Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TMFW 18 - The Winstons Make Music History (on the B-Side, Many Years Later)

 
 
Richard Lewis Spencer grew up in the 1940s and 50s in a poor part of Anson County, North Carolina.  As he tells the story in a delightfully lo-fi interview, he learned to play piano and clarinet at a young age - for the latter, taking an old instrument that a school in a more affluent part of town discarded - and music became a central part of his life.  In college, he took up the saxophone, and started to play in makeshift backup bands for black artists that were touring the South, including Otis Redding.  (R&B artists in those days typically couldn't afford to employ and travel with a full-time band, so they put them together along the way.)  Building on that experience, Spencer put together a band that got a standing gig at a club in Washington, DC and later opened regularly for the Impressions.
 
When Spencer was the leader of the band The Winstons, he sat down and wrote a letter to his father, who had been in and (mostly) out of his life since childhood.  The letter inspired him to write a more optimistic song called Color Him Father, which was a bit of semi-autobiographical wish fulfillment about a stepdad who came to love and serve his stepfamily as his own children.  (A bummer real-life twist is that Spencer's dad actually just hopped a Greyhound, rather than getting "killed in the war.") The song is sufficiently sappy that you risk cavities just listening, but it amazingly hit #2 on the R&B charts and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.  In fact, the song earned The Winstons a Best R&B Song Grammy in 1970.
 
By the time of their Grammy win, The Winstons had already broken up.  Spencer returned to the east coast where he enrolled in college, got a bachelor's and then master's degree, then worked and retired from the Washington Metro system.  The onetime chart almost-topper and Grammy winner is now a high school teacher and Baptist minister, while a version of the Winstons still plays gigs where they can find them.
 
That's a pretty good story, right?  A TMFW in its own right, even.  But while "Color Him Father" made The Winstons marginally famous, the B-side to that record made them immortal.  
 
The B-side to "Color Him Father" was a soul/gospel instrumental cover of the "Amen" chorus.  The original version was written for the Sidney Poitier movie Lilies of the Field (the film won Poitier a Best Actor Oscar - the first for a black performer in a competitive category).  The song was popularized by the Impressions in 1964, and is now sufficiently mainstream that my Catholic grammar school used to sometimes sing it during our weekly mass.  Perhaps inspired by their earlier time spent opening for The Impressions, The Winstons chose the song to cover for their B-side.  
 
The Winstons' version of the song - which they named "Amen, Brother" - is a nice, fairly straightforward performance.  The melody is played on brass, and there are a few instrumental flourishes thrown in throughout.  Then, at 1:29 in the song, there's a six-second drum break played by The Winstons' drummer Gregory Cylvester "G.C." Coleman, All in all, it's a serviceable cover and not much more.  At the time of its release, it did not chart and was by all accounts nothing other than the back of a popular single.

But in the late '70s and early '80s, the rise of rap and hip-hop music saw artists looking for drum beats that they could sample and remix for their songs.  Short drum breaks became popular because the beat is "clean" - i.e. already isolated from the other instruments. These so-called "breakbeats" were collected by early hip-hop pioneers, and with the advent of digital sampling, artists were able to separately track each individual beat so that the breaks became infinitely remixable. 
 
As you might have figured out by now, the drum break from "Amen, Brother" was picked up and used as a breakbeat.  Like, used and used and used and used, to the point that the "Amen Break" became the most famous beat in history. The Winstons' six-second break has now been sampled in hundreds and hundreds of songs - maybe over 1000 of them (!!!) - including those by Jay-Z, Salt-N-Pepa, N.W.A., Snow, David Bowie, Oasis, and Nine Inch Nails.  And it has appeared in dozens of advertisements. As told in this story from The Economist, the break has even spawned entire subgenres of music like drum and bass and jungle.
 
For their part, neither G.C. Coleman nor Richard Spencer ever saw a dime from the prolific second life their song has enjoyed.  If you are interested in more about the Amen Break, and on a meditation on its meaning for copyright, derivative art, and the commercialization of music, this extremely-dry-but-very-thoughtful 18-minute YouTube exposition (with over 4 million views!) is for you.   
 
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Bonus fact:  Linda Martell, a black country singer from South Carolina, did a country cover of "Color Him Father", which hit #7 on the country charts.  The song earned her an invitation to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1969 she became the first black woman ever to perform there. She sang on that stage 11 more times before ending her singing career in 1974. (For good measure, here's Martell busting out some good old fashioned country on Hee Haw, here's an appreciation of her by Alice Randall in The Oxford American, and here are links to her record Color Me Country at Rdio and Spotify.  I have been listening to the record since I discovered it last month and it really is great).

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