In the ’70s funk era, War’s pan-Latin percussion, swaggering guitar solos and soulful rhythms catapulted them to the zenith of musical popularity. While their impact extended beyond the airwaves, it also deeply resonated with Southern California’s POC families. The groovy rhythms of War, inspired by the fusion sound of Fania All Stars and more — became the soundtrack to the carne asada backyard parties and barbecue grill gatherings for many residents of the region and beyond.
Now, half a century later, the California jam band stands just as fabulous, celebrating their golden anniversary of their iconic album The World is a Ghetto, a record that claimed the No. 1 spot on both the Billboard 200 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts in 1973.
One of the band’s charting singles, “The Cisco Kid,” climbed to No. 2 on the Hot 100. The song unfurls as an homage to an unlikely Mexican antihero turned freedom fighter, inspired by a television hit series from the 1950s. “The thing is, there were not a lot of ethnic heroes on television back then,” War founding member/musician Leroy “Lonnie” Jordan tells Billboard Español. “He was the biggest non-Anglo hero,” echoes producer Jerry Goldstein, emphasizing the groundbreaking nature of this representation.
As the group reflects on their five-decade journey, they delve into the creation of other iconic tracks like “Spill the Wine” (1970), with Eric Burdon, and “Low Rider” (1975). The latter — which reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 — pays homage to Southern California car clubs in the barrio, becoming synonymous with cholo culture. “Living in East L.A., Compton, Watts and Harbor City, Chicanos and blacks shared one thing: lowriders,” adds Jordan.
“Low Rider,” in fact, made numerous appearances in film and TV, like the Cheech and Chong 1978 classic Up In Smoke, about the misadventures of two stoner Mexican-American friends, Colors (1988), about gang violence in East L.A., Friday (1995) with Ice Cube, and even the intro song to the George Lopez TV show, which ran for most of the 2000s.
In celebration of their 50th anniversary since topping the Billboard charts, Goldstein and Jordan take us back to their original recording sessions in this brief oral history.
Eric Burdon Declares War
Jerry Goldstein: We started as Eric Burdon and War, and Lonnie [Jordan] was in a band called Nightshift. Eric came into my office, [saying] he was giving up on the music business because his last group The Animals broke up, and he was going back to Newcastle, [England]. I said to him, “There’s this band [War] that I’ve been listening to and trying to work with, but I don’t know what to do with them.” The way they talk to each other in the studio, it’s kind of their own language. It was more street rather than musician to musician. Every [War member] was different from the other one. They had a Latin version of [the Rolling Stones’] “Paint It, Black” that was amazing. I scratched my head and went, “I’ll book it! I’ll just book a week at a time and they can just rehearse.”
Lonnie Jordan: Every individual in the band brought a different style to the table. We’re talking blues, Latin, ska, funk, jazz, gospel, classical. It was all one big salad bowl. That’s one of the reasons why Jerry didn’t know what to do with us. We didn’t even understand what we were doing, we just did it from our hearts, ears, eyes, mind, and soul. I have so much love for salsa. Back in the day, you had Fania All Stars’ Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Brown, [Jerry, Pete “El Conde”] Rodriguez, Hector Lavoe, the list goes on. And I said, “Wait a minute, let’s fuse this [style] into the studio and lay down the tracks.” I wanted to do something different, instead of just a piano to simulate what everyone else does when they play salsa.
Goldstein: I told Eric to come on down to hear this band and said [to him], “Let me know what you think, because I think this might work for you.” Eric showed up, I showed up, and [Danish harmonica player] Lee Oskar showed up — because Lee was living in Eric’s house, or sleeping on the couch. The group did their thing with Deacon Jones, and at the end of the set, Lee Oskar got up and started to jam with them. The next day I called Eric and I said, “What do you think of the band?” He said, “We’re rehearsing today at 3:00.” The first gig was in San Bernardino, the Devonshire Downs Pop Festival, with 100,000 people, including Jimi Hendrix [on the lineup] and every major star in the world. We followed Creedence Clearwater [Revival]. That was the beginning of Eric Burdon and War.
“Spill the Wine”
Jordan: We weren’t studio musicians. We were a street organic jam band. We didn’t even know what a studio was. We went into this beautiful room with all these buttons and felt like I was in Star Trek and a spaceship. Once we were in the studio a lot [more], then that’s when we started doing a lot of our writing along with our jam-out [sessions]. We’ve made the studio our home… And that’s why the wine got spilt, because that was [also] our kitchen, for food and liquor. Let me clarify that kitchen part.
Goldstein: I finally built a remote truck to record them every night. They were the original jam band. It was a different set every night. They had a few blues, “Paint It Black,” “Tobacco Road,” etc. About six months to a year later [after forming the full band], we went into the studio to make [the 1970 debut] Eric Burdon Declares War album. Lonnie had a glass of wine, and he put it on the console where the playback system was. He knocked it over and didn’t tell anybody. About 20 minutes later, the studio’s crackling and popping and shuts down. “What the hell’s going on?!” Then we found out that Lonnie inadvertently knocked the glass of wine into the playback system. The studio was done. So they put us in another studio, and we just wrote, “Spill the Wine.” That’s why “Spill the Wine” has such a live vibe to it.
“The Cisco Kid”
Jordan: Duncan Renaldo played in the [1950s] series called The Cisco Kid, and Leo Carrillo played Poncho. He was Cisco Kid’s sidekick. The thing is, there were not a lot of ethnic heroes on television back then. We’re talking about television that was still black and white, not color. [The protagonist] the Cisco Kid, first of all, was dressed to kill, and he had a horse that was dressed to kill. For me, that was like a lowrider car, you know? He’s like a bandit, he takes care of his people, and he’s doing it safely and for the love of the people. He’s a superhero in the community.
Goldstein: He was the biggest non-Anglo hero. That’s why the lyric goes, “The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine.” The nice part about it is when we finished it was that we actually got to meet [Renaldo] and spent an afternoon with him in Santa Barbara where he lived. He was an old man at the time, but he was so nice. It was such a nice afternoon. That turned us on to the whole Latin audience in places like El Paso — when we played there, we got more pesos than dollars at the box office. No kidding. People would come over the border for the show and then go home.
Jordan: Living in East L.A., Compton, Watts, and Harbor City, Chicanos and blacks shared one thing: lowriders. After coming out of the era of the in-crowd with nice metal flake cars and hot rodders, the lowriders [arrived]. The Imperials and the Dukes [were] rival car clubs, not gangs, but car clubs. They never really socialized with one another. So when we did that song, it brought the Imperials and the Dukes together as one. We gave them the first cassette before it came out on the radio. From that point and on, that song went all the way from the West Coast to Chicago and New York, and all the way to Japan and Germany — around the world! Actually, lowriders are around the world now.
Goldstein: There’s a lowrider club in Japan. When we were on tour, we used to have the screen behind us, and when we played “Low Rider,” we showed the lowriders. The cars bouncing up and down and hopping and exposing the whole culture to the world — including the rest of the United States that didn’t even know what we were talking about.
The World is a Ghetto
Jordan: As a musician, I want people to continually understand from our point of view. When we first pretty much conceived this [music] was that through our eyes we see the whole world as one. In other words, you can live in Beverly Hills and have a flat tire and be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as well as having a roach in your house or in your backyard, like anyone in the hood could have. We all live under the same sky, the same smog, the same problems. The world is a ghetto…and we’re all looking for love and a place to call home.