Edwin Starr’s 1970 anti-Vietnam War anthem asked listeners: “War — what is it good for?”

By on February 14, 2019

In this nearly hour-long episode of Night Flight’s “Take Off to Politics” — which originally aired sometime in 1986, and you can now see streaming on Night Flight Plus — we featured several videos collected on the Motown Time Capsule: The 1960s videocassette, including songs by the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye.

This episode also featured one great track from Motown Time Capsule: The 1970s, Edwin Starr’s “War,” which we’ll be telling you more about below.

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“From Bob Dylan‘s Sixties anthems, to Bruce Springsteen‘s ‘Born In the U.S.A.’,” Night Flight’s Pat Prescott says during her introduction to this popular “Take Off” episode, “rock’s biggest stars mixed music with politics with the greatest impact.”

“Political music videos pack an even stronger message as they deliver the look as well as the voice of politics. Bruce Springsteen’s live album features this powerful statement, ‘War,’ but even Bruce has trouble topping the original by Motown artist Edwin Starr.”

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In 1986, a retrospective of Motown music called Motown Time Capsule: The 1970s was released on home video formats (VHS, Laserdisc, etc.), with some of the label’s biggest songs of that storied decade accompanied by newsreel-type footage.

In the case of Edwin Starr’s “War,” released as a single on Motown’s Gordy imprint on March 6, 1970, the track plays over occasionally graphic images of the Vietnam War — including footage of 9-year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the so-called “Napalm Girl,” who was burned during a bombing raid in South Vietnam on June 8, 1972 — as well as footage from the Kent State Massacre.

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The anti-war anthem “War” was written by Motown legendary hitmakers Norman Whitfield (an Army veteran) and Barrett Strong.

The track features a memorable opening chorus, which repeated what a black Detroit, Michigan minister standing at the pulpit had once asked his congregation, “War! What is it good for?!,” to which they reportedly roared back to him: “Absolutely nothin’!”

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The famous songwriters/producers had actually written it for the Temptations, who’d recorded it on their March 1970 Psychedelic Shack album.

Motown head honcho Berry Gordy declined to release it as a single, however, fearing there were Motown fans supportive of President Richard Nixon‘s carpet-bombing efforts overseas who could be put off by the song’s strong anti-war message.

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Gordy apparently had no problem with Starr recording the song, however, and everyone at Motown was surprised when the single began a three-week run at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (it charted for fifteen weeks total).

‘War’ deservedly won Starr the Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance while it went on to be an international hit.

Read more about Edwin Starr below.

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Born Charles Hatcher on January 21, 1942, in Nashville, Tennessee, Edwin Starr was raised in the Cleveland, Ohio-area.

His first musical exposure was with a vocal group called the FutureTones, who once backed Billie Holiday on a local TV show appearance.

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Drafted in 1960, Starr served in the U.S. Army for three years before returning to music, struggling for a few years before joining Bill Doggett’s combo in 1965.

It was Doggett’s manager, Don Briggs, who suggested he change his name to Edwin Starr (with an extra “r”) because he was destined for fame, which finally came with his fourth single, “Agent Double-O Soul,” his tribute to the popular James Bond character, recorded for Ed Wingate’s Detroit-based Ric-Tic Records label.

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The single — #8 on Billboard‘s R&B charts, #21 Pop — was initially promoted with Starr appearing in a short film with original James Bond actor Sean Connery, and featured the famous Funk Brothers studio session group who were backing up huge acts for crosstown rival Motown like the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations.

Starr recorded several more charting hits for Ric Tic, the best of those being 1966’s “Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S)” (#9 R&B, #48 on Billboard‘s Hot 100).

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By now, Berry Gordy saw Ric Tic Records as a threat to his label’s success, and so he purchased Ric Tic, Golden World, and several other Detroit R&B labels.

Suddenly, Starr was one of Motown’s top acts, despite not having recorded for the imprint, but his only real success came with 1969’s “25 Miles to Go” (#6 RB), a thundering soul stomper he’d written back in his Cleveland days, and the #1-chart-topping anti-war song “War” (1970).

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Starr would eventually leave Motown and move to California, recording for several labels there in an attempt to duplicate his success back in Detroit, before eventually moving to England in 1973, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Starr recorded for several more labels during the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s, becoming a hero on England’s Northern Soul circuit, but he was never able to reach the heights that he had with “War,” which was recorded by Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984.

In 1985, Bruce Springsteen’s Top Ten live version with the E Street Band, was recorded at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and in 1999, Starr was attending a Springsteen concert in Birmingham England’s National Exhibition Centre when the Boss asked him to come onstage and duet with him on “War.”

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Edwin Starr died of an apparent heart attack on April 2, 2003, while taking a bath at his home in Bramcote, England, near the central city of Nottingham. He was 61 years old.

Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Politics” from 1986 — which also features the music videos for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Dylan Thomas-inspired “Rage Hard,” L.A. punk band X‘s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” (from The Unheard Music), and New Model Army’s “51st State” — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.