Having hit records and being well-known don’t always go hand in hand.

You’ve almost certainly heard the infectious cowbell, bass line and horns from “Low Rider” at a sports game or on television. You’ve likely heard the campy sing-along of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” many times. But if you hadn’t read the headline on this story, would you have known these hits were made by the band War?

War is belatedly celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tour, including a stop at Spotlight 29 on Saturday, Nov. 6.

“Back in the day, a lot of people didn’t identify War with our songs,” said Lonnie Jordan, a founding member of War and the lead vocalist, during a recent phone interview. “They knew the songs, but they didn’t know the band. It’s crucial to me for people to come out and see this billboard outside that says ‘War.’ They hear all the songs, and I let them know that these are our songs. This is what put us here, including them. … This is how we all came together as one. Our fans and us, we’re all one.”

Jordan said that when the band started out, the members didn’t even know how to read music.

“Our music is raw, and that’s how people identify us,” he said. “The guys back in the day who recorded the records with me work really raw. That’s why if you spell raw backwards, you get ‘War.’”

After 50 years of touring, Jordan said the thing that has changed the most has been “the faces.”

“I can tell that those faces are grandchildren or children of the parents who saw us back in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” Jordan said. “The younger ones who are curious, they Google and say, ‘Wow, I thought that was George Lopez’s song. I thought that was Cheech and Chong’s song. Now I know who War is. Let me tell my parents, who really didn’t know back in the day before we had the technology.’ … We didn’t have access to a lot of information back then, except for newspapers, and a lot of that information was not what you can get on Google, or Facebook, or Instagram, half-a-gram, or whatever.”

Jordan said he has a profound appreciation for his audiences.

“Even though you could go into a music store, like Tower Records, and find us in so many different categories, we couldn’t win any awards—Grammys and all that—because they didn’t know where to categorize us.” Lonnie Jordan, lead vocalist and founding member of War

“I always say: ‘What you need to do is play for the people, and when you play for the people, just remember they are your Rock and Roll Hall of Fans, and they will mirror back at you whatever you give them. Be happy, because this is what you love to do, and let them know it, and they’ll give it all back to you,’” Jordan said. “I’m just really proud of my fans. They brought us here, and they could take us out. They’re my plug. They keep the power going.”

Turning 73 in November, Jordan sounds and moves like he’s 23.

“I’m going ’til the wheels fall off,” Jordan said. “The word ‘end’ is like the word ‘retired.’ Take the ‘re’ off, and you get ‘tired.’ I don’t want to go that route, because I love what I do too much, and it’s about entertaining and making people happy. I feel like a minister, or a troubadour; it’s important for me to make people happy through music, which is also a healing power. Like James Brown, I’m not gonna stop ’til I drop.”

Jordan’s mention of Brown led to a deep conversation about Brown’s influence on War—and a story about how attending a James Brown show almost led to Jordan being arrested.

“I grew up in Compton, and it just so happened that James Brown came into town,” Jordan said. “He was performing up in South Central L.A., which was also a good place to go, because there were a lot of clubs that we called the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit.’ There was one really nice place that was called the 5-4 Ballroom, and James Brown performed there for a couple of nights. I begged my mother to go, but I was too young, and she wouldn’t let me go—so I snuck out of the house, and I went anyway. I didn’t want to come home. I didn’t want to face my mother, so I ended up sleeping in uptown Compton, Compton Boulevard, at a burger stand. I fell asleep and woke up in the morning and saw all these unmarked cars and guys with suits on, and people taking my fingerprints, because someone broke into the burger stand, and they thought it was me. They thought that I was stupid enough to break in and then fall asleep. My fingerprints were on nothing, but they could have just accused me.”

James Brown was the driving force that caused Jordan to want War to be different: “Because of James Brown, I felt I could be that.

“We brought our own sound to the table along with our engineer, Chris Huston, and producer, Jerry Goldstein, because they didn’t know what to do with us, either. Chris left everything dry, and we just recorded as-is, and that’s the way we just became raw—raw sound, raw music, raw lyrics, everything. I was influenced a lot by Latin music, pure jazz and gospel, because I came up in Compton playing in church. … How we came into being able to record our music was just to get creative: Don’t read; don’t write anything; just let it flow.”

An undefinable genre and an open-ended approach to music have been both a blessing and a curse for Lonnie Jordan and War.

“Even though you could go into a music store, like Tower Records, and find us in so many different categories, we couldn’t win any awards—Grammys and all that—because they didn’t know where to categorize us,” Jordan said. “They didn’t know what genre we were, so they went with the bands whose genres they knew. That’s OK, though, because the other side is that it keeps us working all the time. At this age, it’s too late to start over. All we can do is just make good with what we have, and make people happy, because that’s all that’s important. All they want to do is be happy, have fun and reminisce—have their flashback. To a lot of people, we are definitely their 8-track flashback.”

War will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 6, at Spotlight 29, 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella. Tickets are $40 to $85. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.

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Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...