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A low rider is a car, and also a culture. "Low Riders" are modified with hydraulic lifts that allow the driver to lower each wheel and make the car bounce. They are often customized with outrageous paint jobs, tiny steering wheels and swivel seats. The culture formed around these cars is big in the Southwestern US, and popular in Latino culture. Most of the band grew up in Southern California and were immersed in low rider culture.
War's drummer Harold Brown, who was a founding member of the band, knows his way around cars and had his own business working on them for a while, which kept him from getting drafted during the Vietnam War. Brown told us: "The first time I knew about what we called Low Riders were my cousin Leon and a few more cruising up and down the coast in California. You also had Hot Rodders, which were a different breed racing around town. They were from the other side of the tracks. Leon left his 1953 yellow Mercury with black prime spots on it, tuck and roll seat covers from Tijuana Mexico, lowered in the front, parked on the side of the house. He eventually lowered it all the way around after returning from the Korean War.
My brother KB and I had a 1953 Dodge. We'd chop our springs with torches - this would lower the car a few inches. It made for a hard ride up until homies started putting hydraulics on them. If you were driving a truck with lift gates on the rear, you'd better check to see if someone has stolen your hydraulics - it happened to me.
We would drive from Pomona California to South Los Angeles taking side streets and main drags through El Monte, Whittier, Watts, and Compton, then eventually into Long Beach/San Pedro, California. When they finally built freeways in Southern California we would cruise in the slow lane just in case we had to pull over and do some repairs. There wasn't any AAA for us folks.
Back in 1965-66, The Sheriffs would stop us for our car being too low. At first they would have a long rod with a clamp on it. Then they would take a pack of Camel cigarettes and clamp it on to the rod sliding it under the chassis of your hooptie. If it didn't go from one side to the other they would give you a ticket or impound your ride. You have to call your daddy or momma to come give you a rider. After a couple of years they became more sophisticated by having a stick with a caliper on the end made as a ruler. The Sheriffs would measure from the ground up to your rims, then slide the calipers from one side to the other to make sure you had proper clearance. Could you imagine having a blow out? You would be dragging along the cement. Thank God for lifts."
The lines "Take a little trip" and "Rides a little higher" led many listeners to believe this song was about drugs, but Brown tells a different story: "We did not want it to sound as if we were referring to drugs. As a rule most Lowriders are not big druggies, because we all had regular jobs as machinists, body and fender and mechanics. We didn't have any extra money for drugs. We put the money into our cars. Drugs didn't come into the picture then. That became a Hollywood thing for some reason. Maybe Cheech and Chong?
We were trying to convey that the Lowrider gets a little higher by riding in his automobile, being proud of how he takes care of his ride. It's like riding around in your trophy. We have found that if you are a real Lowrider with a nice ride and it's clean you will find that his or her home and work place is neat and in order. We Lowriders like to make our surroundings better by taking pride in what we are blessed with.
'Take a little trip, take a little trip with me and see.' That's how it felt with my big brother Charles Miller. He's the one that sung the song. When he and I would cruise in his 1948 Chevy (You can see Charles Miller in our Lowrider film on Youtube.com) we never knew what adventure we would encounter. One morning about 2:30 - 3:00 AM we came up on a fire in an apartment complex in Long Beach, California. The people were all asleep. Charles jumped out of his hooptie (1948 Chevy), me following close behind, and started banging on doors and throwing barrels and things against the building to get the attention of the residents inside. I had forgotten about that little trip out of many that we took."
The group's sax player, Charles Miller, came up with the idea for the song. Brown explains: "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.' 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. 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. When we finished it, all of us looked at it, 'That's a hit.' We didn't know that it was going to be an icon. 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 growing 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 types 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."
Disco was starting to become popular around this time. The slow Funk groove on this song sounded nothing like the heavily-produced dance beats that would soon dominate the charts.
The group was known as Nite Shift before they were asked to back up Eric Burdon and renamed War. Burdon had been lead singer of The Animals, and brought them instant notoriety. After 2 albums and the hit "Spill The Wine," Burdon left War, but the band continued without him, racking up several hits in the '70s.
Korn covered this in 1996. In their version, lead singer Jon Davis played the main melody on his bagpipes. (thanks, Nick - Paramus, NJ)
In the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, this song got the "old school" car thieves into the mood to steal the cars. (thanks, Joe Smrekar - Green Bay, WI)
This was the theme song to the ABC sitcom The George Lopez Show.
This was the opening song in the 1978 Cheech & Chong comedy movie Up In Smoke. (thanks, Real - Val-d'Or, Canada)
The Offspring's "Original Prankster
" is attributed as "Containing portions" of this song. (thanks, Ryan - lancashire, England)
The Lowrider Band consists of 4 of the 5 surviving original core group members of War: Howard E. Scott, B.B. Dickerson, Lee Oskar and Harold Brown. These members lost the right in federal court to use and tour under the name "War" in the mid-1990s to Far Out Productions (producer and songwriter Jerry Goldstein). The band's original keyboardist Lonnie Jordan began touring using the name "War" under Goldstein's guidance. (Thanks to Harold Brown
for speaking with us about this song. Learn more about the Lowrider Band at lowriderband.com
Kristian Bush of Sugarland
Kristian talks songwriting technique, like how the chorus should redefine the story, and how to write a song backwards.