Released in June 1970, Edwin Starr's version of "War" was a tremendous success. It reached the #1 spot in both the US and Canada, and hit #3 on the UK singles chart. The stridently anti-war song chimed strongly with the public mood, as opposition to the Vietnam War was growing rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic. The single also benefited from its driving, psychedelic soul soundscape overseen by producer Norman Whitfield, and from the enormously powerful and furious vocal by Starr.
Over 50 years later, Starr's version of "War" is one of the most recognisable and popular recordings from the glory years of soul and funk - thanks in part to frequent airplay and its use in movies like Rush Hour (1998). But Edwin Starr himself is hardly a household name, and while soul fans will readily remember him as the performer of "War", they won't neccesarily know a lot about him or about the rest of his career. The man himself died in 2003, but it's always a good time to delve into the discography of one of soul's more underrated stars.
There are many reasons to be thankful for "War", one of the most wonderfully powerful anti-war songs ever made - but one of them is that without it, Edwin Starr might have languished in obscurity. That Starr was able to record it in the first place was the product of some very specific and unusual circumstances rooted in his particular background and career trajectory.
Edwin Starr was born Charles Edwin Hatcher in 1942. While the young Hatcher was born in one of the definitive centres of American music - Nashville, Tennessee - he mostly grew up in Ohio after his family moved there. Later, Starr moved to Detroit, Michigan and signed as a solo act with the small local label Ric-Tic. Both this label and its associated company Golden World were competitors for Berry Gordy's rapidly growing Motown empire.
Much to Gordy's frustration, his studio musicians would frequently breach their contracts by visiting Golden World's studios and making recordings for them out of hours as a means of supplementing their income. His solution was costly but effective - he bought out and absorbed both Golden World and Ric-Tic, acquiring their acts and recording facilities in one stroke. This meant that Starr became a Motown act overnight, and through no action on his part.
Starr continued to record with Motown into the 1970s, and later became one of a number of US soul stars who decided to move to the UK. Motown had re-released a number of Starr's early recordings for Ric-Tic - to which the company owned the rights - because they were popular on the UK Northern Soul circuit. He remained a hero to this fanbase. Starr lived in a number of locations in the UK before sadly dying at just 61 in April 2003 - he was buried in Nottingham.
1) "Agent Double-O Soul" (1965, Ric-Tic)
Probably the most notable single from Starr's early days on the Ric-Tic label, "Agent Double-O Soul" represents an obvious effort to cash in on the massive contemporary popularity of the James Bond movies, which were a major cultural phenomenon at the time. In a way, the song feels like a precursor to the blaxploitation movies that would follow in the 1970s, when for the first time African-Americans would be able to play international superspies. The lyrics cast Starr as a sophisticated, urbane individual who is tasked with hunting down those who lack soul - in order to turn their lives around. Very silly hokum, obviously, but Starr's powerful voice and raw talent were more than obvious even at this stage.
2) "Soul Master" (1968, Motown)
Starr never released an LP with Ric-Tic, but shortly after they were acquired in 1968 he was able to issue his debut album through Motown. Soul Master contains a mix of new and older material, with the latter including the previously released single "Agent Double-O Soul". The title track comes across as a kind of sequel to that song - opening with a very cool spoken word introduction, it has Starr cast off his old persona in favour of a new one, the "Soul Master". Apparently, he is "the guy they named soul after". Here, Starr seems to revel in the chance to rebrand and relaunch himself under new management and this song, while never released as a single, is a highlight of the LP.
3) "Twenty-Five Miles" (1969, Motown)
Starr was not a particularly prolific writer, but he did have a hand in writing a number of his successful singles, including "Twenty-Five Miles", which served as the title track of his second album with Motown. As the title implies, the song is about a long walk to earn a woman's love, like a kind of more modest but musically superior "500 Miles". The insistent horns throughout and the sound of marching feet in the intro are two of the more distinctive aspects of the recording. The song was a major hit in the US, hitting #6 on the chart. Surprisingly, The Jackson 5 recorded their own version of the song in 1969, which features a lead vocal by an 11-year old Michael Jackson and was not released until a dubiously updated remix of it was put out in 1987. The original version took even longer to emerge, finally seeing the light of day in 2009.
4) "Oh How Happy" (with Blinky) (1970, Motown)
"Oh How Happy" is a simple song with a somewhat complicated history. Starr is credited as the sole writer of the record, which was first released by the white group The Shades of Blue in 1966 and became a #12 pop hit in the US. However. according to The Shades of Blue themselves they contributed to the writing, but went uncredited - and lost out financially. Starr recorded his own version on Soul Master, and then it became the only single he released as part of a short-lived partnership with Blinky Williams. Motown put the pair together as a duo in the vein of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, but the combination lasted for just one LP, Just We Two. The Jackson 5 also released their own version, on their imaginatively-titled Third Album.
5) "Time" (1970, Motown)
By late 1969, Starr was working with producer Norman Whitfield, best known for his association with one of Motown's top acts, The Temptations. Strongly influenced by Whitfield, Starr produced himself on "Time", which expert Terry Wilson has called his "pivotal release". Crackling with energy and touching on the themes of unrest, war and change which would dominate his imminent most successful period, "Time" is the most propulsive and exciting record that Starr had cut up to this point. It is included on his first properly mature album, War and Peace, and is easily one of the highlights - in its own way, it is very nearly as accomplished and thrilling as his breakthrough.
6)"War" (1970, Motown)
Immediately recognisable even from its opening drumroll, "War" is an indisputable, all-time funk-soul classic. Produced by Norman Whitfield, the definitive anti-war soul single is the perfect showcase for Starr's booming, passionate voice. The track is also one of the best demonstrations of the emerging psychedelic soul style, which was strongly pioneered by Whitfield through his work with Starr and The Temptations among others. In fact, "War" was originally a Temptations album track; due to then-controversial political message, Berry Gordy was unwilling for the clean-cut group to release the song as a single. Starr learned of this, and swiftly volunteered to record his own version. He was perfectly suited to it, he was richly rewarded as it became a #1 smash and one of the best-selling singles of 1970 in the US.
7) "Stop the War Now" (1970, Motown)
Famously, Berry Gordy based the Motown production process on the standardised, efficient operations at Detroit autio plants, where the svengali had previously worked. One result of this was that Motown could often be brazenly cynical in its pursuit of an easy cash-in, for example by rehashing successful songs. "Stop the War Now" is a perfect example, an obvious re-write of the smash hit "War". Realising this takes little from its appeal, though - Starr's performance is just as gripping, and the song does enough to differentiate itself. Record buyers saw through Motown's cynicism and the single wasn't particularly successful, but it's still an exciting listen in its own right.
8) "Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On" (1971, Motown)
The social consciousness of "War" would be a longstanding feature of Starr's work, but he was certainly not above a bit of pure hedonism as "Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On" proved decisively. Another psychedelic production by Whitfield, this excellent track reflects the rapidly growing success of funk music in the early 1970s. Terry Wilson credits songs like this with inspiring much of the club music of the 1980s and 1990s, and describes it as a "radical creation in bodily sensation". It is, like a lot of funk music, as much about the body as it is about the mind. "Free your mind and your ass will follow", as Funkadelic had put it the previous year.
9) "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem" (1973, Motown)
The wave of blaxploitation movies in the 1970s proved to be fertile ground for soul and funk artists, who were frequently drafted in on soundtrack duties. The better-known soundtrack LPs are actually some of the best albums in the genre released during this era - the likes of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Willie Hutch, and others all got involved. So too did Starr. He was recruited to record a soundtrack to the 1973 film Hell Up in Harlem, a sequel to Black Caesar which - true to the prolific output of the genre - had been released earlier that year and which had been scored by James Brown.
10) "You've Got My Soul on Fire" (1973, Motown)
In 1973, Berry Gordy made the fateful decision to move much of Motown's operation from its iconic base in Detroit out west, to California. A number of significant figures refused to make this move, and remained behind in Michigan - including Starr and his producer Norman Whitfield. "You've Got My Soul On Fire" is a product of this period, an unsuccessful non-album single which Terry Wilson speculates was originally written for the Temptations and describes as "essentially a love song phrased in the style of an angry tirade." The lyrics are deft and clever, and as usual Starr's muscular performance is perfectly suited to Whitfield's gently experimental soul production. A near-forgotten classic from towards the end of Starr's golden period.
While the peak of Starr's career was in the early 1970s, he continued to record into the mid-1990s. His second wind came towards the end of the '70s, when he adapted to the disco craze more successfully than some of his contemporaries. His singles "Contact" (1978) and "H.A.P.P.Y. Radio" (1979) were significant successes and while they don't stand up to his best work, they are interesting in their own right.
As brilliant and historically important as "War" is, Starr's discography has so much more to offer and even a cursory look at his early '70s heyday reveals a number of superb soul and funk singles, which saw Starr work in perfect harmony with producer Norman Whitfield. These ten tracks are a good starting point for looking at a career which, outside of one hit single, too often fails to be recognised even by Motown fans.
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