For hundreds of spectators, the 25th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace & Unity Celebration last Saturday, Jan. 19 was an opportunity to see the iconic funk band War, now called The Lowrider Band, famous for songs that for years have crossed cultural barriers. For the original band members, however, the concert was a chance to revisit old stomping grounds in Long Beach, where the group got its start.
Harold Brown, the original drummer for the band who grew up in Long Beach and later moved to New Orleans, said he first started performing not far from Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Lemon Avenue, where last week’s celebration took place. “When I was growing up, Long Beach was a cornucopia of all different nationalities,” he said.
Brown and Howard Scott, a singer and guitarist, both formed a group called The Creators while attending Poly High School in the 1960s, Brown said. After covering popular songs of the time while adding their own extended instrumental “jams” at small venues around town, the band became known among music circles, and the group started opening up for such acts as The O’Jays, Ike & Tina Turner and The Righteous Brothers, he said.
“We grew up with a plethora of music,” Brown said, adding that he turned down a college scholarship after graduating from high school in 1964 to continue the band that would later become War. “When we started to put our band together, we started emulating what we would hear on the jukebox… We would play the main motif of a song, and then we would just start jamming… Our dancers would start emulating dancers, like James Brown.”
Officially forming in 1969, just as anti-war protests broke out across the country to oppose the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the band War went on to collaborate with Eric Burdon of The Animals, producing “Spill the Wine,” which became a big hit and helped bring the band into the limelight.
The original War band included Brown, Scott, Charles Miller (saxophone and flute), Morris “B.B.” Dickerson (bass), Lee Oskar (harmonica), Lonnie Jordan (guitar and vocals) and Papa Dee Allen (piano vibes and soprano saxophone). Many of the band members, however, were musically versatile and able to switch off to different instruments. The band, which played through the ‘70s and ‘80s, became best known for songs such as “Lowrider,” “The Cisco Kid,” “The World Is a Ghetto” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
Through the years, they went through a series of lineup changes. In 1996, Brown and Scott formed a new group under the name The Lowrider Band after Jordon had left and its members became embroiled in a dispute with original producer Jerry Goldstein who, with Far Out Productions, took ownership of name War. Nevertheless, the band War was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 and 2012.
Using a mixture of Latin, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and funk, the band has been recognized for songs that are relatable to different cultures. Brown said the song “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” was inspired by a trip the multi-cultural band took to Japan.
“We all speak the same common language,” Brown said. “We’re more alike on the inside then we are on the outside. And all the individual powers that be, the political sources and the people at the top, try to divide us, because they can divide us and then conquer us and have us work against each other.”
Brown, a self-described historian, said it’s important to teach children about “peace, not war,” adding that it’s imperative to maintain creative avenues for children to express themselves through such courses as music, woodshop and the arts in schools.
“We have got to start making sure our kids are educated,” he said. “We need to start teaching our kids to get along… and start teaching them the teachings of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi… We need to keep the arts in the schools… because, if we take the arts out, then we stop creating.”
Sixth District Long Beach City Councilmember Dee Andrews, who hosted the annual MLK celebration and parade, said the event brought together close to 1,500 to 2,000 people of different nationalities, paying tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He added that the event was fitting since it took place just two days before the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president. “Dr. Martin Luther King always talked about… that you can be anything you want to be, and don’t let anybody steal your hopes and dreams,” Andrews said. “We’ve got a lot of peace and love running through this place.”