Saturday, April 13, 2013

Music Reviews-WAR, The O'Jays

WAR is one of my favorite funk/rock/soul/R&B/blues groups. The band was one of the founding proponents of the seventies West Coast funk/Latin sound. They could and did play some traditional blues numbers from time to time but they generally made updated urban blues that stretched out into many different genres. WAR was an excellent example of how several musics across the African diaspora are related. They created music that was often Afro-Cuban based, combined it with other Latin elements, threw in some jazz and funk and soul and were off to the races. As a group they also had one of the coolest (and largest) group of Afros ever seen in the seventies and probably since then. They were a "world music" and "jam band" before those terms had entered the popular vernacular. If I could only use one word to describe WAR that word would be organic. WAR was similar to a lot of other self-contained funk groups around in the late sixties and early seventies. They stood apart because of fearsome musicianship and a sense of togetherness and brotherhood. Most of the songwriting was credited equally to all group members. Everyone had a chance to sing and shine instrumentally. Although I wouldn't say any of them were great singers individually, their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. They sounded great harmonizing. While a few of them might have been tenors most were definitely bass or baritone voices. This gave their sound a certain depth and for lack of a better word, testosterone. WAR was the last band Jimi Hendrix jammed with.

Over time WAR's guitarist , Howard Scott, who probably was in truth the primary songwriter, took slightly more lead vocals. But unlike most other guitarists working in popular music then he very very rarely took long loud solos in the studio, preferring instead a very rhythmic and almost orchestral sound. Sonically, he was usually in the background. Live, it was sometimes a different story but even there WAR's primary emphasis always remained groove. There is a lot of space and silence in their music. Scott never lets his guitar get in the way of the groove. There's times when you can hardly hear him but then you immediately notice when he drops out. He shied away from a lot of effects. With a few glorious exceptions his solos are short or even non-existent. 
The drummer Harold Brown combined New Orleans second line drumming with the power of Buddy Miles or John Bonham and the swing and shuffle of Bernard Purdie or Earl Palmer. On some of his work I thought there were two drummers. I love it when the bass drum is audible and/or is a separate event from the bass guitar. There's usually no missing where the "one" is in WAR's music but "Low Rider" might initially fool you as Brown plays on the upbeats instead of the downbeats. BB Dickerson, the bassist and Scott's nephew, must be mentioned as one of the better, or at least louder bassists. He's always audible and holding down the bottom register. Listen to him laying down a typically thick sound on "The World is a Ghetto". That song gives the lie to the notion that black performers and audiences had turned their back on the blues post sixties. The harmonica player, Lee Oskar, was from Denmark and showed you didn't need to be black or even speak English yet to be bluesy or funky. Check out his deep delta blues work on "Blisters". Aside from Stevie Wonder was there a more popular harmonica player in the seventies? Lonnie Jordan, the organist and pianist did many of the vocal leads which Scott didn't do. Charles Miller, the saxophonist and lead vocalist on "Low Rider" and clarinetist on the cabaret jazz style "Babyface" and Papa Dee Allen, the conga player and percussionist, rounded out the ensemble. Everyone doubled on percussion and backing vocals. Often you'll hear Miller and Oskar playing harmony lines so perfectly that you might not be able to tell the difference between their two instruments.
WAR came out of Compton, California. They were first discovered by Deacon Jones the football player. They were then calling themselves Night Shift. After a few lineup changes they came to the attention of producer Oscar Goldstein. Goldstein hooked them up with English ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon, who was looking for a new band, and Lee Oskar. With new members and new name they went on tour. During this time they weren't quite Burdon's backup band but they weren't what they became later either. I like many of the songs they did during this period ("Spill The Wine", "Beautiful New Born Child", "They Can't Take Our Music Away") but when Burdon had medical issues during a tour WAR decided to soldier on without him and they amicably parted ways soon afterwards. 

WAR's musical and financial success improved after Burdon's departure and they became the quintessential live funk band, touring with people like Isaac Hayes, Santana, The Wailers, Mandrill and other now classic bands. Bob Marley acknowledged WAR's "Slipping into Darkness" as a primary influence on his own "Get Up Stand Up". "So" is a generic R&B song that somehow becomes more while "All Day Music" is a soul tune greatly influenced by Pharaoh Sanders' "The Creator has a Master plan". Isaac Hayes once kicked them off a tour because he found it too hard to follow their opening act. I don't know if they ever toured with The Allman Brothers but they really should have because both groups were dedicated to long flowing jams that started in one spot and over a period of time wound up someplace else entirely. 
All good things must come to an end of course and though they had a game try at disco and simpler funk styles by the 80's the band had run its creative course. Miller and Allen had died.
The band reformed briefly in the nineties with additional band members but it wasn't the same. They also discovered that long time producer Goldstein had somehow obtained sole rights to the name WAR. The band split up again with Goldstein and Jordan continuing to book performances with various other musicians as "WAR" while the remaining original members, or who I think of as WAR are now forced to perform as The Low Rider Band. Again, it just shows you how important it is to keep an eye on your so-called friends. Because everyone who claims to have your best interest at heart might not actually be looking out for you. When it comes to wealth and control people do strange things. Folks get funny when it comes to money.

Low Rider  The World is a Ghetto  Ballero(Live) Hey Senorita  Spill The Wine
Slipping Into Darkness(Live)  Leroy's Latin Lament   Why Can't We Be Friends
The Vision of Rahsaan  So  Where was you at 
Seven Tin Soldiers  Heartbeat  Bareback Riding
Beautiful New Born Child  River Niger
They Can't Take Our Music Away  Get Down (Live -partial)  Four Cornered Room
Blisters  Me and Baby Brother (Live)  All Day Music 
Babyface Sun Oh Son (Live) Cisco Kid  Galaxy

The O'Jays
The O'Jays were not a self-contained band like WAR but rather a singing group. They were also a close runner up to WAR for best Afros of the seventies. But WAR couldn't touch the O'Jays when it came to harmonized singing. Few musical groups could. The O'Jays had much greater vocal range than WAR.  The O'Jays were originally from Ohio but of course reached their greatest fame and fortune working out of Philadelphia with legendary songwriters and producers Gamble and Huff. As part of the process of turning the up and coming group into superstars Gamble and Huff smoothed out the rough edges, gave the trio much better material to sing and improvise over and got them working with quite talented musicians, including but not limited to people like Anthony Jackson, bassist extraordinaire and inventor of the six string bass guitar. Jackson's playing can be heard on the song "For the Love of Money". Obviously the O'Jays also worked with the famous session band, and later stars in their own right, MFSB.

The O'Jays walked that fine line between glamour and grit and were able to satisfy people who liked both or either in their music.  During the classic period the group included Walter Williams, William Powell and of course Eddie Levert. All three men sang lead and backup. There was a nice tension between Levert's slightly rougher voice, particularly in some of the ballads, and Williams' smoother one. I would kill to have Levert's voice.  My favorite O'Jays song of all time is not "For The Love of Money" or "Don't Call Me Brother" but "You Got Your Hooks In Me". If you don't know any other O'Jays music you should know that one. It doubles as a slow jam to dance with your baby and as a fun sing-a-long when you're driving home.
The O'Jays recorded lots of love songs but also served as a vehicle for Gamble and Huff's social commentary with songs like "Ship Ahoy", "Don't Call Me Brother"  and obviously "For The Love of Money". All of their music had excellent production. It wasn't overly loud but had clarity without sterility. I don't know whether you'd call them a funky soul group or a soulful funk group but I love their music. A lot of it is heard in commercials these days but there are some gems, the aforementioned "You Got Your Hooks In Me" and "Ship Ahoy" an extended somber suite about slavery.

Don't Call Me Brother  For The Love of Money  Give the People What They Want 
You Got Your Hooks In Me  Love Train   Living for the Weekend (Soul Train Line) 
 Use Ta Be My Girl  992 Arguments  Back Stabbers (live on Soul Train)  
 Put Your Hands Together  Time to Get Down  Ship Ahoy
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