Writer: Randal C. Hill
Inspirations for a hit song can sometimes spring from a most unusual source.
Members of the California septet War hailed from different neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles. Of disparate backgrounds and different ages, the musicians found a common thread of interest in creating music. “We mixed and mingled everything, even mariachi music,” War’s keyboardist Lonnie Jordan recalled. “We played blues constantly. We were trying to imitate what we heard, but it came out something else.”
Influenced by the young musicians’ racial diversity, elements of soul, jazz, reggae and mainstream rock and roll were also combined to create an aural stew that defined War’s distinctive sound.
After a series of names — including the Creators, the Romeos, Nightshift – in 1969 in Hollywood, a record producer caught their act and introduced them to British superstar Eric Burdon, who had recently split from the Animals. Nightshift changed its name to War and backed Eric on the 1970 reverie-inducing, million-selling MGM Records single “Spill the Wine.”
Burdon left the band and never had another hit; War, though, was just beginning a seven-year run on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts. Switching to United Artists Records, the group saw eleven hit records.
Their biggest winner—Number 2 on Billboard’s chart—was “The Cisco Kid,” based on the children’s TV show. “Up until that point, the cowboy heroes were people like John Wayne,” Jordan explained. “When the TV series came around, the band discovered their first non-white hero—a Mexican cowboy.”
The Cisco Kid ran from 1950 to 1956, with Cisco (Duncan Renaldo) and his partner Pancho (Leo Carillo) spending each episode chasing down lawbreakers. Children were the target viewing audience, so gun violence was always downplayed. Cisco often shot a pistol from a villain’s hand, while Pancho’s bullwhip frequently disarmed the bad guy. Every show ended with a corny joke, then both Pancho and Cisco would ride off into the sunset as the credits rolled.
Each War member contributed to “The Cisco Kid,” which featured an irresistible, chugging instrumental engine that drove a story line that defied analysis—or logic:
The Cisco Kid was a friend of mine/He drink whiskey, Pancho drink the wine
We met down on the fort of Rio Grande/Eat the salted peanuts out of can
The outlaws had us pinned down at the fort/Cisco came in blastin’, drinkin’ port
The musicians eventually met Duncan Renaldo, TV’s Cisco Kid. War’s guitarist Howard Scott said, “It was an honor to meet that guy. He was this old, elegant Spanish gentleman with white hair, lighthearted and very likable.” As to their best-selling single ever? “He thought our song was funny.”