In the '70s, Lee Oskar's harmonica sound was inescapable, vibrantly coloring the humid, Latin-tinged funk and soulful barrio ballads of California ensemble War's many hits and intriguing deep cuts. That a Danish Jewish musician ended up with one of the most successful black American recording artists of the 20th century is one of the industry's most absurd turn of events; that Oskar also sported the group's biggest afro further adds to his mystique. But within that unfeasibly hirsute head, Oskar was concocting melodies and riffs that animated timeless classics such as "Low Rider," "Cisco Kid," "The World Is a Ghetto," "Spill the Wine," "Me and Baby Brother," "Magic Mountain," and many more.
Besides his War exploits, Oskar released a few albums in the '70s and '80s—Lee Oskar, Before the Rain, and My Road Our Road—that became rich sample sources for hip-hop and R&B producers, including Pitbull/Ke$ha's use of "San Francisco Bay" for the hit "Timber." In addition, Oskar has played for decades in the LowRider Band, featuring former War members Harold Brown, Howard Scott, and B.B. Dickerson (the latter musician has left the group due to health issues), and in 1983 formed Lee Oskar Harmonicas, which he operates out of his Everett, Washington home. (Mick Jagger and Bruce Willis are customers.) I recently talked to the 71-year-old Oskar in advance of his two-night run (January 3-4) at Triple Door for Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout.
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The Stranger: I’m gonna ask some questions that will require you to dig deep into your memory, and I hope that’s okay.
Lee Oskar: Uh, yeah, I could use some therapy.
Here’s something I’ve wondered for decades: How did a Danish harmonica player end up playing on some of the funkiest songs ever? I imagine that you were somewhat of an anomaly in that country? This seems like a very unlikely turn of events, so….
Yeah, it is, it seems to be, indeed, especially in this world where we live where… I don’t know what word’s used, but, for lack of a better word stereotype, “amateurs,” you know? To be honest with you, naïvety is the same thing as what works for music; it creates magic. I’m from Denmark, and as you know, I wasn’t brought up self-conscious about any of that stuff. [An exchange ensues about our mutual Latvian Jewish roots, Oskar's mother and aunts escaping Hitler's death camps, and his grandmother perishing in one.]
I grew up [respecting] humanity and life, and I was very paranoid about being Jewish. I don’t like to promote I’m Jewish, I’m proud of it, but I don’t brag about it, but he fact is, I was this white, curly-headed guy and I came to America to make it in the music business. That was my whole ambition to come to the United States. So I met first Hugh Masekela and Stew Levine, and they put me up for bit and then it was back on the streets, and then I met Eric Burdon. And with Eric Burdon, he wanted to form a new band, and so he and I went to a club in North Hollywood that was called the Rag Doll, but we went to check out this band and the band was backing up a famous football player named Deacon Jones.
When I walked in with Eric, Deacon was doing these one-arm pushups, singing a love song and I’d be pretty intimidated… a [guy doing a] one-arm pushup, singing, “I love you, baby.” And so, I jumped up onstage, and the band that was playing behind Deacon Jones, they knew that some famous English guy was gonna come in; they didn’t know about Eric Burdon and the Animals, and who they were, actually. And when I jumped up onstage, I think they thought I was [Burdon]. And it was just packed with people in there; everybody wanted to make a record deal back then. And the next day I was sitting around the swimming pool in Hollywood with the nucleus of that band that was called Nightshift, and Eric and myself. And that became the backup band that I was part of, and that’s how it pretty much happened.
One time I remember at a Newport Jazz Festival, a guy close to the stage said, “That ain’t no brother!” and [War saxophonist] Charles Miller, who I looked up to, he treated me like I was his baby brother… he wouldn’t allow that shit to happen. And there’s times when you get people coming up and asking you, like, “How is it you can have so much soul?” and honestly, it doesn’t matter what breed or race you are; there are people that have a lot of heart and soul who can express it, and there’s a lot of people, just about anybody else who’ve got a lot of heart and soul, that just may not know how to deal with it or express it. And then they get caught up in the social things, which there’s other things other than the “conquer and divide” people. But I’ve been a free spirit, and I love music, and I don’t give a shit what you look like; just close your eyes and listen to the music.
When you were growing up, were you into American music, or were you just one of these gifted people who just can adapt to any situation and thrive, like, I’m wondering how, like…’cause you’re a unique figure in funk and soul music, so there’s gottta be a weird genesis to that.
It’s not weird, as far as music. Music is either [indecipherable]. In other words, you better swing or know where to park it. And that’s something you feel.
But the music industry in Denmark in the 1960s was maybe just a jazz scene, which was a big deal everywhere in Europe, and I was not even embraced, playing harmonica. My dream was to come to America. The industry was pretty much influenced from the UK or from the United States. As we know, industries [in the] rest of the world were not homogenized like they are today, where everybody has their own stars, and all that. Even if you didn’t speak English, you had to sing the top 10 tunes, no matter what part of Asia or Europe you were from. So the only music I ever heard [that] I was influenced by was the radio. And the radio would play…there wasn’t categories of music…the radio could play [indecipherable], an opera singer, then it could be Perry Como singing "Fly Me to the Moon," and then it could be Ray Charles, or you name it. It just was considered music, and symphonies and all that.
At one point, I was even playing harmonica behind an opera singer and that was kinda odd, and they kicked us out of an audition, because it was a harmonica. I wasn’t a great player, but I had a lot of heart and soul, and I think I’ve grown a lot playing-wise.
With War’s large lineup, was it difficult to get your creative input into the music? Like, how did the songwriting process go with so many cooks in the kitchen?
You asked a very good question because that is the heart and soul of what we were about. We were a jam band; we would be in a fight if we told the other person what to play. For example, we would jam stuff and create, and that’s what you’d hear, and then the big deal was edits, like long jams and make it songs, basically, hits.
For example, I can tell you that we were one of the first "rock" or whatever you want to call it bands on national TV, like Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows. And they had, for example, they do the cameras where they do the, you know, they do the cameras for a test run for them to know the song, and then what cameras to go in and out, right?
And so, while they’re doing this we’re jamming like “Cisco Kid,” and we must have been 10 minutes into it, and we’re just getting started, and then you open your eyes and you see this person's been trying to stop us for a long time, and then we’d get pissed off because they dropped in our groove, and the producer would say, “[On] your record [the track] is three minutes and 58 seconds.” And we literally had to go back into the green room and listen to our own single; we could never play the same way twice.
Then, you know, the industry…it’s funny, you know, the industry, they started doing lip-syncing because of bands like us, who didn’t play exactly like the record, and and it looks bad to the fans if you fade out in the middle of a song, right? But they gotta go to commercial; that’s where the money is. So they decided to do lip-syncing, and you know, that didn’t look right, so eventually they…we do what’s called TV mixes, where, when we mix a record, we also mix it without the vocal, or without the solo, so it’s exactly the same length and it’s got the same groove and everything.
The thing is, you say that War was a jam band, but you had really, extremely well-written songs with great hooks that got a lot of radio play. They seem like they were really…you know, like the products of a rigorous songwriting… you know what I mean?
You’re right. So the formula was: I was the melody maker, I’m the hook… so when you hear “dunna dunna dunna duh” [sings the melody of “Low Rider”], that’s me, so when you’ve got hook lines that come through the melodies, and you’ve got the lyrics—basically, a lot of times, the lyrics started with an idea when we were jamming, and then after we’d jam, then we got these incredible jams tracked – then, the other guys go in and say, “okay,” and write some lyrics, or embellish on the lyrics, like sang while we were jamming, and then they become the song with the melodies and the hook lines that I created, so basically that’s how that worked.
Oh, that’s great to know. That’s a credit to you, because you’re largely responsible for getting the band into the charts and getting that kind of mass popularity.
I don’t want to take credit like that; I think it was a chemistry between all of us. Even what I contribute could never happen if the chemistry wasn’t there. Besides the composition, the chemistry of the way we played is very unique, too. For example, most people, if they play guitar, they know how to play an A-minor chord or C chord, and you can stand for a distance if you’re a guitar player and say, “Oh, he’s playing a C chord and an A-minor chord,” but you can get a C chord—you get the C note, the E note and G note—in many other ways on the guitar, and even though the other way a C chord, it’s gonna have a different texture, and Howard Scott’s got a guitar… he didn’t play the rudiment way… none of us play the rudiment way, so it was more than just the melody and the lyrics, there’s that sound behind it that is very difficult for anybody else to emulate. Somebody trying to emulate it is going to sound too clean. It doesn’t have the dirt on it, because they’ll play the chord changes the same way anybody else would, you know?
Well, yeah, you definitely had a distinctive sound and chemistry, and I have so many of your albums, and I play them in DJ sets, and they always go over extremely well. Several decades later, people are still loving it, you know?
Yeah, I do know, I mean, there were a lot of hip-hop people... we’ve been sampled much more than anybody, you know, if it’s funk, if it’s grooves, if it’s pockets, it’s timeless; it doesn’t matter what generation or what century you’re in. You watch people do square dancing, and for example…actually, one time in the afternoon…late afternoon when we were doing sound check, and these guys came through the hall we were playing and said “Y’all playing tonight?” and I said, “Yeah,” “So y’all do square dance music?” “Oh yeah.” So while we were playing, like, “Cisco Kid” or something, there was a whole group of people in front of them doing square dance music, and the people came up and said, “Man, my god, that was the best square dance music we ever heard.” Because the truth is, it’s all the same, man.
What’s your favorite War song to play now in the Lowrider Band, or favorite songs in the repertoire?
My favorites are “The World Is a Ghetto,” and the reason why is because I get to do Charles Miller's sax solo in “World Is a Ghetto.” When he passed, I had to wear his shoes. I manufacture harmonicas, so one of my tunes is the natural minor, and the natural minor is the perfect tuning, alternate tuning to use, and I use the C-sharp natural minor. And it feels fantastic to play on these jams and really take charge and do the solos that Charles Miller used to do.
Do you have a favorite War album?
Not really, they all really take on meanings. Each song I remember the feeling, the sessions, or where we were and they all have something. I don’t know how to measure that. I do know that there’s some albums I didn’t care that much about, and that was when it got into that disco era, and the record company that we were now signed to was RCA, and there was the Outlaw album. And there’s some good tunes in there, but it was a little too homogenized; it’s like it just didn’t have the shit on it that I live for, you know?
Yeah, I sort of agree, but Outlaw and Galaxy have some tracks I play out that really get people moving, you know? I know it’s not quite like the classic '70s War sound, but I think, for what it is, it’s good.
Yeah, Galaxy I love, actually, and "Galaxy" is one of the tracks where I keep always fighting for, when we make music, it’s like, “let’s create a journey,” and so "Galaxy" fell into that kind of a thing, yeah, it’s a nice groove and all that, and I love just what the message of those. Yeah, I agree with you on that one; that’s a good one.
This is probably something that’s not gonna be pleasant, but will the classic surviving War members ever reunite, or is there too much bad blood or legal bullshit to go through for that ever to happen?
Yeah… I don’t see it happening. [A long, off-the-record discussion ensues about War manager Jerry Goldstein and the legal rigmarole that's embroiled War, resulting in Goldstein owning the name "War," with the only original member playing in the current incarnation being keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. Oskar also dropped some eye-popping figures about how much "War" earns per gig.]
That’s a horrible situation; I’m sorry that it turned out that way.
Yeah, but I’m just so busy, Dave. My music is beyond what it was before. I’m producing other people and composing and producing long albums, like five projects gonna be out early next year that I’m just finishing up. And I’ve got a band up here in the Northwest called Lee Oskar and Friends, and we play around, and it’s fantastic. And the LowRider Band, it’s a rare commodity, that’s what I call it, it looks like some agencies are now willing to go up to bat and try to go out there and get us gigs, because we’re not allowed to say "War," we’re not allowed to say "formerly of War," we’re not even allowed to saw "Raw," because if you hold up the “R-A-W” it’ll say “War.”
Wow. Is it true that you jammed with Jimi Hendrix the night before he died?
Yeah, unfortunately. Hendrix came to the…we were at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club…we were the first “rock” bands, if you will (I mean, we play jazz as far as a lot of people are concerned), they ever allowed in Ronnie Scott’s. It was always bands like Coltrane or Roland Kirk, and the Melody Maker newspaper in London had [on the] front page “the best live band I’ve ever heard.”
A year before I met Hendrix with Eric [Burdon] at Devonshire Downs, he played an alto concert as Eric Burdon and War, and I sat in with Jimi Hendrix and all that. And so, I was a fly on the wall, basically. I got to see things without having the pressure of being the center of attention. And the unfortunate thing about Jimi Hendrix was, and I think the same thing that happened to Prince, but I can bet it was the same thing that happened to Jim Morrison, that happened to Hendrix, is that they’re bigger than life. The expectations that are on artists like that, from the public, is huge. And when you’re an artist and you wanna maybe kind of change things, and you’re constantly being creative (I know I am, and I know any artist who’s true to their art is constantly moving and creating), they get pigeon-holed, and when they get held to a place where everyone expects them to do the same thing, like with Hendrix, it was like burning the guitar and all that.
Unfortunately, the people that were huge fans of Jimi Hendrix weren’t maybe in sync from moment to moment as he’s being creative. Because maybe his manager, Mike Jeffery, all the stuff around him that he was upset about…I knew he was upset about, that he and Eric had in common, because Eric was ripped off by the same guy, Mike Jeffery, when he managed the Animals. And they would talk about, you know, the music, and maybe putting a radio station on the moon so the world can hear our music. They both got ripped off in a lot of ways. I think Hendrix died of a broken heart.
I know Hendrix wanted to be associated with Miles Davis; he was an incredible player. I know that when we played Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, we were just getting a deal signed…Eric Burdon was getting a deal signed with Liberty Records in Europe, and the people that were sitting in front of us were from the record company. When they saw Jimi Hendrix get onstage—and he wasn’t in the best shape, to be honest with you—but when he played… to me it was amazing. And there was a guy [who] actually recorded (the tape that he recorded was confiscated). But the people with Liberty Records... it was sabotage, because Howard Scott was playing an amazing solo, and the fact that he was playing an amazing solo, maybe Jimi Hendrix wasn’t at the top of his game and what people expect; it was just rivalry, like they would…and that rivalry has nothing to do with music. So if those days can paint you a picture, it’s not a nice world when the industries don’t give a shit about the music; it’s all about numbers and expectations.
And then Jimi Hendrix was staying at Monique’s, which was his girlfriend, a German chick, who had a pad in London, and he came to see us at this show, and the next day he came and sat in with [Eric Burdon and War]. And the next day he was supposed to come back, and Monique called Ronnie Scott’s while we were playing, and Terry McVeigh, who was a roadie, who’d been a roadie since the Animals, intercepted a call and, I guess, told Monique, “call an ambulance,” which she did, and then when we finished our set, Eric Burdon jumped offstage, and he obviously went over to the hospital, and I was walking around London in an area with a friend of mine, Judy Wong, and we were all friends. The whole clique and Hendrix’s clique in New York; we knew a lot of different people. But, yeah.
What’s the repertoire of your live show these days? You know, when you have this show coming up at the Triple Door, is this a whole other thing with these other harmonica players, or are you gonna do your own stuff? What can people expect at these shows?
It’s a different thing than what I would do as Lee Oskar and Friends, and different than the LowRider Band. With this thing here, you’ve got some really great harmonica players, who…Mark Hummel, he does these different shows where he [amb.: packs?] different harmonica players, so in this particular one, you’ve got Jerry Portnoy, who used to play with Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton for a bit. And you’ve got Magic Dick (that’s his nickname he’s gotta live with, “Magic Dick”)…Richard is from J. Geils Band, and then myself and [amb.: Wallis?]. And then you got Duke Robillard, who’s a wonderful guitar player, and then I think we all do about 20-30 minutes each, and then we do an encore together. And in my time, I might pull out an instrumental of “Low Rider,” but I’m just gonna play some different…I mean, you name it; you talk about big pockets?] and that’s what I’m gonna play. Some, just some great grooves, maybe “B.L.T.,” but it’s gonna be funky and bluesy.
That’s great. “B.L.T.” is one of my favorites by you.
Oh, cool man, well when I do that today it’s like real funky, like super-funky.
Good. Well, what made you decide to move to the Seattle area?
Well, when I first came up here with Eric Burdon and War, we knew this guy who was a promoter, and he would take me and some other people over to Bellevue and places. There were all these little ponds and little lakes, and we’d just jump in and go swimming, and I said to the manager, “This is an amazing part of the United States.” And then I learned that I can actually own land in the United States; I can actually buy land, so I was on a mission to figure out where the prevailing winds went, because I knew in L.A….when I came to L.A., I didn’t know till sometime after I was there that there were actually mountains, 'cause the smog was so heavy that you thought it was just the sky, and so I wanted to find out before it got too populated. So many years later, when I moved the Lee Oskar Harmonica Company, I decided to get out of L.A. and move up to the Northwest. And so, I’ve been loving it since then; I’ve been up here with my business. There’s no place like the Northwest; it’s just beautiful.
Do you find it inspirational for your music?
Well, my music…you could put me in a room with no windows or anything and that inspires me. Because, in music, it’s not about the outside; music is within myself… things will come out, I mean, it’s obviously from experiences out there. But when I paint (I also paint a lot)…when I paint, the outdoors, the imagery that we have around here, I just soak that all in, and then my…then I lock myself in a room and things just come out, same thing; sceneries on the canvas, my brush just goes at it. So, yeah, it’s a very inspiring place, but when it comes to the creativity, it’s gonna be within myself.
So Lowrider Band is still a going concern, right? You’re still gonna be playing in 2020 and all that, going on tours and…
Absolutely. We’ve got Harold on the drums and Howard Scott on guitar, and myself. The five of us are still alive, and Lonnie Jordan, is a yo-yo for the wannabe War band. Out of the four of us in LowRider Band, bassist B.B. Dickerson unfortunately had a drawback with some strokes; he is an amazing bass player and singer. But the three of us, it’s amazing. When I’m onstage with Lance Ellis, the saxophone player (who’s been playing with us a long time), it feels like it’s like Charles Miller in spirit there.
Phrasing with me is very important. Also, with Lee Oskar and Friends, I have also a seven-piece band… same kind of lineup of instrumentation, and the saxophone player I use there is Darian Asplund; he’s from this region here, he’s a young guy, and just a wonderful musician, and he can also lean on every phrase in the moment. Because when I play, it’s in the moment. It might be the same melody, but you better follow me in the moment so it’s not a marching band. You gotta phrase right in the moment, and that’s how you live the music, you know?