When I was a youth pretty much every live concert had an obligatory drum solo. This was a cue for the other musicians to refuel on their narcotics and for a large proportion of the audience to empty their bladders. For artists in the recording studio, a drum solo strategically positioned can pad out the number sufficiently to give the record buyer the sense of receiving value for money. But occasionally, very occasionally, the rhythm pounded out on the skins has a profound and earth-shaking effect. This is what happened to the latest inductees to our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Winstons.
Based in Washington DC the Winstons were a 1960s funk and soul group. They were in the studios recording their EP, Color Him Father, in 1969 and were struggling with what to record for the B side. They hit on an instrumental – many a 45rpm single in those days had instrumentals as B sides, showing the group had run out of ideas or material (or both) – which was loosely based on an old gospel called Amen, Brother. But the gospel wasn’t long enough and so midway through the number, the drummer, G C Coleman, banged away on his own for four bars and the recording was in the can. The jury is still out as to who master-minded the solo – was it the lead singer, Richard L Spencer, as he claimed or was it the drummer, as the only other surviving member of the band, Phil Tolotta claimed? We will never know.
Anyway the A side was a million-seller but Amen, Brother sank into the obscurity its genesis merited. Notwithstanding their chart success the group, a mixed-race ensemble, struggled to get bookings in the southern states of the United States and broke up in 1970. A not unusual story, certainly unremarkable, but why are the Winstons worthy of our attention?
Well, it is that four bar drum break in the middle of Amen, Brother, of course. If you click on the link and listen to it, there is something very familiar about it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwQLk7NcpO4&feature=player_detailpage
Known as the Amen Break it is probably one of the most sampled bits of music ever recorded with several thousand records using it. The beauty of the break is that the rhythm is syncopated so there are lots of variations that can be derived from sampling the original break. It is also sonically very punchy and is both very organic-sounding and robotic. It became the corner stone of genres such as drum and bass, hip hop, jungle, big beat, industrial and electronica.
To illustrate the diversity of artists who have used it, a slightly slowed down version appeared on Salt-N-Pepa’s I Desire on their 1986 debut album. The break was used on 3rd Bass’ Words of Wisdom and on NWA’s 1989 Straight Outta Compton. Even Oasis used it in their 1997 song, D’You Know What I Mean, and David Bowie’s hit song, Little Wonder, from his Earthling album features it at the start.
You would expect a snatch of music so influential to have made the Winstons a load of money. But, alas, not so which is why they are inducted into our Hall of Fame. In the 1980s the position of samples and copyright was very sketchy at best – at least nowadays permission is sought – and so the Winstons didn’t get a bean.
For your role in launching a whole range of new musical genres, the Winstons, you are worthy inductees into our Hall of Fame.
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