It was Forty Years Ago Today: The "Amen Break" and Gospel-Secular Connections

Randall Stephens

In 1969 a Washington D.C.-based R&B, soul act called the The Winstons released a chart-topping single, "Color Him Father." "Think I'll color this man father / I think I'll color him love / Said I'm gonna color him father / I think I'll color the man love, yes I will." The b-side was the stirring, funked-up "Amen, Brother." A drum break in that song has come to be known as the "amen break," a heavy snare and symbol cutaway that now seems light years ahead of its time. Though the band would go on to some acclaim,
backing the Impressions on the road, they failed to make much more of a larger, national mark.*

In an odd twist of fate, and because DJs spend so much time scouring record bins for that perfect loopable artifact, the Winstons later achieved fame for their "amen break" (at 1:27 on the youtube video here). The "amen break" would be the scaffolding for countless tracks by hip hop, jungle, drum 'n' base, trip hop, and all manner of armchair electronica turntable-ists. (I knew nothing about all this in the 1990s as I clocked in loads of time listening to Photek, Coldcut, Red Snapper, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher.)

In Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Routledge, 1999) Simon Reynolds writes:

As hip-hop culture burgeoned in the early eighties, the choicest breakbeats--like "Apache" by the Incredible Bongo Band--were collated on "Breaks and Beats" compilations. The most famous break in all of jungle is "Amen" . . . . Chopped up, processed through effects, resequenced, "Amen" has been used in thousands of tracks and is still being reworked. How would the drummer in the Winstons react if you told him that a stray moment of casual funkiness, thrown down in a studio in 1969, had gone on to underpin an entire genre of music?

It's fascinating to me that gospel music--or, in the case of the Winston's, music with a gospel theme--has been at the center of so much creativity in non-religious music. Black and white gospel inspired Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash . . . The best alt-country magazine out there, No Depression, takes its name from a 1936 song by the Carter Family. Folklorists have always been lured by the "authenticity" of gospel and sacred ballads. (Of course, influence went in the other direction as well, from secular to sacred.) I think scholars and popular authors have just scratched the surface on some of these interesting connections.

(Here I'd like to get a shameless plug in for a book by my brother-in-law, Phil White. Authored with Luke Crisell and Rob Principe, On the Record: The Scratch DJ Academy Guide [St. Martins, 2009] includes a foreword by Moby. Snoop Dogg says: "This book needs to be in your vinyl collection. It's what every DJ needs to be in the game and every music fan needs to understand the game." I ask this: How else are we going to get anything Snoop Dogg-related on this blog?).


Bland Whitley said…
Let's all raise a glass of gin & juice.