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Break It Down: The Winstons’ 1969 Tune “Amen, Brother” and Its Role in Modern Music

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What is one of the most sampled bits of music in hip-hop history?

If you guessed virtually any tune by James Brown, you’re close. Indeed, Browns’ The Winstonsdistinctive guitar riffs, drum breaks, and his signature phrases (“give the drummer some,” “good gawd!” and “hit me,” to name just a few) still pepper rap and hip hop songs. But one of the most frequently sampled drum breaks actually comes from a somewhat obscure gospel number, The Winstons‘ “Amen, Brother.” Virtually impossible to find on CD, it remains an essential part of hip hop culture.

The story begins in 1968, when the Washington D.C.-originated group signed with the Cutnom label and recorded one single, “Need A Replacement.” After the song failed to make a significant impression, The Winstons moved to the Metromedia label a year later. This change proved crucial to their career, in that they recorded the popular gospel tune “Color Him Father.” Band members Richard Spencer (vocals, tenor sax), Ray Maritano (vocals, sax), Quincy Mattison (vocals, lead guitar), Phil Tolotta (guitar, organ), Sonny Peckrol (vocals, bass), and G.C. Coleman (drums) scored a top ten hit on the R&B and Billboard Singles charts, culminating in a Grammy for Best R&B Song. According to All Music, The Winstons then toured as the backup band for The Impressions, but never attained success again.

Amazingly, The Winstons are now best known not for their big hit song, but for the single’s B-side: “Amen, Brother.” Their uptempo, joyful version is an instrumental cover of Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” which he wrote for the film Lilies of the Field in 1963. A subsequent cover by The Impressions—and perhaps the most famous—became a hit the following year. The WInstons’ version embodies a soul jam, although it never forgets its spiritual roots; think Booker T. and the MG’s performing gospel. The speedy tempo weaves horns, organ, guitar, and bass to make the track surprisingly danceable. But it’s primarily known for an almost six-minute section, now called the “Amen Break.” In this part, the music briefly drops out to spotlight drummer Coleman, who pounds out a now-famous rhythm pattern.  The video below plays just the drum solo in normal speed, sped up, and slowed down:

“Amen, Brother” might have fallen into obscurity if not for the 1986 compilation Ultimate Breaks and Beats, part of a bootleg series for DJs. According to Wikipedia, a former Downstairs Records employee known as Breakbeat Lenny hired another remixer to slow down the drum segment, and DJs began to take notice of this distinctive pattern. Later improvements in sampling technology allowed the sample to become extremely popular in the hip hop community, so much that the original track was remastered and rereleased. This pristine version eventually replaced the slowed-down bootleg version. By the early 1990s, the Amen Break crossed over to the UK, where house music and rave culture was booming. The “Amen, Brother” sample became the basis of what is known as jungle or drum and bass, where the tempos were sped up so much that they left the original sample virtually unrecognizable.

Today, that six-second song section still permeates hip hop and house, now extended to some rock tracks.The blog Sound Statements has reprinted just an abbreviated version of the many tracks that have sampled the Amen Break. Some examples are the following:

“You Know I’m No Good” – Amy Winehouse
“Unbelievable” – EMF
“Faint” – Linkin Park

“Straight Outta Compton” – NWA
“D’you Know What I Mean” – Oasis
“Whole Lotta Love” – Perry Farrell
“I Desire” – Salt-N-Pepa
“Eyeless” – Slipknot
“Vic Acid” – Squarepusher
“Firestarter” and “Breathe” – Prodigy

Sadly, drummer Coleman passed away in 2006, and reportedly the group never received financial compensation—or proper credit—for its crucial role in modern music history. But “Amen, Brother” lives on in other bands and DJs sampling its incredibly funky breakbeat, and at last The Winstons are achieving some recognition for their contribution to today’s sounds.

To learn more about the Amen Break’s history, view this video, which explains the phenomenon in detail.  The clip below plays the entire “Amen, Brother” single:

 

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Joann

    Oooh– I remember that song “Amen” from Lilies of the Field(hard to forget!), but I had no idea of the connection to current music. Pretty cool! How do you know all this stuff?!

  • Kit O’Toole

    Pretty interesting that a six-minute segment can have such a big impact on music, isn’t it? Thanks for commenting!

  • C.G. Coleman

    A lot of the songs don’t contain the amen break, just re recordings. Possibly the inspiration? Never the less not the amen break.