Legendary drummer Harold Brown talks about WAR, Hendrix, New Orleans, Turbulent 1960's & Devil's music

"I learned from the early Pioneers of the Devil's Music, I had to be True to Myself and Others. They know when you are Faking It!"

Harold Brown: The Beat of Spirit

Harold Ray Brown was born (1946) in Long Beach, California is a founding member of War, an American funk band in the 1970s and 2000s. Harold had a number of roles over the years, acting as drummer, percussion, vocalist and band leader. Brown is the oldest of six children, and the only one in his family to pursue music. Beginning with the congas, Brown progressed to violin while in elementary school, and took up drums in junior high. He turned down a full scholarship to Valparaiso University in 1964 in order to pursue music. Brown was rooted in the very beginnings of War. In 1962, he met Howard E. Scott at the Cozy Lounge in Long Beach, California. They were fifteen years old at the time, and were hired to play in a band for a casual gig.

Brown started a band called the Creators in 1963 in Long Beach, while going to Long Beach Polytechnic High School, to play for High School sock hops and car shows. Then in 1967, toward the end of the Vietnam war, he and Howard Scott restarted the band with a new name, Night Shift. Brown had been working as a machinist on the Night Shift. In February 1969 while playing a show at the Rag Doll Night Club in North Hollywood, California Eric Burdon and Lee Oskar jammed with the Night Shift. The band changed its name to War. Brown left the band to attend college in 1983, majoring in computer science, with a minor in music. He then moved to New Orleans in 1986. In 2001, Brown went back to school to pursue his lifelong hobby; he is now a historian and professional tour guide in New Orleans, and has recently formed a new band called the “Lowrider Band” with three of the other original members of War: Howard E. Scott, Morris “BB” Dickerson, and Lee Oskar. Brown also works with inner city youth during the summer, to promote good citizenship through the art of fine drumming.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Harold Brown Archive / All rights reserved

How do you describe Harold Brown sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

When I was seven years old I would lay in bed at night listening to KFOX AM Radio in Long Beach California early mid-1950s ... fantasizing that I was the drummer behind Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, Bobby Blue Bland, Harry Bellefonte, Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton and many more known and un-known Artist. Then one night the spirit came to me and said, "Why don't you just do it"? Well from that night forward everything I did was to live my dream to be a professional Drummer. 

I was told by Foxy John Bennett, "Harold when you start creating your technique it's very important you have to have a sound and style different from all the other Drummers out there". So I started with a snare drum to get the feel and sensitivity of using the Drum Sticks to relay my inner spirit. So whenever you hear my drumming it's not just a bunch of Rudiments; it's ME talking to YOU. I try to keep the grooves simple, funky, danceable, Chunky and Loose. I have heard and read that a lot of the Hip Hop Producers like to sample my beats/drums. I know for a fact that Tupac Shakur wanted to have me do the groove from "Slipping into Darkness" on his last Album.

"New Orleans is Like the Uterus of a Woman ... It all is given Birth There and Flows Up River...! New Orleans is where the World comes to exchange and share the American Culture and Art."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

HUGH MASEKELA: South African Musician. He taught me Diplomacy. Bob Marley told me that, "Yho Band like My Band ... You Street Band. I do Song for you ... "Stand Up, Stand Up, Stand Up For Your Rights" ... Taken from the main Motif from "Slipping into Darkness".

Steve Gold our (War) first real manager. He was a real Record Man. Among some of his first achievements was that he discovered Ritchie Valens at a fruit stand in the San Fernando Valley California while taking a cruise in his 1956 Candy Apple Red Convertible Cadillac with red and white tuft and roll sets. Ritchie was playing his guitar singing La Bamba. Steve got him into the studio and recorded it. The song La Bamba was a great hit.

Into those days the record labels would pay the money to the big Boys and the little guys would have to go fight for the money due them. So one day they flipped the 45 over and started playing Donna. Donna became a giant success and the company that owed them the money gave them a call and said, "Steve you got a great hit 45. We sure would like to get more orders" ... Steve replied, "Pay me the money you owe me and I will ship some more COD = Cash On Delivery. So the moral to the story is, "It's not enough to have one hit. You need two Hits to get paid".

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio which you’d like to share with us?

We use to jam in the late evenings after the local clubs such as (Whisky A Go Go, Roxy, Pandora's Box and Gazzarri's) would close, in a town house just behind the Chateau Marmont located at 8221 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood California. Howard Scott (Acoustic Guitar), Lee Oskar (Harmonica), Charles Miller (Sax & Flute), Lonnie Jordan (Piano), Morris BB Dickerson (Vocals & Bass), Papa Dee Allen and myself Harold Brown. Dee and I would go get pots and pans using them as percussion instruments. Jimi Hendrix would set in this chair with a couple of his female friends and watch us, along with Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein. We would have plenty of Pizza and fun.

The Last meal that Jimi Hendrix and I had was on Wednesday September 16, 1970. Jimi and I were walking through an alley in SoHo District in London (SoHo is an area of the City of Westminster and part of London's West End) and he said to me, "Harold come with me. I am going to show you how to eat when you come to Europe." We had Chicken Tandoori. You don't make up this unless you were really there! 

Little did we know that we would be jamming with Jimi for the last time? That evening, Wednesday September 16 into the morning of September 17, 1970 at Ronnie Scott's Jazz located at Club 47 Frith Street, SoHo London. I remember this as if it happened a year ago. He was standing just behind me (The Drummer) I could see his Right hand fingers moving up and down the strings and him whispering in my Left ear ... Yes Brown Right there (4/4 bpm 90 to 100 = Bumpa, bumpa, bumpa, bumpa) ... He Loved the Slow Double Shuffle that I had learned from all the Blues Drummers in South Los Angeles during the Early 1960's... Yes right there Brown... You can hear the last Jams on the YouTube. I got a call from my partner Eric Burdon telling me that Jimi had made his Transition on Friday morning September 18, 1970.

"During the Spanish and French Crusades: In 1492 not only did Columbus bring disease, gunpowder and a new culture. In 1539; Estevan if not the first African he was one of the first the native Indians encountered. He brought with him new herbs and an African culture that came from Yoruba." (Photo: Harold Ray Brown with Eric Burdon and War, ca. 1969)

What were the reasons that made your generation to be the center of Psychedelic Funk/Rock experiments?

It was the "Turbulent 1960's" African Americans were considered Second Class Citizens in the United States Of America, but my Parents Clyde R Brown from Mississippi and Icelo C Brown from Alabama moved to Southern California just after World War ll. They wanted to give me, my brothers and sister a shot of growing up without the Old Jim Crow South. I had the honor of growing up with all nationalities. So I was hearing all types of music that formed my "Musical Lexicon"... Not just Black American Music.

In 1960's we (USA) started escalating into the Vietnam War, a lot of Anti and Pro War sentiments classing with idea(s). President John F Kennedy had been assassinated on November 22, 1963. We (The Creators) were coming home from North Hollywood, Bob Eubanks Club "The Cinnamon Cinder"...  down the Harbor Freeway exiting off Imperial Highway in South Los Angeles on Wednesday August 11, 1965 about 4:00 PM and found ourselves Smack Dab in the middle of the Infamous Watts Riots.

It was a New Generation of Americans not wanting to just go with just the Old School Okey-Doke, but a New School of Ideas Mixing and matching all Types of music. Not afraid to bring together the Old and the New: Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Rufus Thomas, Sonny Stitt, Gil Scott ... ON and on... Middle Eastern Music, Latin Music, Indian Music ... Jazz which is a Fusion of Notes, Rhythms and Creations from the energies surroundings Us during the "Turbulent 1960's"

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

When I was young growing up in Long Beach California I could always hear a musician(s) somewhere in the neighborhood practicing his or her instrument. The flowing music from local churches, local clubs and Live music, the same music that you would be hearing on the Radio or Juke Box.

What I fear is the Lack of the Arts in today Schools. Socrates and Plato always encouraged the Arts and Math, without art and math humans lack the creative encouragement that allows Society to Grown in a Positive manner. Exchange Art and Math for instruments of Destruction ... War Is Not the Answer!

"It was a New Generation of Americans not wanting to just go with just the Old School Okey-Doke, but a New School of Ideas Mixing and matching all Types of music." (Photo: Harold with kids)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

All of Mankind should learn at least one musical instrument; whether it is a drum, tambourine, flute, guitar, piano or harmonica... just take your pick. Music is a Universal Language. I remember when we did our first concert in Japan without Eric Burdon. All of our Japanese fans stayed seated till we played our First note and then all of sudden... Our Fans were at the front of the stage Like we were the Beatles or Somebody.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Soul with Blues/Rock and continue to Funk/Reggae and Latin/Jazz?

During the Spanish and French Crusades: In 1492 not only did Columbus bring disease, gunpowder and a new culture. In 1539; Estevan if not the first African he was one of the first the native Indians encountered. He brought with him new herbs and an African culture that came from Yoruba. In fact during my research I found out that Sister Sade, born: Helen Folasade Adu is from Yoruba. Now I just realized why her music connects all over the world and in My Heart. New Rhythms and Art came along too.  

When you really listen to Soul, Blues, Rock, Funk, Reggae, Latin and Jazz you can hear the common denominator Clave... The Key 2-3 or 3-2... It fits all of the Above!

What do you learn about yourself from the Soul & Blues people and what does the blues mean to you?

I learned from the early Pioneers of the Devil's Music, I had to be True to Myself and Others. They know when you are Faking It! "It Don't Mean a Thang Unless It's Got That Swang". I have had young Artist come to me and tell me if they had this Bad Ass Instrument they could make a Hit! I learned from all of the Greats Sam Cooke, Big Mama Thornton, James Brown, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers... If the Music doesn't make you Think, Love or Cry It Ani't Got It!  Think how Johnny Cash brings it home to " A Long Black Vail", Otis Redding  "Setting On The Dock Of The Bay"... "Why Can't We Be Friends"... That's me on Drums and "I can remember you when you drank my Wine"... That's my line; Hello!

"What I fear is the Lack of the Arts in today Schools. Socrates and Plato always encouraged the Arts and Math, without art and math humans lack the creative encouragement that allows Society to Grown in a Positive manner. Exchange Art and Math for instruments of Destruction ... War Is Not the Answer!" (Photo: drummer, percussion, vocalist & band leader, Harold  jammin' on stage, 60s) 

Why did you think that the New Orleans music and culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

The first Jazz piece that was created was by Louis Moreau Gottschalk: born in New Orleans 1829 transitioned 1869. His father was German descent and his mother was African descent. Gottschalk was raised in "Treme... New Orleans on the West Side of Rampart Street. He was influenced by the African Rituals at Congo Square. Congo Square is where all the Africans were allowed to congregate on Sundays. It was a part of Code Nior = Black Codes. It specified that Africans could meet at Congo Square and sell their wares and practice their Rituals as well as Dances.

The Bamboula "Danse des Negros" was created by Gottschalk and he Heard the African Drum Rhythm ...  He mixed European Music to the Ritual Sounds of Africa he heard in Congo Square ... It's Still There...! New Orleans is Like the Uterus of a Woman ... It all is given Birth There and Flows Up River...! New Orleans is where the World comes to exchange and share the American Culture and Art.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

What has made me laugh lately? While in Canada I overheard a couple of men talking one said to the other, "I just seen you walking across the street I was a little worried that the little old man behind you would not make the light" and his Buddy responded, "That Was not a little old man that was my Wife".

What has touched me the most is Just after Katrina hit us August 28, 2005 we all had to deal with the Big One! A few days later I was watching TV from Houston Texas and seen one of our Kids on news station that had attended the "Crescent City Drumming Camp", Stranded and his Father placing him on a mailing station to keep him above Water. Going into a diner and hearing one of our Kids saying that's the man that teaches us drumming ... "It is far Greater to Have Your Name Written on Young People's Hearts than to Have It Written on Stone"

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Going forward: 2016 being In the Studio with all of the Surviving Original War members: Howard Scott, Lee Oskar, Morris BB Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan and Harold Brown recording Real War Music.

Lowrider Band - Official website

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