Think of tambourines in popular music and what comes to mind? I’m guessing not many people think of Jack Ashford…but perhaps you should…
Before we get to who Jack Ashford is, and what he has to do with tambourines, I need to tell you about Barrett Strong.
Barrett Strong may not be the most instantly-recognisable name in music, but I can virtually guarantee you’ll have heard him sing.
Barrett Strong was one of the first acts Berry Gordy signed to his Tamla record label, in the early days of the Motown empire. He went on to perform the first big hit record for Berry Gordy’s new venture — “Money (That’s What I Want)”.
That song would go on to be covered by hundreds of artists including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
But Barrett Strong found much greater success as a lyric writer. He put the words to Motown classics such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”.
He worked with Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and The Temptations, with whom he scored his biggest critical and commercial successes, alongside long-time collaborator Norman Whitfield.
And it was his work with The Temptations which would lead, in a roundabout way, to Edwin Starr taking “War” to the top slot in the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1970.
“War” perfectly encapsulated the feelings of a nation tired of the never-ending war in Vietnam and numb to the daily tragedy of so many young men being flown home to their families in wooden boxes proudly draped with their nation’s flag.
Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote one of the best protest songs of all time…and a song that has lasted the test of time.
The reason Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield were involved is that “War” was originally intended as a song for The Temptations, with whom Whitfield and Strong had enjoyed considerable critical and commercial success.
The Temptations had recorded “War” on their album “Psychedelic Shack”. However the song’s overtly political message meant there was some unease about releasing the song as a single in case it dented the popularity of one of Motown’s biggest hit-making acts.
Nowadays, people would stream the track anyway, but back then, if a record company didn’t officially release an album track as a single it didn’t get airplay on mainstream radio. With the cost of albums at the time, very few people would buy a whole album just to listen to one track, however good that track was.
For a while, “War” seemed destined to rest in obscurity on The Temptations’ album without finding the wider audience a song this good deserved.
Thankfully, one of Motown’s second-string acts heard about the trouble Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were having and offered his services to record a version for release as a single. That man was Edwin Starr.
He turned up at just the right moment to capture the spirit of Whitfield and Strong’s song.
Talented group though The Temptations were, their smoother, more sophisticated version doesn’t capture the rawness of the emotion and the strength of feeling that Edwin Starr puts into his career-defining performance of “War”.
What we now consider to be one of the classic songs of the 1960s, and especially of the Vietnam anti-war movement, might never have become an enduring cultural icon it remains today without Edwin Starr.
His impassioned vocal delivery, the pulsating bass, the strident horn section and…. getting to the main point of my story at long last…the most energetic tambourine playing I can recall on any record before or since, courtesy of the Funk Brothers’ Jack Ashford, all comes together to make “War” one of the best protest songs ever written.
Its place in the Grammy Hall of Fame is fully deserved, although if it had been up to me, I’d have given it a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s that good a song.
In case you’re wondering whether I’m overstating the cultural importance of “War”, allow me to demonstrate…
What immediately comes into your mind when I ask… “War…what is it good for?”
Virtually the entire world can reply, almost without thinking… “Absolutely nothing!” That’s how you know “War” is a cultural icon. Everybody knows the song.
Barrett Strong’s lyrics cut through all the political bluster and diplomatic trade-offs. It speaks to the soldiers fighting on the ground and their anxious families half a world away, not the generals and politicians keeping a safe distance behind the front lines where thousands of young men are dying.
The lyrics speak of a place where life is short and brutal, not some glamorous Hollywood version of battlefield heroics. This is a world of hand-to-hand combat in the jungle against a determined and dedicated foe and where scenes of ugly brutality are a daily occurrence. This sort of war isn’t pretty.
War — it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
War — friend only to the undertaker
Oh war, it’s an enemy to all mankind
The point of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die?
Ah, war — huh? Good God why y’all?
What is it good for?
I’ve never been called by my nation to serve. I’ve nothing but admiration for the men…and since Barrett Strong wrote these words originally, women…who put their own lives at stake to keep the rest of us safe. I salute every one of them.
They’re just doing their duty. It’s the politicians…on all sides, and from all countries…who use young lives as an expendable resource to try to secure their own place in history that I’m much more bothered about.
If the cards fall kindly for them, the politicians will have books written about them and their inspired decision to take the nation to war. Even if it doesn’t work out, they get pensioned off in comfortable circumstances and pass away in their 90s, surrounded by their families.
The young men and women who gave up their lives to do what their country asked of them are remembered only by their grieving families. No books are written about them.
More than anything, “War” is an anthem for the loved ones left behind when their children, brothers, sisters and parents are sent off to war…especially a war so few believed in at the time.
That’s why, as the conflict in Vietnam slid slowly into the abyss, and it became increasingly obvious that the conflict was unwinnable, “War” was adopted as the anthem of a generation and the power of Edwin Starr’s performance made sure the message hit home.
“War” is just as relevant today as it was back in the late 1960s. There’s a message in there for us all.
Please enjoy Edwin Starr with “War”…and don’t overlook the role of the most enthusiastic tambourine playing in recorded music history…expertly delivered by Jack Ashford of the Funk Brothers who might have had a few espressos too many that morning on his way to the recording studio…
And take a few moments, as I do every time I hear this song, to say a silent prayer for the fine men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. God bless them all.
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0cs3dkKsYJwdauvRRJaCOm
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.