ones I find, guys that are really out there, you got to have a certain way you gotta talk to them, you gotta know their moods, you got to know those events, those episodes, when you're dealing with them. I can think of a few, like our bass player. He's a brilliant person, the one that sang "World Is A Ghetto." Because he's so in touch, I think he came back from BB, he went to Tibet and those places when he was very young, and he started seeing different things and experiencing different cultures and different glimpses of various wisdom. So a lot of time BB is very sensitive. I know there's a certain time I can go and give him a hug, and a certain time I know don't touch. Or there's a certain time I know when he's in his certain mood or certain zone, I let him there, because I can go into his world and all of a sudden startle him. That's just amazing. I read a book called Creators On Creating, and they wanted to find out the state of mind of people when they're creating, like the guy that came up with DNA or Einstein - they've got that fine line. You'll find generally that they're sensitive people. Different things can affect them different ways, so it's a balance you've got to find.
"Slippin' In The Darkness," that's what we were talking about not slippin' off that other side, the deep end. That's what that was all about.
Now, "slippin' In The Darkness," there was a rhythm... I had perfected that rhythm out of a combination of rhythms. So when Howard came together with certain ideas and time sets of lyrics, I said, "The next song that we play, I'm making sure that rhythm fits in it." And I was the only one written up in Downbeat for that particular rhythm that took and changed the course of drumming into the '70s.
That was War's first hit. Steve Gold, a brother of ours, he was our manager at the time, he went into New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and all of a sudden it started breaking, because it was so different. And even to this day when I go places and guys see me, or tell their drummers, they want to see how I play that.
Songfacts: So did that style become more popular on certain songs?
Harold: Yeah, and I found particularly in New Orleans it fits like second line and stuff.
Songfacts: So what are some of the other songs that came after that that you listen to and say, "Hey, that's…"
Harold: Okay, "Low Rider."
Songfacts: Well, not even your songs, necessarily.
Harold: Oh, other songs? My auditioning orchestra was out and then Miles Davis did "Bitch's Brew." Billy Cobham, he played like he played, and I heard – woooo – "Bitch's Brew," that finally liberated me. We used to think the guy said, "Oh, you made a mistake with that." No, it's not a mistake if you constantly repeat it. It becomes deliberate. So I've seen different drummers that all of a sudden they just create a whole 'nother thing or just make it work. I think, too, Carl, with the advent of computers, downloading, it puts an eye on labels like that, the world of music, it brought us all together. It's sort of like when Bob Marley and I was walking along together. Me and Bob Marley and BB Dickerson was in Atlanta, that was the last time we were together, been in a show, him and I was hanging out. We were walking to the radio station, and Bob Marley looks at me and he punches me on the arm, and he looked at me and he said, "Boo. I do song for you guys. I do song for you guys." Song was "Stand up, stand up, stand up for your right." He took that lyric from "slippin' In The Darkness." That motif. "Stand up, stand up, stand up for your right." He told me, "Your band, you're like us, you're street musicians." That's when I knew we connected. He kept bugging me, he said, "Come down to Jamaica, spend time with me." But they wouldn't let me go. Management said it was bad because there were problems going on in Jamaica at the time, and then because of the name of the group – War – and I had a big afro, radical look, you know.
Songfacts: So you mentioned that drumming style, you used that on "Low Rider" as well.
Harold: What happened on "Low Rider" was in the studio, we were jamming, and I was supposed to have been on the downbeat. But all of the sudden I was on the upbeat. And I said, "Oh, boy. I got the beat turned around." Well, Carl, I didn't panic. I said, "Wait a minute. Stay there. Don't change it. Stay." Because as long as you keep doing it over and over and over, it won't be a mistake. We were just messing around, you know, Charles was over there, we were doing the dozen - that old song that Howling Wolf and another one had: The old lady looked in, I seen the lady's hair in the street, she looked at water, she'd scare water. Then the next thing I know, Charles started just singing, "Low ri-der drives a little slower. The low…" he was just pumping it. And then the next thing I know Lee's over there putting that harmonica on, because Lee is a melody man all the time. And then – boom. If you'd hear the original version of it, all with that jam, that would be worth a million right there. I think that… one day maybe Jerry Goldstein will wake up and call me, and then they'll realize they're behind times. That's the stuff I'd be putting on downloads. The actual jams with the songs. People would eat that up. So anyhow, when we finished it, all of us looked at it, "That's a hit." We didn't know that it was gonna be an icon, Americana, because you've got to say it's Americana. I don't care if you're driving a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce or if you have a hooptie – hearing it thumping, it just works because it predicts historically a time period in America. That's true about all music, pretty much. If you go back and look at a lot of music from 1800 to the turn of the century, all through the 1900s, how they used to write songs, "You're my little tulip." And then when you go into the 1940s all of the sudden you're talking about going squash corn, and you're relating your love to that. Then you went into the '50s, you started getting Fats Domino and all them Hollywood singing - that time period relating to it. Or even Chuck Berry. And then you got into our music, and then you started having all the other artists doing it, like we're not the only ones. But there were certain things during that time period, especially when we went into the Vietnam War, stuff was happening. Then we came on past the Vietnam War, and then all of the sudden the Disco stuff started happening. And then right up to now. You'll be able to look at it, you can tell what was going on, just like food or anything. What was happening. Clothes and everything. So our music, like "Low Rider," started setting a trend right there.
Then all of the sudden we were in Japan, and that's when we came up with "Why Can't We Be Friends." We were over there traveling, and we started going to Japan in the early '70s. I remember I was over there, and the Japanese weren't as tall as we were. Nowadays it's not uncommon to see them tall. You'd look over and we could see each other.
Any way you see it, we're all connected by language, and by our food, and by our culture. And most racists don't know why they're racist. But you pick them up and take them over and drop them in a country, like India or Pakistan, guess what? "Why can't we be friends?" Because all of a sudden you find out we're more alike inside than we are on the outside. That's why we started writing "Why Can't We Be Friends." Because we started realizing that that's really important. You travel all over the world, you can't speak a lot of their language. But one thing they do know, they know your body language, how you may react.
So "Why Can't We Be Friends," we did it at Crystal Studios. That was down on Vine in Hollywood. You'd see Stevie Wonder was recording in there while we'd be in there. You would see the Fabulous Thunderbirds would be recording in there, all kinds of people. It would be incredible, and bam, we had that next hit.
Songfacts: I want to ask you a little bit more about the specifics of that song. That was interesting, because you were talking about somebody who may be a racist or whatever their views are, you stick them in some other environment and everything changes for them. I've never heard it put that way before.
Harold: We're creatures like that. Because, by me being historian, and you too, most people during the Civil War, all those Southerners down there, they were mostly little farmers from Europe. And they were peasants. They came down there, and they'd be saying, "That's not right." Because, see, what people don't know, Benjamin Franklin, he was the head of the first Abolitionist Society. Colonel Forest and those guys that come running through there, they'd say, "Well, Bergstein, we heard that you were a bad mouth." "Oh, no, no, I have no problem, I just want to be left alone and raise my family," and this and that. And then it was those big banks up in the North financing the plantations in the South. They were helping finance the ships, and the shackles and stuff. And a couple of those big bankers that were abolitionists up there in the North were walking down the street, a banker would come up to them and say, "You've got to be quiet, gotta shut up, don't you know how much money we'd lose if we outlaw slavery?" That's what the Alamo was all about – slavery. They were getting money, they were going to finance them to go over there. The Mexicans didn't mind nobody squattin', but when they came up there to the Alamo, it was to toss out slavery because they didn't allow slavery. They were going to take the Alamo, take it over, secede it, bring it into the United States, they were gonna put slavery there. That's what that was about.
Songfacts: Now, on that song, is each member taking a different verse?
Harold: Each one. I'm singing the very first one you hear.
Songfacts: All right. And how did you guys write those? Did you just come up with your own, or did you just kind of put them together?
Harold: We each kind of came up with our own. Because when you get there, "I may not speak right, but I know what I'm talking about," that's Lee. Because you remember, he's just learning how to speak English.
Songfacts: Oh, all right.
Harold: Because we'd get a lot of calls from Europe or something, and here's a little something, brother called me up, and they'll think that I'm Lee at times. And I say, "Hey, you know why I sound like…? Because that's all they know how to speak there (Denmark). Like a brother."
Songfacts: So what happens next?
"World Is A Ghetto." That one there was inspired by Papa D. We were living all out around Pomona and different parts, you know, San Pedro, Compton, and so on. And we spent a lot of time out around Malibu, and in Hollywood. Well, one day we started realizing that their toilets backed up... funny, you looked at the drains and see it backing up, and say, "Oh, what's up with this?" And then we started realizing that rich people, people living in some of those big suburbs and stuff, hey, they got their problems, they got broke down cars and stuff. So we started realizing the world is a ghetto. And it's really up to each one of us how we take and work with our environment. We truly believe that everybody can succeed. We believe that it doesn't really matter who you are, where you come from, or your class situation. But we don't look at it upon the way people say it, "Well, if I don't accumulate a lot of wealth I'm not successful." Or, "If I'm not wearing a certain kind of clothes or driving a certain car," or "I gotta have a certain kind of house," that doesn't mean I'm not successful. Well, through that song, what we're really trying to say, you can be successful, as long as you do unto each other as you're supposed to do, be a good neighbor. Get out and do the best you can. Work with each other. Work as a team. That's what we need in America. We don't need all these different factions: I'm a democrat, I'm a republican, I'm independent. We are righteous, that's what War stood for. It was trying to bring everybody together through our music. Lonnie tried to say guns and bullets, but it was through music. That's why I think our music crossed all the different barriers, why it went into all the different nationalities. Why people accepted it, because it was a hydrogenous type music.
Harold: The "Cisco Kid," once again, Howard has always been a major contributor. He was in Compton, he had this apartment. I came up there and when I got up there he was sitting on his amp, and I walked up to him. He said, "Harold, I got this idea. Cisco kid was a friend of mine." And that idea came about because there were no ethnic heroes at that time. Mainly, we were seeing people like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers. There wasn't really anybody to relate to except Cisco Kid. He was like the total different kind of person. Here's this Latino/Spanish blood... I guess more like Spanish.
Incidentally, we did get to meet Duncan Renaldo. We went up to his house, and his wife made sure to let everybody know, "He don't drink. He don't drink no wine." I remember that to this day, she told me. They were beautiful, warm people. We sat there with him. He lived up in Camarillo, up outside of Santa Barbara, California.
Our fictitious character, Cisco Kid, we wanted to give kids, people, another alternative besides the ones that were right in our face, obvious heroes. And it worked out really good, because it had the right kind of hook, it was a fun song, people at that time didn't want to be hearing about no more wars or anything, they just wanted fun music. And the tonality was brilliant. There was a song that I heard, Sam and Dave did, that was (singing), "But I thank you." You hear that "tickytackytickytack." I said, "Wow, that's such a great song. I like the technique, where he's just playing on the rim. The next time I do a song, I'm going to do the same thing." So that's why it's "Cisco Kid." You hear that "tickytackytickytacky." And then, with Lee Oskar and Charles Miller, the brilliance that they had; I remember we'd lay down a track, and it used to be customary. Once we got the rough track, we would stay out of the way and we would just get Lee Oskar and Charles Miller, along with our producer, they'd be the only ones there. Of course Howard Scott produced along with all the albums, he wound up being a co-producer along with Lonnie Jordan and Jerry Goldstein. But a lot of times it would just be Jerry Goldstein, maybe Lonnie, but most, I know Charles and Lee was always there, because that's when they would do their horn parts on all of our songs. They would go in, and it would just be horn day. And they'd get that blend between Charles and Lee – Lee is a phenomenal harmonica player. You know, he doesn't think like the majority of harmonica players. He thinks in terms of melodies, parts, that's why when you come to a show and you see us playing, it always seems like Lee is lead, and he's directing. That's what he's doing. That's my buddy. He comes up with some interesting things. He's very European in his thinking music-wise and stuff. I'll never forget when I realized how close we're alike in the early time when we started going out and Lee had never really eaten with us, and we said we were looking for soul food, and we found the soul food. Lee was on the outside and he finally looked in the window and he ran in there and he said, "What's that?" And I said, "Liver and onions, and gravy, mashed potatoes and peas." He said, "That's what we eat." So I found out he has a certain thing, and he's got a certain soul. It's different. I don't know if you've every been to Copenhagen, have you?
Harold: The first time I went there I heard this girl back there using slang like a sister would. Well, my brother shot around the corner and I looked back, and I said, "Dang, if I hadn't looked at you, I would have thought you black." And she looked at me and said, "What you talking about? My brother's just like you." And that was like 1972 or '71. So that's why I always remind Lee, he thinks different than the average European/American. A lot of people think he's complicated, but I can understand him. I don't know if that means that I'm complicated, but it seems pretty easy. And it's like with Howard, and then BB, when we all come together it's such an incredible thing, we can just take the experiences of the day, or individual lives, and we can take and put it together, and then we're just having a conversation. I mean, it's phenomenal. When I looked at it, we've been playing together for like 45 years, 46 years. That's amazing.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's a long time.
Harold: It is. So it's like when we get together we don't see each other for, let's say, 6 months or a year. We get together, we talk to each other every single day. It's like, I've just seen you. That carries on into our music. So we got in the studio and we started laying that track down, I'll tell you years ago, something, Carl. I was working in New Orleans at the Superdome, we had Earth, Wind, and Fire – and who was that that was touring with them?
Harold: Chicago. The lead guitar player, he came up to me, and he stopped in the hallway. There was a bunch of people around. And he looked at me and he says, "I want to let you know that 'Cisco Kid' is the most perfect track I've ever heard." That's what he told me. To have one of Chicago, one of the main guys – the guitar player – come and tell me that was incredible. I always go back to it and I listen to it. When we recorded it we had some excellent engineers with us, and then the articulation, when we would play it, it was like we already knew how each other were thinking, so when we played and laid it down it was just like right there. We knew it was a hit, and it wasn't something intentional. We didn't try to go and manufacture a hit, because I don't think you can manufacture, not a real, lasting hit. So "Cisco Kid" wasn't just a jam, like a lot of our songs. Like "All Day Musical."
Songfacts: Yeah, so for that one, are you guys all in the studio playing together, or are you laying your parts down separately?
Harold: Oh, "Cisco Kid"? We all did it together, and then you might have somebody go back in, like the horns, if they want to re-pronounce the horns or alter them slightly, or make them fat or do extra parts. Sometimes in the percussion, to keep it from spilling over into the drums, and later on we got more sophisticated, we used to come in and overdub our timablis, those licks. The fun thing I used to like was like when we went in and we were doing hand claps, we'd all stand in a circle, and we'd all have to clap. We'd try to get them, that was fun. Or somebody might have a shaker, a maraca, another one a cowbell, another one a wood block or something, we would put percussion on like that.
Songfacts: But for the most part, when you guys are starting these tracks, everybody's playing at once and everything's being recorded?
Harold: Everything is being played at once and everything is being recorded.
Songfacts: All right, gotcha. Hey, the Cisco Kid, was that a TV show?
Harold: That was a television show. Matter of fact, doing our shows, we used to use some of the footage to open up. We'd show a Cisco Kid movie, and he'd say, like, "See you later, amigo," and then we'd take off and then we'd go right into "Cisco Kid."
Songfacts: Okay. So what came next for the band?
Harold: Then things started going kind of down hill. The group started fragmenting for various reasons. BB went into sabbatical, and all of the sudden Charles Miller, our sax player, didn't think that it would still work if BB wasn't there. We brought in some other guys to play, and he didn't want to be in the group at that time. This was approximately 1980, '81, right in there. And then that's when Charles Miller had his untimely death came and when Far Out Productions went and trademarked the name behind our backs. That's when we lost our name. We didn't know it until later. But in '79 is when War was trademarked, and it wasn't in our names, and that was part of the reason why we're now the Low Rider Band. Then after that, the group started kind of like taking a dive, because Disco started coming in. We'd put out an album on MCA Records, Galaxy.
And Galaxy – people love that song to this day. We were over in the ABC Studios, we just laid that track down, I had just gotten those custom-made Ludwig drums that Mr. Ludwig built for me. We were standing listening to the playback, and I said, "Take me to your place in space." That was the beginning of the song. Then we started writing it: "Take me to your place in space, I'm sick and tired of the rat race." That's how that song evolved. That's when we tried it with our new group, that was the Music Band Tour. Matter of fact, one of the best songs I think we ever did, one of my best drumming I ever did, was "Seven Tin Soldiers." And "Music Band" was what Charles Miller said was his ultimate sax solo. That was the last sax solo he recorded before he died his untimely death. So then at that point that's about the time I left the group, the group fragmented, that's when Lee Oskar, Howard Scott, and Lonnie Jordan, along with Ron Hammond, they were touring as War. Just 4 pieces. Then when we got closer to about the '90s, '93 or so, right in there, that's when they called me back up and wanted me to come back in the group because we were going to record the Peace Sign album. So we went in and did the Peace Sign album, and that's when we did the song called "Peace Sign." Now, we did that one up there at that big ranch, Luke Skywalker Ranch. That's where we went.
Songfacts: George Lucas, right?
Harold: George Lucas. So we were at his studio, and I've seen him a couple of times. Gorgeous place. Beautiful little city. Now, in that recording, pretty much that was Lonnie Jordan, Howard Scott, and myself. We were trying to get back to our basics. Because all the other people were peripheral people, they weren't from the original group. Lee had left the group because he'd gotten disenchanted. When I came back to the group, 1993, I was disappointed because Lee was gone. So I'm there, and then after a bit Howard left the group. And then I'm there, just with Lonnie, and then Lonnie wanted to run the whole show. We had brought him in the group when we were kids. And nothing bitter, love him and stuff, but 1) in order to run a car, or maintain a project, or whatever you build, you gotta know how it was built, first of all. If you don't understand the workings you can't keep it running, you can just emulate. So he and I just decided to say, "Well, I'm outta here." Howard wasn't there, Lee wasn't there, BB... the other guys were really nice. Like Tex Nakamura, he was an incredible person, I really liked him a lot, and I still like him. But then there were 5 musicians. I felt, too, that if they would just pursue it themselves, instead of trying to emulate us, they might get further. So now here we are, 2007, we've got our Low Rider Band, and 4 out of 7 in the band. We've got 4 of the original members in Low Rider Band, and there's only 5 of us that are still living.