The Temptations had cut other political songs, such as “Message for a Black Man,” before they recorded the original version of “War” in 1969. Although the songs were generally well-received, they were closer to Norman Whitfield songs featuring the Temptations’ vocals than true Tempts cuts and rarely performed them in concert. Although Motown received several requests to release “War” as a single after it appeared on “Psychedelic Shack,” Berry Gordy feared ruining his group’s image with such a political number and resisted. Instead, he handed the number to another artist in Whitfield’s stable: Edwin Starr.
Prior to cutting “War,” Starr had been kept out of the studio for six months. His last big hit “25 Miles,” which reached No. 6, was 18 months old and long forgotten. Consequently, Starr was hungry when he was finally able to reach the mic. His pent-up energy added more charge to Whitfield’s already incendiary lyrics. Starr’s impassioned singing put Dennis Edwards and Paul Williams to shame on the now-placid Temptations reading.
Bolstering Starr’s vocals was a powerful horn riff, funky organ line and a smorgasboard of wah-wah guitars, fuzz bass, tambourines and nearly every other trick in Whitfield’s psychedelic bag of tricks. The production was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound reimagined for the trippy, proto-metal flower child age.
Just over 15 years after its initial release, Bruce Springsteen took the song back into the Top 10 with his cover. Although no major U.S. conflict was brewing at the time, the song still packed a powerful punch. A little more than 15 year’s after the Boss’s version, “War” illustrated how far society had regressed when the song was placed on a list of “lyrically questionable songs” banned by the Clear Channel Communications corporation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list also included “Imagine” by John Lennon and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Sadly, it is hard to picture as political statement as powerful as “War” penetrating the airwaves again.
(Above: Neil Young leads Crosby, Still and Nash through “Ohio” during the CSNY2K tour stop in Toronto.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Several years ago, my dad and I drove out to Canton, Ohio to witness Hank Stram and Marcus Allen – two of our favorite Kansas City Chiefs – be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since the activities were spread out over several days, we frequently had time to kill each night. One evening we saw Quiet Riot at the local fairgrounds. Another night we decided to drive an hour or so north and walk around the Kent State University grounds.
As we strolled around the campus, the emotions of that day – 40 years ago yesterday, came flooding back to my dad. He remembered hearing the news and seeing the photos for the first time, his anguish at the senseless loss of life and anger at the government cover-up.
Although my dad hated the war in Vietnam, he easily could have been on either side of this conflict. As a college student, he had no problem seeing himself amongst the protesters. But he also joined the National Guard to avoid being drafted, and could just as easily been holding a rifle. Dad’s unit was given riot training, and he was frequently the designated heckler. He remembers a couple of his fellow soldiers nearly snapped during the simulations. That’s all it would have taken, he says.
Sadly, the shootings at Kent State were not an isolated incident. Ten days later, two more students were killed in a similar skirmish at Jackson State University.
Emotions were fresh in my dad, but I was trying to remember nearly forgotten history lessons as we walked the deserted campus at dusk. We tried to piece together where the events may have happened. We found the memorial, but it was frustratingly incomplete. The names of the fallen were absent, as was anything to place the memorial in historical perspective. Once again, good intentions had been killed in committee.
We were walking back to the car when we finally found the memorials. Frequently, university parking spaces are blocked off for loading, traffic flow or some other purpose. At first glance, we thought the low, lighted cement pylons scattered throughout the lot were standard parking barriers. As we approached the car, however, we noticed they outlined several low, pyramidal plaques set into the blacktop. These inconspicuous shrines marked the final steps of the fallen. And to think I almost dinged one when opening the car door.
To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved a historical site, put up a parking lot. I know it was a parking lot on May 4, 1970. And, yes, I recognize the scarcity of public parking on college campuses. But the fallen deserved better and Kent State should be ashamed of trying to tiptoe around history. It’s hard to believe we’re still scared of what happened nearly two generations later.
At least back then you could get a song like “Ohio” on the radio. Neil Young penned his response to the killings after viewing photos of the incident in Life magazine. The song hit the airwaves in June, 1970, the same month Edwin Starr’s “War” topped the charts. Try to imagine either song cracking Entercom’s bland, corporate playlist today. Our corporate overlords have no problem challenging the listeners’ moral sensibilities with racy (hetro)sexual lyrics, but are petrified of offending them politically. One need only look at the list of songs banned by Clear Channel in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks for proof.
Young cut the tune with his buddies David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. It took four years for the song to make it onto a proper album, CSNY’s stop-gap compilation “So Far.” I didn’t discover it until I picked up the two-disc Young anthology “Decade” in high school. I knew the song’s history, and respected its energy, but didn’t mean much to me beyond that until I heard it performed in concert.
The CSNY2K concert at Kemper Arena in 2000 was one of the worst shows I have attended. Our overpriced seats were a mile away. What little energy the performances had was lost long before the sound reached our little peanut gallery. Everyone seemed to be going through the motions. Stills was clearly burned out by having to play “Love the One You’re With” yet again, and Nash looked positively lost as the band tore into “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Despite the overall malaise of the night, there were two bright spots. Young’s solo take on “After the Gold Rush” performed on a creaky pump organ while Crosby and Nash added harmony vocals was transcendent. Then there was “Ohio.” The lyrics took on new meaning as footage from the day flashed on the screens surrounding the band, but what got me was Crosby’s cries of “How many? How many more?” The pain was still fresh in his voice and his chilling refrain gave me goose bumps. Ten years later, I still can’t listen to the song without thinking of that moment.
Edwin Starr – “Twenty-Five Miles,” Pop # 6, R&B #6
By Joel Francis
If the horn arrangement on “Twenty-Five Miles” sounds like something out of the Stax studio, that’s because it is. Motown songwriters Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol based their number on the obscure Wilson Pickett song “32 Miles Out of Waycross (Mojo Mama)” written by Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler and recorded in 1967.
It’s little surprise Fuqua and Bristol turned to a Pickett number when looking for material for Edwin Starr. Like Pickett, Starr was a strong baritone who sang from the throat. And like fellow Motown family member Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Starr’s voice was seeped in the Southern style.
Unlike, Stubbs, however, Starr didn’t have a string of hits under his belt, which made him a bit of an outcast at the label. A Detroit native who somehow escaped Berry Gordy’s eagle eye for talent, Starr’s biggest hit. to date was the 1965 song “Agent Double ‘O’ Soul” recorded on the Ric-Tic label. Three years later, when Motown purchased Ric-Tick in 1968, Starr joined the Hitsville stable.
“Twenty-Five Miles” opens with Benny Benjamin’s athletic drumming and he stays front and center as the funky scoutmaster that keeps Starr’s (and everyone on the dance floor) feet relentlessly moving. The bass line echoes a horn line that has become a staple of marching and pep bands across the country. The listener never learns what happens when Starr reaches his destination, but the energetic vocals definitely prove that getting there is half the fun.
Although “25 Miles” was a Top 10 hit, it often been overlooked when acts mine the Motown catalog. For nearly 20 years, Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band were the only group to cover the song. Their version was released several months after Starr’s as an album track on “In the Jungle, Babe.” In 1989, UK dance outfit the Cookie Crew sampled “25 Miles” on their hit “Got to Keep On.” Australian boy band Human Nature covered “25 Miles” on their 2005 release “Reach Out: The Motown Album.”
When the Temptations kicked David Ruffin out of the group in 1968, they cleaned house. Free of their troubled lead singer and his drug dependence and egocentric demands to rebill the quintet “David Ruffin and the Temptations,” founding member Otis Williams decided the psychedelic stylings of Sly and the Family Stone were the sound of the future. Although producer Norman Whitfield was reluctant to change the band’s sound with something “that ain’t nothing but a little passing fancy,” he eventually relented.
The wah guitar and flat cymbal sound that opens the song was completely unlike anything Motown had issued before. Instead of featuring one vocalist, the number finds all five Temptations passing the lead around. Williams and Whitfield’s early interest in Sly and the Family Stone is betrayed by the arrangement, which mirrors the San Francisco group’s No. 8 hit, “Dance to the Music.”
The lyrics also hit on what would become another touchstone of the post-Ruffin Temptations. The socially conscious themes of poverty, abuse and danger in the urban core would be repeated in the hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Run Away Child, Running Wild” and several other album tracks.
Williams has denied that the songs glorifies drugs as an escape to the world’s problems. For him, the key line is when Eddie Kendricks explains that cloud nine is “a world of love and harmony.”
“Cloud 9” brought Motown its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. The new category was just in its third year and had previously been awarded to Ramsey Lewis and Sam and Dave. The song paved the way for later psychedelic hits “Runaway Child, Running Wild,” “Psychedelic Shack.” These songs placed the Temptations on the vanguard of soul music and helped clear the way for Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire and the funk movement of the 1970s.
“Cloud 9” was run through the Motown stable and covered by Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and Edwin Starr. Meshell Ndgeocello performed the song live in the excellent Funk Brothers tribute/documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The song has also been covered by reggae artist Carl Dawkins, Latin musician Mongo Santamaria and Rod Stewart.