“War has shattered many young men’s dreams/ We’ve got no place for it today/ They say we must fight to keep our freedom but Lord/There’s just got to be a better way.”
I can still remember as a kid living in Detroit watching Edwin Starr motor through our neighborhood in his little purple MG. Motown, Starr's label, was huge back then, but Starr's soulful style was closer to Motown's competitive rival, Stax, than it was to the pop/soul sound of the self proclaimed "Hitsville, USA," (It is now officially known as the Motown Historical Museum, and has no official connection to Motown).
It was the hey day of what some would later call "white bread soul," (a reference to the cross cultural appeal of Motown), and the "Sound of Young America," of which Berry Gordy and his coterie of stars from the aptly named "Hitsville" was the preeminent example.
It was also the time of the Vietnam War. I was much too young to care about such things. The big dramatic moments of societal intercourse stick out, as they do for most folks, but not much else. I can still remember sitting in my Aunt's house in North Little Rock, Arkansas, the day Elvis died. It was the first major news story I can recall as a child. I sat with my cousins in front of the boob tube dumbfounded that such a rich and good looking man should die so young or look so bad in the process.
The greatest preacher I have ever heard, the Rev. Albert N. Martin, once said that "few men end well who begin well," or something to that effect. He, of course, was referring to the unceasing discipline of the Christian life. I think that insight could be applied to secular life as well, and Elvis would work as exhibit #1.
We (my childhood buddies and me) used to like Elvis in his movies, not because he could act, but because he had quite the way with the ladies. I'm still amazed, after seeing her recently on Larry King, just how stunningly beautiful Priscilla Presley really is, after all these years. She must be old enough to be my mom, or awful close. She noted in the interview that Elvis got hooked on drugs while in the Army. So maybe it wasn't the pressure of his fame that ultimately killed him, but rather habits he picked up while in service to the US Government. It wouldn't surprise me one bit.
Edwin Starr, born Charles Edwin Hatcher in Nashville, Tennessee, and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, would also spend time toiling for the United States Militaryin the early sixties. Perhaps his experience as a soldier laid the foundation for what was to become in 1970 the premier anti-war anthem of our time. "War," would make Starr a permanent, if not high profile, member of the worldwide music scene, and popular right up until his death on April 1, 20031, in Nottingham, England.
There have been a number of anti-war songs over the years. But unless you listen closely to the lyrics it is often easy to miss the message, especially when the tune itself overpowers the lyrics, or is catchy, and/or popular.
A quick listen of "War," and one realizes there is no such problem with Starr's hit. Part of the enduring nature of this song, I believe, is the in your face directness of his lyrics. Try as you may you simply can't miss the message in his refrain:
War…huh…yeah/What is it good for? /Absolutely nothing Uh ha haa ha/War…huh…yeah What is it good for? /Absolutely nothing…say it again y’all War…Huh…look out…What is it good for? Absolutely nothing…listen to me ohhhhh
The catchiness of the tune in no way obscures the message of the lyrics. Even while casually listening to the song his lyrics won't be missed or misunderstood. Nor will these words:
War! It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker, War! It’s got one friend that’s the undertaker. Ohhhh! War has shattered many a young man’s dream, Made him disabled, bitter and mean, Life is much too short and precious to spend fighting wars these days. War can’t give life, it can only take it away!
When Starr came out with the song, Motown was predictably nervous. According to Starr, the song was not written as a protest to the Vietnam War (although a follow up song, "Stop the War Now," clearly was). It was originally recorded and sung by the Temptations1 but Motown thought it too politically controversial for the groups' image. But Starr's version was a hit, and it became, despite the popularity and glamour (as opposed to Starr's soul shouting grittiness) of Motown's bigger stars, the most enduring single ever to emerge from the Motor City.
"War," spent 13 weeks on the charts, three weeks at #1 in the summer of 1970. In 1985 Bruce Springsteen did a cover that climbed to #8 on the charts. Starr and Springsteen did a duet of "War," at a Birmingham concert by "The Boss" in May of 1999. Springsteen recently performed the song in March of 2003 while on tour in Australia as a protest of the US war on Iraq.
Starr (according to his official website), along with fellow anti-war songstress Freda Payne, was among the myriad of guest entertainers to perform at Liza Minelli's 2002 marriage to David Gest. And while Starr had several top 10 hits in his career, this is the song for which he will be most remembered. Just the weekend before his death he performed before a crowd of 16,000 people in Stuttgart, Germany.
When I think of Motown, groups like the Temptations, the Supremes, and the Jackson Five invariably come to mind. When I think of single artists from Motown there is, of course, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye Diana Ross, and the early Michael Jackson, who comprise some of the greatest hit makers in the history of popular music. But when I think of a Motown song, there is no question which single stands out. "War," is the most enduring anti-war anthem of our time. God bless you Charles Hatcher; may your soul rest in peace.
- Several accounts list the date of his death as April 2, 2003. But one news source, Rollingstone.com, dated April 2, noted he had died the day before.
- This is a fan’s website. The official Motown website is devoted only to the current group, and not to the music most would recognize as the “classic” Temptations sound.
April 22, 2003