How does Lee Oskar perceive his connection to the Blues?
“Number one, Blues is a feeling you’ve got inside. So let’s take it outside of the cliché that people think is the Blues. From ancient times, wherever there has been humanity, there has been Blues. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing a Seraiki in Pakistan or a Folk song played on a shamisen in Okinawa. There’s the Blues. They’re talking about the same thing. They are crying about the same thing. Even when you hear Classical music performed, there’s the Blues. The Blues is bigger than just the 1, 4, 5 chord changes.
Number two, when you talk about the 1,4,5 chord changes, the formula which is called American Blues, should never be abused. Man, those changes are so harmonically moving. For somebody to just think they are playing some cookie cutter stuff – now I’m getting cynical here – with their brain rather than their heart and soul and try to mimic somebody’s record, they’re playing a little riff, they think they’re playing Blues. Then they put on a pair of shades and go on stage with a name that mama never called them. They’re the Blues? All these clowns to me, are mimicking.”
Sensing possible resentment from detractors Oskar continues:
“Now that I got that off my chest, everyone’s gonna hate me, but the thing is for me is that when I play the harmonica, I’m either a horn section or a singer. Ray Charles is my idol. The way he phrases, the way he sings, is like no other influence. My other major influence is the late Charles Miller, original saxophonist for War, who took the novel idea I had of being in a horn section to fruition. Musically he was way above me, but would stoop down to my level because he recognized what I had – my feeling in playing hook lines. He was bigger than life to me because he was willing to play down to my limitations in playing hook lines. And through that, we became a horn section. That was a dream come true. With that said, I always loved the American Blues. I can’t even explain it. Since I was a seven-year-old kid, when I didn’t even know what Blues was. Music was music.
I heard a guy playing a Boogie piano in Copenhagen in a summer camp and it just drove me crazy cuz those chord changes were so contagious. Unbelievable. Since then, I’ve always loved playing what they call Blues, from my heart. It’s always been my own voice, my own style.”
The conversation shifts temporarily to the early days of War, the band that rose up out of Long Beach, California, with an uncommon for the time, mix of Funk, Latin, R&B, Rock, Reggae and Blues.
“I decided to do my own solo album after War had a bunch of hits. At that time, we believed everything belonged to War – we were loyal to each other, playing music together, jamming, all that. I came into the studio with some compositions I had written and when the guys tried to play them, it just didn’t connect right. So I realized right then, that we all have things we compose. That everything we did didn’t have to be under the umbrella of War. Maybe Papa Dee would write an opera or something. So those things came out of me and I decided to do a solo album.
The album I did was not the typical thing that people would hear from a harmonica with the cliché Blues thing. I knew it was gonna be a surprise to people when they heard it. And it was. Then I thought, well, later in life, when I come out with a so-called Blues album, people are gonna be surprised again and love it. What I didn’t realize is that by then, there would be so many cliques and cliché things, that it would be a bourgeois middle class kind of a thing. And the amazing thing is, until recently, the biggest Blues Festival in the world has been held in Norway. They’ve made an industry out of a little town. It’s very homogenized and safe.”
The story that the great Chicago Bluesman Jr. Wells used Lee Oskar brand harmonicas and was actually buried with a tray of them, forms the basis of the next question and Lee explains the facts behind the myth.
“Well, he was definitely a big fan of my harmonicas. That was what he played. A lot of people knew about that in his family. It wasn’t one of those things that somebody snuck into his casket. I think it was a good gesture, that the harmonicas he was using should be with him. The family even asked me to play at his funeral, but Sugar Blue, the harmonica player, needed and wanted to be connected so I remember basically suggesting for him to do it. It was very emotional. There were a lot of people who wanted to be connected with Jr. Wells in so many different ways. There was a lot of energy, all over. As great as he was as a musician, he was just a wonderful human being. Even though he would sometimes get a little tough with people working for him, he was the kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back. He was just being him. Some people who don’t understand marketing would put him in the wrong scenario.
For example, he went to this company who makes educational “how to” music videos. In my opinion Jr. Wells shouldn’t have been in that arena as a teacher. It should have been called An Intimate Moment With Jr. Wells. That would have been great, brilliant. But the way it’s presented is stupid. I blame it on people who can’t connect with what someone’s real shit is.
When Jr. Wells got a hold of a Lee Oskar Harmonica, he liked it. We eventually met and became friends. He wanted to do so many things. But the people around him didn’t understand maybe and he was not supported in the best way. Perhaps they had good intent, but they didn’t get it.
How did Oskar conceive of his harmonica company?
“I was frustrated with what existed out there. When I started making a little money playing with Eric Burdon & War, I spent a lot of it on harmonicas. Out of every ten I bought only one was good. So I was tinkering for a lot of years and had some good ideas about what would make a great harmonica. It became my goal and mission to go out and find a place that already existed where I could make harmonicas. So when I was in Japan, very fortunately, I found out about a company called Tombo. This year marks their 100th anniversary. It’s been 35 years that I have been associated with them. Back in the late ‘70s, when I came across their factory, I made arrangements with the owners who are 5th generation harmonica makers now, and fans of my music. I wanted machines set up to do the ideas and designs I had in conjunction with their expertise. So we have done that successfully and my product is all over the world. The bottom line as to why I make harmonicas is because I needed a better tool. So my dream came true there. It’s very consistent. Their quality control, craftsmanship is like no other. I’m very proud that we have been making the same product for 35 years.
Other manufacturers are catching up, copying actually, my ideas and concepts, I believe. We have interchangeable parts, alternate tunings. The Lee Oskar Harmonica System is good for people from all walks of life. It’s great for composing hook lines for songwriters. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing “Oh Susanna,” Oompah music or Chicago Blues. I make the tunings where they all can play you. You don’t have to play it until you get good. You can play Reggae, African, Clave, Latin, Tango or Yiddish music. Between the four different tunings we make forty-three different models. Then, you can mix and match the reed plates and even create other scales. You can use these tools for all kinds of genres of music.”
Did he played in a lot of bands in his native Denmark before he migrated to the U.S.?
“No, there wasn’t even such a thing. The culture in Denmark, even though it was much hipper than a lot of places in the world, was under the musical influence of Britain and the U.S. So apart from hardcore Jazz, there wasn’t much of an industry at the time. Me playing harmonica was kind of like a novelty thing to people, so that didn’t fly. Maybe if I had walked in with a saxophone it would have been better. My situation was, I started with the harmonica at six years old. When I got it, it was the novelty that summer. Everybody had a harmonica. I just fell in love with the sound. It sounded to me like a symphony. I was connected with it from the get go in my own soul. I probably sounded like shit. The next year, the novelty was the yo-yo, but I kept on going with the harmonica. After that, it was the hula hoop, but I kept playing harmonica. Everybody left me alone. As a kid, they didn’t think I was a prodigy in music, thank God, so they didn’t interrupt whatever groove I was on, by getting more excited about me than myself and say you should be playing violin or piano. I was pretty illiterate, not very good in school. The point is, nobody interrupted my development and it evolved and I became what I am because I was able to do what I loved.
It was the music that compelled me to come to America when I was eighteen. The USA was bigger than life. Normally, if you had any idea to go somewhere, it would be on a little vacation or something. I went because I wanted to make it in the music business, not even knowing what the music business was about. It was that whole image from childhood, when I’d pretend I was composing and conducting when I was six years old with my harmonica. I was totally in love with it and wanted to be that in any way possible. America was the place. It was huge.”
The liner notes on Lee Oskar’s first solo album describe the great feeling he had when he first stood on Broadway in New York City. They go on to state how disappointing it was as a young immigrant after the initial euphoria evaporated.
“I wasn’t prepared when I got here. Financially or anything. When I first came to New York, just the stretch of the eyes seeing the size of cars and the visual of stop signs was very scary. Not speaking English, it was very unfamiliar and frightening. At the same time, I was in awe of all the big and amazing things. Similarly, when I eventually went back to Copenhagen as a member of War, my city seemed so tiny! I was sharing a room with Jerry Goldstein, the manager, who had picked up a woman. So I gave him the room and walked around Copenhagen for a day and it seemed so unbelievably small, walking to places I wouldn’t have walked when I lived there. I would’ve taken the streetcar or something.
New York has changed since then. About ten years ago I went back to do the Letterman show as a guest of Paul Shaffer. I couldn’t believe that New York seemed like the safest place in the world to me. It seems L.A. and New York have switched places. It’s like the reverse now. L.A. was a safe place in ’66 and now it’s become what New York was back then.
The first time War came to New York, I considered myself an authority and I told saxophonist Charles Miller one should never go to Central Park at night. He said, “Aw man, let’s go.” He talked me into it. There’s this big wall around Central Park which we jumped over to get in and scared a guy who was covered with newspaper trying to sleep. When Charles approached some people and they saw us, they thought we were the bad guys! They all ran! Another time, I got set up by a woman I was talking to. You know, if you pay attention, you know it’s a bad vibe, but I didn’t pay attention. We were in Greenwich Village in a vacant lobby and two guys come out with knives. New York was no joke.”
I note to Lee that his idol and deceased member of War, Charles Miller, reportedly died at the same seedy L.A. motel that revered singer Sam Cooke was slain at in 1964. Charles Miller was the victim of a sloppy robbery attempt in 1980.
“That’s what I heard. In some ways, I still haven’t grieved or accepted Charles’ passing. It’s a weird feeling. He was brilliant. He was a one of a kind genius. He never made me feel uncomfortable in my limitations. He would always work with what I came up with. He never put me in a situation where technically, it was too difficult for me. He had a sense of my limitations and capabilities within the harmonica and made the playing field level and made it work beautifully.”
After leaving New York, Oskar came to California.
“Let’s see. I was in L.A., basically on the streets there. I was trying to put a band together with some people and hoping to get a record deal. I met Eric Burdon during this period. There was a club called Thee Experience on Sunset Blvd where they would let me in for free. The owner was Marshall Brevitz. It was way east of the Whisky A Go Go and all that. It was the place to be away from the Strip. They would let me in there and I would jam. There was a band there that had come in from Florida named Blues Image. They were friends of Marshall Brevitz and their guitarist was Mike Pinera. Eric Burdon would come in to jam and he and I connected that way.
Marshall Brevitz would change the cover charge according to the popularity of who he had playing there. Any major band who played the L.A. arena would find out that Thee Experience was the place to come jam after the concert. So he would reel in anybody, you name it. Instead of going to the Whiskey A Go-Go, they would come to Thee Experience and jam. As I said I was trying to put a band together as well. I went out to the Valley to this place where they always seemed to have ten bands wanting to play but only room for five.
A guy named Chris Huston, who later became the sound engineer for War’s records, came up to me after one of those gigs, gave me his card and said he liked what I was doing. He had a recording studio. Keep in mind that I had tried to go to A&M Records prior to that and the receptionist kicked me out. I thought she was the record company. I had no idea what a record company actually was. I just wanted a record deal. I wanted to prove to them that I was worth it. I asked for $400 and they were like, “Get this crazy hippie out of here.”
So when Chris Huston gave me his card and said he had a recording studio, it was like a dream come true. I thought I might get some free studio time when nobody was using it. So I go to see Chris and tell him my dream and he says, “Well, you’d have to sign a deal with me.” And me, in my naiveté said, “Why would I sign a deal with you? I want a deal with A&M Records.” So I’m sitting in the lobby, depressed, tired, thinking of going back to Denmark cuz a lot of shit has happened, on the streets and elsewhere, that I won’t go into right now. I was about to give up. So this guy comes in the lobby from the studio with a comb and a piece of paper making a kazoo sound and it was Jerry Goldstein clamoring for a harmonica player. They say to him, “Yes sir, Mr. Goldstein, he’s on the way up right now.” So this kid comes in that Jerry takes in the studio for about a minute and sends him back out. I guess he didn’t sound very good. So I’m sitting there with the only harmonica I own. It happened to be in the key of F. I blurted out, “I play harmonica.” I was kind of embarrassed because I think he had already seen me there. But he said, “Come on in.” So I go in and put the headphones on and I wasn’t even thinking. The tune was in C and I just riffed over it with my F major diatonic harmonica. I was so lucky! I was playing in no-taste, 5th gear. There was nothing musical about it. I was just so excited, it was crazy. Then, when the tune was done, Jerry got so excited, he gave me ten bucks! I gave the band five bucks because I was so grateful. Then I took this parking meter lady out for pizza and left my funky harmonica as a tip. What was I thinking back then? It was a depressing time.
Then I went to the Whiskey A Go Go. It was owned by Mario and Elmer. Mario was always at the door and let me in free. They had a celebrity booth and in it there sat Eric Burdon, Chris Huston, Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein. One of them says, “Hey, there is Lee Oskar, he’s a great player.” Burdon says, “Yeah, I know, I’ve been playing with him.” So that was where Eric and I really connected even though we had jammed together before. That’s when he let me know he wanted me to be a part of his new band.”
The complete history of the band War starts of course, with the inception of Eric Burdon & War and their ensuing hit single “Spill The Wine” which rose to # 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1970. That same year the band achieved planetary notoriety for being the last band that Jimi Hendrix played with publicly before his untimely death on September 18, 1970.
Despite the subsequent exit of Burdon, War continued as a hit making machine throughout the ‘70s. While successful on wax, dirty work and skullduggery was also going on behind the scenes, courtesy of business partners Jerry Goldstein and Steve Gold whose names still ring a far out bell in the consciousness of the music industry. Some musicians are resentful in their wake. When asked if he was resentful Oskar gives the following history lesson.
“Oh, I’m resentful for maybe the more correct reasons. First of all, the dynamics between the seven original members of War in relation to Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein, has had so many different phases. It started as the seven of us backing up Eric. We were totally in the moment musically, all of us being manipulated to play music. We got to jam all the time and create. I was excited to be with at home with people who loved playing. It was my first band. With that, there was a platform of business to be applied to it.
At the time, Eric Burdon was as big as Mick Jagger. I was in awe. He had gone from the Animals to Eric Burdon & the Animals, to Eric Burdon & the New Animals. He had this fantasy of getting into movies, I think. I was staying on his couch. We went to see Phil Spector and I’m in awe again. I was like a freakin’ groupie. We go into Phil Spector’s office which was in this old Victorian building on Sunset. It was really dark in there except for this big window behind him. Basically, we’re seeing a silhouette. Can’t even see his face. The sun is right on me and Eric. I’m hearing his voice talk to Eric about producing his next album. Eric was deciding whether he wanted to go with Phil Spector or Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein. I don’t know anything about Jerry and Steve. I just know—Are you kidding me? Phil Spector?
Eric decided to go with Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein because he wanted to be in the business as much as he wanted to be a superstar. He wanted to be business worthy and get part of that wealth. After going through all those things with Mike Jeffery who was the manager of Jimi Hendrix as well as the Animals, looking back, I get it. You don’t want to be looked at as just some musical commodity. You want to be in with the machine too. Regardless of who Eric chose, I was still in awe of how we were going to build this whole thing.
Things started to get weird after we had a few hits. Like, you see a billboard on Sunset of the next album before the artist(s) knows there is a next album. Deals are made without you being included. It was a divide and conquer kind of thing. We ended up leaving Gold & Goldstein’s Far Out Productions and forming our own company. But with that said, we didn’t know what we were doing. And one by one, each guy went back to Steve and Jerry. Everybody had to individually sign new contracts. They came to me last and said, “We have a contract for you Lee.” I said, “If we’re a family, why should we have a contract?” They say, “Because of this and that,” so to speak. So they give me this thick contract and I didn’t know that everyone else had already signed. A couple of days later I take the contract into Steve Gold and Jerry Goldstein’s office and said to Steve, “Let me ask you something. If you were to be my manager, and Jerry Goldstein is the record company, would you want me to sign this contract?” Steve Gold says, “I haven’t read it yet.”
I was like, “are you serious?” Which, I get now as a businessman, I’ll sometimes read an agreement later that my attorney might draw up and have me sign, for example. But at the time, it was very problematic for me. You’re having me sign an agreement with you guys and you haven’t even read it? So then, I said to them, “If I sign it, would you then read it and make sure it’s good for me before you sign it?” Then they left me alone, so I didn’t have a contract. Come to find out, everybody had re-signed except for me. It was divide and conquer. Jerry Goldstein owned the masters to the records. We rarely saw statements. Everything we got was a freakin’ advance, never earned. We never saw money that was earned. It was always called an advance. You always owed the company. So, it was all these things wearing on everybody and we weren’t taking care of business as a unit even though we liked to say we did, we weren’t. So some years went by.
When I did my trademark for Lee Oskar Harmonicas as I started manufacturing, I didn’t want my exposure to overshadow everyone else’s, if anything went wrong. So they wanted us to sign new contracts. I admit I wanted to do it for the camaraderie but I also wanted two provisions to be changed. One was that if anyone breached the contract, then everyone would be liable. In other words, if somebody breached, they could go after my trademark. So I had them change that.
Number two was the contract was terminated with my obligations a year and a half later if there is no proof and burden on a record being produced and released in good time and business. That was because they kept us in the studio and billed us for it yet hadn’t been releasing records.
So when I left the band, the guys still continued and did stuff without me, without Jerry Goldstein’s permission. They had another guy in the band who Goldstein knew was not me, but they had a court proceeding somewhere that held me as infringing on the War trademark, even though I wasn’t with them at the time. Even though I had everyone sign an affidavit stating that I wasn’t performing with the band at the time, the fuckin’ judge said, “Well, Mr. Lee Oskar, if you weren’t there, why aren’t you suing them?” I said, “Your Honor, I’m not gonna sue my friends and colleagues. I blame this on Mr. Jerry Goldstein.” So the judge didn’t want to buy it. All those kinds of legal things were going on. And once it’s been tested by a bunch of attorneys, somebody please help us cuz nobody can afford to fight the shit, you’ll get these attorneys who will shoot, in representing the guys, but they don’t know how to aim. And when we get shot back at, we’re deeper in the hole.
Then the Federal judge in circuit 9, (you can read all this stuff, it’s public record), Judge Keller, didn’t want to hear about all this crazy stuff. He didn’t know who we were. I bet if we were the Letterman (Pop trio that originated in the late ‘50s) he would’ve come off the bench and represented us. With us, to him, it was frivolous stuff; racketeering, etc., a parade of attorneys coming in. So he rules in Goldstein’s favor in owning the name War. Then Goldstein asks the judge if we can be prohibited not only from calling ourselves War, but also from formerly known as War, or calling ourselves Raw, which, if you hold it up to a mirror is War. Next!”
How did original war member Lonnie Jordon end up on Jerry Goldstein’s good side?
“There was a legal ruling when, at one time there were a handful of groups calling themselves the 5th Dimension. The law was written stating that you had to have at least one original member for the use of the trademark to be valid. So in my mind, Lonnie Jordan has become the yo-yo for Jerry Goldstein. He has no ownership in the name War. People may think that. He may want people to think that. But he’s under Jerry Goldstein’s thumb. He is somebody that Jerry can use so he can exercise the right to put out a band called War.
Now, I will say that there are people like Sal Rodriguez who have played in this phony band for almost twenty years now. So according to my knowledge of trademark law, if Lonnie Jordan was to for example, have a mental breakdown and suddenly couldn’t play, Jerry Goldstein has built up War where unknowing people don’t look at it as a phony band or a tribute band. Goldstein presents it as the evolution of War. With that said, a guy like Sal Rodriguez, if Lonnie is not there, can be presented as someone that consumers count on as an original member, because under trademark law, it’s defined as what consumers depend on. In Goldstein’s evolution, the current members take precedence over those of us who were the original members. It’s based on the premise that trademark law protects the consumer, not the manufacturer or originator. So they can argue that for the last twenty years, people have gone to see these shows and Lonnie Jordan and Sal Rodriguez and whoever were playing, not Lee Oskar, Howard Scott, Harold Brown & B.B. Dickerson. We’re not allowed to use the name War at all. Or formerly known as War. We cannot use that name in any way in conjunction with selling tickets for a show. Let me give you an example. There’s a club called Jazz Alley in Seattle. John Dimitriou is the owner. He’s got nonprofit status tied into the club. It’s supposed to be all about the music and in reality is a platform for a good tax deduction. Of course if you think without being cynical, it’s for the love of the music. He’s had a lot of things in there, the best of the best. On par with Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. The reality is, he’s gotta make money. He even told me he doesn’t care about the club part. He loves cooking! He loves the food part. The guy that used to book the gigs for Jazz Alley, whose name I can’t recall and is now deceased, reached out to the Lowrider Band years ago to inquire if we would like to play there, knowing of course, that we don’t call ourselves War anymore. I said, “We’d love to.” But he offered a deal that was very, very low in compensation. If I told you the amount you would say, “Damn, that’s even lower than I thought.” So I said, “There’s no way we can do that.” Some years later, John called and asked if we’d like to play. I told him how much we had been offered before and he couldn’t believe it. He came up with a 3 day agreement for the Lowrider Band with the understanding that they couldn’t say War or formerly of War in their promotion. We agreed to everything and signed the contract. I was so excited. Next thing you know A few days later we get a call that he’d been threatened because he used the name War on his website. I called him up and this is what he said.
“Lee, I’m so glad you called. I’m so upset. They’re gonna close me down the whole weekend. Business is going to be down. Those assholes are stopping us from having a show with you,” and blah, blah, blah.
“But you knew that you couldn’t use the name War in the promotion.”
“But I got it from Wikipedia.”
“John,” I said. “It’s journalism on Wikipedia. But if you put it on your site, it’s not journalism. But let’s do this. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to pay us the 50%. We’ll do a raincheck and after a period of time, come back and do it right.”
“Okay, thank you so much and blah, blah, blah.” Then when I go to call him back, he’s not answering the phone. Sure enough, they booked the bullshit War. So I call him up and leave him a message. I said, “Imagine, B.B. King was not born under that name. Imagine that B.B. King was a trademark and his manager got a ruling that he owns the name B.B. King. Imagine that the manager owns the publishing and the masters on B.B. King. Imagine that the manager gets a restraining order on the real B.B. King which will not allow him to perform as the B.B. King we know. And you know that but you are going to go ahead and hire somebody else to sing and play as B.B. King because the manager owns the trademark.
I put it to him just like that and of course he was very defensive. But after the War band played there, he had the nerve to call me back and leave me a message saying, “Lee, I gotta talk to you. This was the best weekend I’ve had in my whole career at the club. It was sold out every night. I’ve never had that many people or this amount of success. It was amazing. I wanna talk to you. Maybe now, you guys can come in and play.” That then, is the world Lee Oskar, Harold Brown, Howard Scott and B.B. Dickerson have had to live in since Jerry Goldstein and the legal system closed shop, took their toys and went home, on the remaining 4/5’s of the original band.
The next question posed to Lee Oskar is, “Can the publishing of this information be a possible liability for you?
“That depends,” says Lee. “If it’s strictly journalism and is not used in any way to sell tickets, it’s okay. Let’s say they somehow tied this interview into a gig we were playing where it could be viewed as promotion, then yes, I could go to jail. In a way, I’m putting you as a journalist in the same spot so you can feel where I’m at. Now the burden is on you too. By the way, for you to be on the other side and the way you ask your questions, thank you. You’re getting me to talk about my life. I should pay you as a fuckin’ therapist! You know, the high powered attorneys and forensic accountants who worked on this had seen many things. But they admitted they’d never seen anything like this case at all.”
So is Goldstein just that intelligent and shrewd?
“My comment is this. Lonnie Jordan is a liar and a thief. Jerry Goldstein is an honest thief. I’ll tell you why I say that. He believes that everybody is playing the same game. He just believes he’s smarter. What he doesn’t realize is that the ways of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler are past. People don’t do business like that anymore. Goldstein apprenticed under them back in the day. When he related that to me years ago, he revealed that he didn’t want to be under them, he wanted to do his own thing. So rather than surround himself with negotiators, he surrounds himself with litigators. He constantly has to put walls up because everybody is standing in line, trying to collect unpaid bills or royalties, or just complaining, whatever. He is very good at perceiving right down to the last possible millisecond, what the deadline is. Until you have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, you’re not even on the map with him.
It may sound strange, but I respect Jerry Goldstein more than I respect Lonnie Jordan. Recently I had to negotiate with Jerry Goldstein to get my stuff back. The My Road Our Road album and my Before The Rain album. The contracts were terminated as new publishing laws came into effect. After thirty-five years you can claim it and I did so a couple of years ago. In all fairness to Jerry, he agreed on a compromise with me which I appreciate because even if it had been a slam dunk case as far as the laws that have been put on the books, there are still gray areas that he can challenge. So, everything I’ve said is not to talk bad about Jerry but to explain the dynamics and show what people put priorities on.
I think where he lost out in terms of us was we all wanted to be part of something great. We all would’ve gotten along if Jerry had informed us as we went along and been more forthright about the economics involved. The bottom line is that there are two separate worlds. Two different animals. One is called business and one is called legal. Many people confuse them. In the legal world, he had us sign certain things that we weren’t aware of, that were in his favor. In fairness to us as the group War; Charles Miller, Papa Dee Allen, B.B. Dickerson, Harold Brown, Howard Scott myself and Lonnie Jordan, as much as we wanted to know and understand, that was discouraged.
So I characterize what Jerry Goldstein had as short term greed. If he had long term greed and been honest in common with us and made sure that we all benefited too, we would still have wonderful business today. We wouldn’t be fighting. I wouldn’t even know about terminations. Today we could all be making lots of money, embracing the music, really collaborating on things rather than trying to milk a legacy, perpetuated by these phony bands. For the most part, they haven’t even re-recorded our tunes. There’s nothing creative there. They’re just milking, milking, milking. It’s sad to me that everybody is practically in the poorhouse because the golden egg was dismantled in such unfortunate, bullshit ways.”
Part of the legacy of the golden egg that was the band called War (Then called Eric Burdon & War) was their September 16, 1970 gig where the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix was displayed for the final time, as he sat in with the group. I asked Lee if he considered that a turning point in his career.
“I wouldn’t call it a turning point but it was a big deal to me. Not for the same reason it would be for others. What was a big deal for me was that it was the second time being on the same stage with him as he was one of the greatest, and he knew my name. I had first played with him at Devonshire Downs some time before Ronnie Scott’s. Eric Burden and I went down to see Hendrix there and sat in with him. He was leaning against the wall, not feeling so good and said to me, “Lee, am I playing ok?” I was more flattered than feeling what he was going through.”
What does Oskar have cooking musically in the near future?
“I’m really excited. Glad you asked. I’m not getting any younger. The Lowrider Band is a rare commodity that only gets gigs once in awhile. I have composed and recorded and have so much in the future that I want to keep doing. My focus, starting in May and June will be to record and build another company that will license all this stuff from me. We’re gonna be exploring movies, T.V., you name it. I’m producing a couple of things right now. One is this Japanese saxophone player, Takamura Miyazaki. A beautiful, beautiful player who is playing Lee Oskar compositions. It’s almost done. And then I have this project called Cricket In A Box Africa and it’s another slice of all these different musical elements that are put together as I’ve always wanted. Today you might call it World Beat. I’m looking forward to going with Mark Johnson, Producer of Playing For Change, to Mali to play with the people there. The kids in the schools in Mali and South Africa will be using Lee Oskar harmonicas. There’s so many different spins.
They are building a school in Mali where they are teaching with the Lee Oskar D Natural Minor harmonica. When I heard the people being recorded by Mark Johnson in Playing For Change, man I was blown away. The way they played it was a piece of the D minor pentatonic American Blues scale that was the basis for the War song “Cisco Kid.” I was like holy shit, I found the holy grail where Jesus was born!
No matter where you are on the earth, people talk, laugh and cry about the same shit. The scales you use musically might be major or minor. The materials you use to make your instruments and the food you eat is gonna be based on where you live. If you live in the desert, you’ll probably eat cactus and snake. If you live near the ocean chances are you’re eating fish.”
Lee Oskar reiterated his passion for the Blues.
“Ray Charles to me, Coltrane, you name it, any of the Jazz cats. To me, they all come from the Blues. Miles Davis is the Blues. Nina Simone can tear your heart out with the Blues. Those cookie cutter people who try to mimic some cat sitting on the back porch, it’s like, give me a break. The real deal is the real deal. When mediocrity kicks in and everybody is trying to milk it with some formula with these other clichés, the brain is in it but the heart is not even connected.”
Visit Lee’s website at: http://leeoskarmusic.com/
CyberSoulMan Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, California. His radio show, The CyberSoulMan Review airs Tuesday afternoons from 3-5 PST. He is road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto, the last Queen standing from the glory years of Chess Records.