"I saw one royalty cheque... and I never saw anything else from that point on": Edwyn Starr's raging classic War may have made his name, but it didn't make him rich

Edwyn Starr studio portrait
(Image credit: Echoes)

The summer of 1970 found the management of Motown Records holding a match over a tinderbox. A year earlier, with his finger in the air, the Detroit label’s go-to songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield had sensed the US public’s dwindling appetite for the unwinnable Vietnam War, and alongside Barrett Strong had written a song for The Temptations that lambasted the campaign in no uncertain terms: ‘War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!’. 

Titled simply War, it appeared on the group’s 1970 album Psychedelic Shack, with Paul Williams, Dennis Edwards and Melvin Franklin delivering a chant vocal that sounded more purposeful than incandescent. But as requests flew in for the song to be released as a single, Motown bosses lost their nerve, fearing that America’s conservative hawks would kill the career of one of the label’s biggest sellers. 

A compromise was reached: War would be released, but only if re-recorded by a relatively unknown singer who would scarcely trouble the balance sheet if things took a nosedive because of it. 

Enter Edwin Starr. The Tennessee singer had made his name via a string of modest hits with the Ric-Tic record company (many of them shaking dancefloors on the UK’s Northern Soul circuit). Now, with Berry Gordy having absorbed the smaller rival label, the Motown boss suddenly had a gale-force vocalist at his disposal.

Even in his relatively junior position, Starr was assertive enough to insist on recording War his way. 

“It was necessary to understand and appreciate the lyrics,” he told Palace FM. “I was given the opportunity to record the song, but I made the stipulation that I must record it with the feeling that I thought was right for it, and I was given that privilege to do so.” 

Measured against The Temptations’ original, Starr’s bristling vocal and ad-libs raged like a polemic shouted through a megaphone at a protest. Starr’s War stayed at No.1 in the US for three weeks and never left the public consciousness. As for the voice behind it, having drifted apart from Motown, Starr transplanted his career to the UK and recorded a new version of his most famous song in early 2003, shortly before he died of a heart attack, aged 61. 

The new version remains unreleased, but, by then, War had made Starr so well-loved it scarcely mattered that it hadn’t made him rich. 

“I saw one royalty cheque – the figure was absolutely ludicrous – and I never saw anything else from that point on,” he told Blues & Soul Magazine. “That’s the reason why my live performances had to be so powerful, because that’s all I had to rely on financially as an artist."

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.