Lonnie Jordan was jamming with a band called the Nightshift in the late 1960s. One night, they backed Los Angeles Rams great Deacon Jones during a gig in the San Fernando Valley (yes, the defensive monster was trying to launch a singing career at the time). Jones, unfortunately, didn’t know his way around a mic as well as he did around an offensive lineman.
In the crowd that night was Jerry Goldstein, cowriter of the girl-group fave “My Boyfriend’s Back” and former member of the Strangeloves, best known for the saccharine smash “I Want Candy.” He knew catchy; he knew hits. He connected Jordan’s band with Eric Burdon of the Animals fame, and in 1969, WAR was declared.
“We had a record out called ‘Spill the Wine,’” Jordan recalls. “That was our first record, and I’ve never had a record out before that was playing on the radio and that seemed like a mind blower for me. “I think I took the form of Superman at that point. I became very invincible!”
The group’s first two albums, Eric Burdon Declares War and The Black Man’s Burdon, set the young Southern California-based musicians on an impressive path during strange days. The societal spasms of the era—riots, the Vietnam War, the Black and Chicano Power movements—influenced the racially integrated lineup of WAR. Their band name seemed ironic, but it was how they defined themselves: musical belligerents armed solely with melodies, rhythms and harmony.
Funk was and is the musical backbone of WAR, but many more elements were incorporated. “People would always say we had a mixture of Latin, R&B, gospel, jazz, and reggae, and I told them, ‘Well, actually, you can just narrow it down to ‘universal street music,’” Jordan says. “It’s like a mixed salad bowl of all genres.”
WAR’s eclectic blend has held its universal appeal over the decades. Burdon left the band shortly after it started, but Jordan and the rest continued, penning hits so catchy, so funky, so seminal they long ago entered the Southern California canon. “The Cisco Kid.” “Slipping into Darkness.” “All Day Music.” “Lowrider.” From Hollywood to East LA, Hot 92.3 to KROQ, WAR’s songs play almost daily somewhere, somehow, in SoCal.
But Jordan is particularly proud of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” The song immediately made history when NASA beamed it to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. As Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts joined together in the cooperative effort, Jordan watched the drama unfold on television with his track playing up in the heavens. “My mind was blown when I heard it playing in space,” Jordan says, still thrilled at the memory. “I love space travel. I haven’t done it physically, but my music has.”
Twenty-five years later, late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel chose the song for his Facebook campaign “National Unfriend Day.” With Jordan as the sole original member left performing under the band’s name, WAR performed on The Jimmy Kimmel Show in November and comically changed the lyrics of the classic. “It’s because it has a universal meaning, just like the sound of our music,” the singer explains of the tune. “It’s the type of lyrics and the type of music that will continue on in the future with different meanings.”
Looking back over the decades, Jordan never figured WAR’s influence would reverberate so long. “I know some of our music back in the day when the Vietnam War was happening had an impact,” he says. “I just didn’t know that it would continue on today. In a way, I guess I am a superhero—an underground superhero!”
As the band set to close out another year at the Grove of Anaheim, Jordan’s current roster of musicians has kept the membership multiracial—and it’s now also multigenerational. The youngest is bassist Pancho Tomaselli, born a year before Soyuz took WAR intergalactic. “He’s a troublemaker—an Ecuadorian troublemaker. I’ve adopted him as my illegitimate son!” Jordan declares with a laugh.
But Jordan isn’t comfortable with resting on legacy tours. “As we speak, I’ve been in the studio trying to finish up a brand-new CD with brand-new music” the musician reveals. “No more old compilations.” He reports that the first album of new material under the band’s name in 17 years is shaping up solidly.
“It’s sounding good, and the stories are good,” he says as he prepares to declare WAR once more in 2011. “I think we are going to have another impact next year. Brand-new music!”
WAR perform at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim; www.grove-of-anaheim.com. Thurs., Dec. 30, 9 p.m. $35-$45. All ages.
This article appeared in print as “Intergalactic Underground Superhero: Lonnie Jordan is ready to declare WAR once more.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.