It might’ve taken a few decades of war, but Harold Brown Sr.’s finally been able to find some peace–for the lifelong drummer and Long Beach native, it’s the peace of coming full circle.
On a recent afternoon, the 72 year-old drummer sits on the phone with the Weekly in a room where he teaches drum and piano lessons at First Lutheran School on Atlantic Avenue, the same school where he learned to pick up the drumsticks in 1957 just across the hallway from where he is now.
His was the first black family to attend the school in its history at the time–including six children, five boys and a girl. Brown remembers the principal coming into his auditorium to recruit students for a music program. “The principal, Kenneth Hahn Jr., yelled to my class ‘Who wants to learn to play drums?’ and I said ‘Me me!,’” Brown remembers. “He showed me how to hold a pair of drumsticks and play a quarter note…who knew that five minutes was gonna make that difference more than 60 years later.”
Today as an instructor himself–though he’s had a lifetime of different careers under his belt–the joy he gets out of teaching comes from the pride he has in showing them someone from their neighborhood made it to the world stage, first as a founding member of WAR and now The Lowrider Band. The latter name may not sound as familiar to most people, until they start playing. Brown and his core crew are the musicians that penned WAR’s greatest hits, including the immortal cowbell-filled OG anthem “Lowrider”. The Long Beach bred band’s original lineup included Brown on drums with the late Papa Dee Allen (congas, percussion), Lonnie Jordan (keyboards), the late Charles Miller (flute, sax), Lee Oskar (harmonica), Howard Scott (guitar), and B.B. Dickerson(bass). All members contributed vocals.
However, via a court injunction, the players aren’t allowed to identify themselves as former members of the band they made famous, though they can still play the songs. To catch you up to speed: Due to a history of lawsuits, counter lawsuits, and disagreements about royalties, publishing, band name, and song rights—many involving the band’s former manager/producer Jerry Goldstein—the official version of WAR includes only Jordan as the sole original member along with a list of hired guns. Meanwhile Scott, Brown, Oskar, and Dickerson tour as The Lowrider Band.
Brown recalls one time he tried to use the band name MIA to tour on the hits he’d co-written only to be threatened with a lawsuit. “Frankly I hollered back at [the lawyers] and said ‘You’d sue me if I named the group shit!” he says with a hearty chuckle. But in the late ‘90s because of his background in studying and working with computers, he was able to come up with a genius way around litigation to give the band a simple, effective name that signaled to fans where they could find the true essence of WAR.
“Since I’m a computer geek I researched online and find out nobody had Lowrider as a name, one of our biggest hits so I trademarked Lowrider Band quick, I’m good at that, I learned my lesson on the streets,” Brown says.
This weekend, the band returns for a special hometown headlining gig at the 5th Annual New Blues Festival (presented by the Long Beach Blues Society) at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on September 1-2. Even today, WAR’s brand of soulful, blues ridden funky jazz made even more famous during their time with Eric Bourdon hums through the streets, a sound made immortal by car stereos and other forms of traveling speakers in the city that helped create their sound.
“The best thing is when I get out here in Long Beach and I’m on the street and someone with a bicycle rides by blasting my music on their iPhone,” Brown says.
Every day since he moved back to his hometown after leaving his longtime second home of New Orleans a couple years back (he still keeps his 504 area code cell number), Brown cruises through his old Long Beach neighborhood in an old green ‘98 Ford Truck. While he was there he became a historical tour guide and a youth drum teacher through Crescent City Drumming Camp. But for him, LBC will always be home.
“I’m still in the neighborhood I don’t forget where I come from, come on now!” Brown says. “I can go through the neighborhood without looking all uppity and fancy in some Rolls Royce or Mercedes Benz, not when you’re reaching out to homeless people or some young people.”
Back when he was alive, the late jazz singer Al Jarreau would ride shotgun as he glided through Long Beach and Compton, past the ghosts of important places like the Cozy Lounge that once existed on the corner of Orange Ave. and Alamitos Ave. In 1962 it was the place where he first met his longtime collaborator and bandmate, guitarist Howard E. Scott (he played bass back then) when the two got the call to play the same casual bar gig as under age teens who could only inside when they were on stage.
When Brown and Scott got together to jam with Jordan, Miller, and a few other local musicians, the roots of WAR were formed. In 1964 Harold turned down a college scholarship to Valparaiso University and joined the musicians union Local 47. “We were one of the first young black bands booked for casual gigs on the Sunset Strip,” Brown says proudly. Their band opened for acts like Ike and Tina Turner and The Righteous Brothers, they were also a staple at The Palladium and The Whiskey a Go Go.
The band was just about to play their first big gig in Vegas at the Thunderbird Hotel when Scott got drafted to Vietnam. When he returned, Brown convinced his buddy to put their band back together. “I told Howard let’s try it one more time,” Brown says. “I was down to my last seven dollars, my first wife and three kids, they were about to kick us out of our house, I was trying to get a job. So you can take negatives and turn them into positives.”
That was back around the time when they wound up being the backing band for soul singer R.B. Greaves, a break that came by way of a meeting Brown had with producer Marshall Lee of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” fame. In 1967, the band went by the name Night Shift.
Later on, a former bass player in the band introduced Brown to Eric Burdon and the Animals at a club called The Rag Doll in 1969–they jammed with Burdon and phenomenal Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar, which led to them recording with him and changing their name to WAR. By 1970, the band and Burdon joined forced on his album Eric Burdon Declares War where the song “Spill the Wine” first appeared.
Brown and his bandmates went on to record several more albums and hit songs including “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” “The World is a Ghetto,” “The Cisco Kid”, “Summer” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends”–probably the most ironic title in rock n roll history given the band’s longstanding history with acrimonious litigation. At the time Brown says the song was made in the spirit of equality and brotherhood. “We’re more alike inside than we are on the outside that’s what we’ve got to start realizing in America. If you need a liver or heart transplant, it don’t matter what color you are as long as it matches.”
The hit song also has the distinction of being one of first song beamed into outer space. It was played during the Russians and Americans linking of Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project. Once again, considering where things are in the world in the time of Trump, Brown and company’s ability to write timeless classics can’t be overstated. “Looks like we might need to play it again!” he says laughing.
As a hybrid of funk, soul, jazz, blues and rock n roll, their gumbo of American styles makes the music Brown played with the Lowrider Band today an ideal fit for the New Blues festival–a raw, steeled spirit of revolution connects all chapters of Brown’s musical career.
“Our music that we wrote wasn’t fashionable at the time but it was about what was going on in society,” Brown says. “When our band first went to Liberty Records and United Artists Records they wanted us to do R&B like The O Jays or The Commodores, but we didn’t we rebelled.”
That same spirit carries on with The Lowrider band. Their cleverly crafted motto “make art not war,” reflects their commitment to eschew the strict standards of a cover band. In fact, they often never play a song the exact same way twice.
“We play the main motifs but our crowd is what influences us, in some countries we play in “Slippin into Darkness” could take on a different shape,” Brown says, describing his group as more of a jam band than anything else.
The road to forming the band was definitely not a smooth ride, at least for Brown who left War in 1983 at age 37 after drugs and egos had all but torn it apart anyway. Brown went back to school in ‘83 at a time when computers were coming out so he got trained on them early and studied thermo modular nuclear computers (yeah, we had to Google them too) in as well as architecture, geology and history.
“The problem I had [with the band in the ‘80s] was nobody was listening, there was too many drugs and nobody was listening to anybody, including the attorneys,” he says. “Success changes people in different ways.”
Brown went back to school in ‘83 at a time when computers were coming out so he got trained on them early and studied thermo modular nuclear computers (yeah, we had to Google them too) in as well as architecture, geology and history.
In 1987 he moved to New Orleans, a city where nobody knew who he was. He got a job working at the Saenger Theatre as a stagehand laying down cables for $7.50 an hour. Little did some of the acts performing at the theater know that the man doing all their grunt work had already been a bigger star than them. “I got found out because Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing there and Flea the bass player recognized me and said ‘Hey that’s Harold Brown!’” he remembers.
These days, when he plays a show, Brown says he makes sure to thank every stage hand who works to make his show happen. “When I play I go around and thank every stage hand because if it wasn’t for stage hands we’d all be garage bands,” he says.
Brown rejoined WAR with Oskar and Scott one more time in 1994 to record the album Peace Sign under Jerry Goldstein’s management who owned the War trademark. All but Jordan filed to gain control of the name in 1996. However, they failed and quit WAR to form the Lowrider Band. The current Lowrider Band lineup includes Brown, Scott, Oskar and Dickerson (who is currently out due to a stroke) along with Chaz Green (sax), Calvin Mosley (bass), Chuck Barber (percussion), Pete Cole (keyboards), and guest appearances from Tex Nakamura (harmonica).
Brown’s sense of humility follows him to this day as he teaches young kids to play drums and tour sporadically with his old friends under a new name. He relishes the ability to get out and play the songs that made him famous once, but Brown says their set at the New Blues Festival means more to him than the average gig.
“It wasn’t so much about the money as it was about making a full circle and coming back to our community where a lot of our music started,” he says, adding he’ll gladly sign any albums that fans of his music bring up for an autograph at the festival this weekend.
It’s also a chance to reconnect with the community who’ve watched Brown and company brave their struggles in the music industry like warriors and come out on the other side with decades of hits, albums and legacy that, despite their name, is still riding high.
Lowrider Band performs at the New Blues Festival Saturday at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, schedule and full details, click here!