Say the name "Edwin Starr," and most music fans will respond with one of his most famous lyrics: "War! Huh! Good Gawd, y'all!" In addition to its initial success in 1970, "War" was revived in 1986, when Bruce Springsteen's live rendition cracked the top ten. While "War" stands as one of the best protest songs ever written, Starr recorded a number of other outstanding tracks, most notably the funky "25 Miles." The 1969 hit showcases Starr's blues and gospel-tinged delivery and a relentless beat, a surprisingly gritty track issued by the usually pop-oriented Motown.
While Starr claimed Southern roots--he was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1942--he was raised and educated in Cleveland, Ohio. Bitten by the music bug early, he formed a doo-wop group, the FutureTones, while still in high school. They won local talent contests and recorded a single, but Starr was drafted into military service in 1960, effectively ending the group. Two years later he returned to the States, relocated to Detroit, and joined organist Bill Doggett's group as a featured vocalist. According to Starr's website, the band's manager, Don Briggs, suggested the name change from his birthname Charles Edwin Hatcher to the stage moniker Edwin Starr. Upon hearing the singer's booming voice, Briggs proclaimed him a future star, then stated that he should add the extra "r" at the end of "Star" for extra flair. Briggs was right about Starr's special talent--the vocalist then penned the track "Agent Double-O-Soul," left Doggett's band, and signed with Detroit label Ric Tic Records. By 1965, "Agent Double-O-Soul" became a top ten R&B single and a modest pop hit. He followed up that success with 1966's "Stop Her on Sight (SOS)."
But Starr's biggest break occurred when Motown CEO Berry Gordy purchased Ric Tic Records and its roster, thus making Starr an official Motown artist. To celebrate his new home, Starr released "25 Miles" in 1969. The rhythmic track resounded with audiences, cracking the top ten on the R&B and pop charts. Cowritten with John Bristol and Harvey Fuqua, the lyrics tell a story of love and persistence; it's the Little Train That Could injected with romance and a heady dose of funk. With his husky voice, Starr describes walking 25 miles to meet his lover. "My feet are hurting might bad," he cries. But he refuses to miss her "kind of lovin' and a kissin'," so he marches on, telling himself "I'm so tired / But I just can't lose my stride." While those words directly apply to the song's love story, they can also refer to persistence, overcoming the urge to just give up. Toward the end of the track, the music drops out except for the drums, with Starr gathering up every bit of strength to make those last miles. The backup singers act as the choir as Starr virtually preaches the lines "Come on feet don't fail me now / I got ten more miles to go / I got nine, eight, seven, six six six!" The choir interjects words of encouragement as he counts off the miles, and the song fades out just as Starr reaches his goal.
What makes "25 Miles" so memorable? First, Starr's from-the-gut vocals are flawless; to fully appreciate his nuances, listen to a stunning vocals-only mix. Second, the arrangement adds power and soul to the proceedings. The masterful yet relatively simple drumming and the horns add a touch of Southern soul rarely heard on Motown recordings; in fact, many listeners most likely misidentified the track as a Stax single. In short, its timeless quality still requires fans to crank the volume while listening to "25 Miles."
Just a year later, Starr would experience the biggest hit of his career with "War"--while a wonderful tune, it gradually (and somewhate unfairly) overshadowed his other work. Starr should be ranked among the best soul vocalists, as his distinctive delivery and signature "good Gawds" still stand out as some of the best songs to emerge from the Motown label.