The anti-war anthem that was deemed a little too forthright for one of Motown’s biggest acts hit the top of the charts for one of its finest soul singers on August 29, 1970. Edwin Starr, who arrived at Motown with a fine track record but had never quite dined at Tamla’s top table, had the USA’s, hottest single as “War” started its three-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100.
The song was written by Barrett Strong and producer Norman Whitfield, who recorded the first version of it with the Temptations. But even though that creative combination was producing some real cutting-edge social commentary, Motown felt that to release their version as a single would alienate their more conservative fan base. Many politically engaged students lobbied the label to release the Temptations’ recording, but Motown decided on a different tactic.
Whitfield recorded a new version with Starr, the soul man born Charles Hatcher in Nashville in 1942 and raised in Cleveland. He’d made his name at Detroit label Ric-Tic in the mid-1960s with such gems as “Agent Double-O-Soul” and “Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.),” before transferring to the Gordy label when Motown bought Ric-Tic outright.
The result of the new interpretation was a soul classic, with a lyric that was clearly anti-Vietnam but has remained sadly relevant throughout the world ever since. Starr’s powerful vocal delivery brought a real sense of anger and frustration to the recording. In its eighth chart week, it took over from a song that could not have been more different in its romantic, adult contemporary atmosphere, Bread’s “Make It With You.”
A Grammy-winning performance
“War” deservedly won the Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and went on to be an international hit, climbing to No.3 in the UK in mid-November. The song has gone on to emphasise the power of its message to future generations. Frankie Goes To Hollywood recorded it at the height of their initial success in 1984.
Two years later, Bruce Springsteen’s live version with the E Street Band, recorded in 1985 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, made the US Top 10. Then, in 2016, modern-day rock favourites Black Stone Cherry included their version on their fifth studio album, named after their home state, Kentucky.
“War” is on The Hits of Edwin Starr, which can be bought here.
Follow the Best Motown Songs Ever playlist.