“War” started with the Temptations, but it was seemingly too hot to handle.
The story goes that Motown didn’t want to sully the Temps’ reputation by releasing a protest song as a single. (If that’s so, please explain “Cloud Nine,” “Psychedelic Shack” and “Ball Of Confusion [That’s What The World Is Today],” all culturally aware Temptations singles produced by Norman Whitfield and released before “War.”)
So Whitfield handed “War” to Edwin Starr, who performed the blistering version everyone has known for 50 years, a No. 1 single in the summer of 1970. In so doing, perhaps Whitfield got a version closer to what he’d originally imagined for it.
Perhaps you could say the same for “Ball Of Confusion.” It was a smash for the Temptations, also in the summer of 1970, and then Whitfield handed it to Starr for “Involved,” his 1971 LP.
Because “Ball Of Confusion” was such a big hit for the Temptations is perhaps why Whitfield fully unfurls his freak flag on Starr’s cover of it. This version is built on Bob Babbitt’s familiar bass line but Whitfield’s production takes it far out, man. Waves of psychedelic echoes surround Starr’s scorching vocals. Random dialogue floats past.
With 4 minutes left, that bass line cuts out and Starr starts preaching. “Roaches! Rats! Black folks living in hate. Ain’t no justice. … You make your own heaven and hell right here on Earth.”
“Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today),” Edwin Starr, from “Involved,” 1971.
Fun fact: “War” is the first cut on back-to-back Edwin Starr LPs — “War and Peace” from 1970 and “Involved” from 1971. The former was cobbled together in the wake of the smash single. The latter is a proper release, as evidenced by the quality of the sounds that followed it on Side 1.
So you know “War.” And now you’ve heard Edwin Starr’s freaky cover of “Ball Of Confusion.” Now behold “Funky Music Sho’ ‘Nuff Turns Me On,” the third and final cut — and the third Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong composition — on Side 1 of “Involved.” It’s a furious shot of funk, with Starr blasting his way to the final grooves.
“Funky Music Sho’ ‘Nuff Turns Me On,” Edwin Starr, from “Involved,” 1971.
Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau thought this LP was “Norman Whitfield’s peak production,” even though he thought Whitfield wasted 12 minutes on “Ball Of Confusion.”
As always, you make the call.