It’s been a long time since the very funky Lowrider Band, which takes the stage at the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo at 7:45 pm on Saturday, May 22, performed in New Orleans. The last occasion was a 2009 benefit concert held at the Howlin’ Wolf for the Save Charity Hospital organization, which included Dr. John. “I was flabbergasted that they weren’t going to open the building,” drummer Harold Brown, who at one time was treated at Big Charity but wasn’t born there remembered. “The hospital was built on the concept of helping the poor and sick.” Prior to that, in 2005, the group funked up the former Ray’s Boom Boom Room, then housed at the present-day Maison on Frenchmen Street.
Brown, 70, who has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is, of course, one of the original members of the highly successful band War, which was formed in 1969. That’s also the first year he came to New Orleans. However, he and the Lowrider Band, which also includes former War members Lee Oskar (harmonica), Howard Scott (guitar) and B.B. Dickerson (bass), aren’t allowed to mention their participation in War in any promotional material or advertisements due to a court order.
“Here’s how we say it,” Brown explains. “We are the original composers of and performers on ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?,’ ‘The Cisco Kid,’ ‘The World is a Ghetto,’ and ‘All Day Music.’ All our friends know the Lowriders. Everybody knows exactly who we are.”
“They held steadfast onto the name,” Brown says. “But we won [the litigation] and we won good. We get paid our back royalties. We didn’t get beat up like Sly Stone did. We trademarked the Lowrider Band name,” he adds.
It makes sense that the Lowriders played a benefit for Charity years ago. The music these guys have performed together has always spoken about real people and real issues. “Our music stands for the underdogs,” declares Brown, a California native who during his New Orleans residency led a drum camp before Hurricane Katrina sent him to Houston, Texas and then back home to the West Coast.
Funk music with a socially conscious message was a signature of War and remains the core of the Lowrider Band’s material. Brown remembers standing between Dickerson and reggae legend Bob Marley while walking down a street in Atlanta on the way to a radio station. Marley elbowed him and said, “Brown, Brown, your band like our band. You a street band. I do a song for you.”
The result was Marley’s and Peter Tosh’s 1973 classic “Get Up, Stand Up,” which contains a riff that echoes one in War’s 1971 hit, “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”
“We never played together, he just liked hanging with me because I think I have such an open personality,” Brown says of Marley. “I never met a stranger. I walk down the street and talk to people. I think that’s why I was able to roam with Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. I was the last drummer who jammed with Jimi Hendrix. The night before he made his transition, I don’t say died, he and I were in this alley in Soho [in London’s West End]. He said, ‘Come with me Brown, I’ll teach you how to eat when you come to Europe.’ I was playing behind him at Ronnie Scott’s [jazz club] and he said, ‘Yeah, Brown, right there right there.’
How active is the Lowrider Band?
We’ve been kind of picking and choosing. We could work a lot more if we would lower the price but Howard Scott now lives in Arlington, Texas, Lee Oskar is living near Seattle and I live in Pomona, California—I drive the same streets I drove before I was a famous musician—so it costs. [Percussionist] Chuk Barber, he’s been with us a lot of years and lives outside of Portland and keyboardist Pete Cole, originally from Detroit, lives in California. Then there are the logistics—they call me the quartermaster. New Orleans bassist Sean Carey is subbing [due to health problems] for B.B. Dickerson and Lance Ellis, who I call our ‘fifth member,’ lives in New Orleans too.
We’ve been doing our Peace in the Street Tour. We’re trying to make a difference in the communities. We talk to the young people, we talk to the old people. You never know, one little thing can make a difference. Someone gave me five minutes and changed my whole life. It was one of my music teachers when I was in the 7th grade and he was demonstrating different instruments and he came to the drums. I raised my hand and he showed me how to hold the sticks.
One day, this kid was at the bus stop [in New Orleans] and played this drum roll and I said, ‘How did you learn to do that? “You taught me, Mr. Brown.”’
Now it’s not so much about the money as it is about us getting out there and coming in contact with the fans, coming in contact with the people and the kids. It’s far greater to have your name written on people’s hearts than it is to have it written in stone.
When you relocated from California to New Orleans in 1986 how did it influence your drumming and/or you?
New Orleans influenced me as a person. When I first moved to New Orleans, I left a 22-room mansion outside of Los Angeles up in the mountains and moved to the Melpomene [projects]—‘ the bricks.’ What it did for me, it brought me down to a certain level—and I walked. Then I got a job working as a stagehand at the Saenger Theatre. I didn’t even tell people who I was. But then, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came by and they started saying, ‘That’s Harold Brown.’ And then people started picking out who I was.
So New Orleans brought me down and then I worked myself back up. That was good for me. Then I started playing with Sunpie [accordionist/vocalist Bruce ‘Sunpie’ Barnes] and a lot of guys and just started doing what musicians do playing clubs like the Bon Temps Roulé and Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
I learned if you come to New Orleans and walk around with drum sticks in your pocket you better know how to use them. New Orleans not only made me a better person but a better musician because I became sensitive to the rhythms working with [percussionist] Luther Gray and Bamboula. I went to Delgado, studied the history of the city and became a licensed tour guide.
Were there any certain drummers who inspired you? How did the drumming differ in New Orleans than California or elsewhere?
Herman Ernest, Johnny Vidacovich, Willie Green and Russell Batiste. In New Orleans, drumming is a conversation instead of just beating. It’s like we are sending out a message to the people. We’re saying there’s a pow wow now or there’s a war party going on.
Singing and harmonizing was an important aspect of War as it is with the Lowrider Band.
It’s a treat. We [War] did our first recording, ‘Spill the Wine,’ with [vocalist] Eric Burdon [of the Animals]. But then when we separated from him, we had songs that we had written too.
Howard Scott was one of our main writers and he had ideas like ‘Slippin’ Into Darkness.’ And then B.B. Dickerson was an incredible crooner. He actually had the best voice in the whole group. He’s the one that sang ‘The World Is a Ghetto.’
Papa Dee Allen, our original percussion player, he sang opera. So on some of those old records when you hear that operatic voice, that’s Papa Dee. Charles Miller [the late saxophonist] was kind of emulating a certain style and then Lonnie Jordan, our original keyboard player, who’s touring with the group War with a bunch of wannabes [laughs], he could mimic people singing. So when you get this cornucopia of personalities and voices, we started coming up with our own sound. Particularly with the blend of harmonica and sax with Lee Oskar and and Charles Miller, we started hearing a whole other kind of thing like ‘All Day Music.’
So how about you? Did you always sing? Did you sing in church?
No, I didn’t sing in church. My mother played piano at one of those Holiness churches down in Anaheim, California. What made me start singing was this guy who sang, ‘Big John is my name, all I want to do is play funky…’ and he was a drummer [John Parrish from the group Rare Earth]. And I said, ‘Wait a minute, he’s singing back there, let me give it a shot.’
The one I sang was ‘Heartbeat.’ It was one of the most played rap songs on the radio. Everybody emulated it—Ice Cube, Ice-T. To this day, we get a lot of requests for that. We were trendsetters. We were the California sound—it wasn’t just the Beach Boys. [laughs]
Howard Scott and I have been together 55 years. Howard’s father and B.B.’s father and my daddy used to take us to our gigs. My mother was our first manager. So we go way back. Howard and I have almost the same pitch and tonality.
So what does it mean to you to come back to New Orleans to play the Bayou Boogaloo?
It means a lot to me. I get there and I get very emotional. It means I get to come back to a place and run the streets that I know. I can get some of the good food. I come back sometimes and people don’t know that I’m there. When I get there, nobody wants to let me out of there.