Funk Band Behind 'Amen Break' Drum Riff Receives Long Overdue Notoriety

Aug 7, 2017
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What do Salt-N-Pepa, Amy Winehouse, Oasis and the theme song to the animated TV show "Futurama" have in common - these six seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WINSTONS' "AMEN, BROTHER")

SHAPIRO: This is called the Amen break. It's used in at least 2,000 songs spanning a range of genres. It was created half a century ago by the band The Winstons, but they never saw a cent from it. Erin Wygant of member station WFAE visited one of the last remaining band members in Wadesboro, N.C.

ERIN WYGANT, BYLINE: The Winstons were a funk and soul band formed in 1967 in Washington, D.C. They started out as backup musicians before briefly hitting it big. Bandleader Richard Spencer, who plays the saxophone and sang lead, remembers the rush of those days fondly. The group's first professional photo hangs in his living room.

RICHARD SPENCER: The guy at the top is Ray Maritano. Now, that's Phil. Phil was the pretty boy. That's me. And now that's Greg right there with the shades on.

WYGANT: Gregory Coleman was the drummer. He died in 2006. He was the one who play the Amen break. Spencer and the rest of the band didn't think much of it at the time.

SPENCER: Everybody was doing drum beats, you know? It just was nothing new to me.

WYGANT: What do you think it is about the Amen break that is so...

SPENCER: I have - honest to God, I have tried to think - it was different. I don't think it was anything special. I'll tell you what was special - when I met Michael Jackson.

WYGANT: Or when he played backup for Otis Redding. Or when he won the 1969 Grammy for best rhythm and blues song for "Color Him Father."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLOR HIM FATHER")

THE WINSTONS: (Singing) I think I'll color him father. I'm going to color him love.

WYGANT: But it's the song on the B side of that record that gave The Winstons music immortality. The Amen break came out of their instrumental version of a gospel hymn that they called "Amen, Brother."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WINSTONS' "AMEN, BROTHER")

WYGANT: That middle part is what early hip-hop artists sampled. N.W.A. was one of the first back in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON")

N.W.A.: (Rapping) Straight out of Compton is a crazy brother named Ice Cube from the stupid-dope gang with an attitude.

WYGANT: Now try to catch it sped up in David Bowie's 1997 song "Little Wonder."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WONDER")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Stinky weather, fat, shaky hands, dopey morning, doc, grumpy gnomes.

WYGANT: Artists are still using it. Roni Size is a popular drum and bass producer and DJ in the U.K. who says the Amen break is one of the backbones of his music.

RONI SIZE: God, I've used it pretty much in every record I've ever done. It was just one of those breaks where you can just manipulate it, and you could just make it sing and dance the way that you wanted it to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE CREW BIG UP - 95 RELICK")

SIZE: (Rapping) All the crew that is big up, is big up, is big up (ph).

WYGANT: In 1996, Spencer was surprised to get a call from another U.K. record producer looking to license the break. That was the first time anyone had actually asked him to use it.

SPENCER: I tried a couple of times to see if I could regain some of my money, I guess, and it was just too expensive. And plus, I had other things to do than be sitting around, chasing the past.

WYGANT: Because this song was recorded before 1972, it's not covered by federal copyright law. Spencer isn't angry, just more resigned. As a black musician in the 1960s, he became used to being somewhat anonymous.

SPENCER: They wouldn't put the picture of The Winstons on the album 'cause the Southern distributors said they would not distribute anything that seemed like it was promoting racial integration. Because we were a mixed group, we couldn't get jobs in certain places.

WYGANT: Spencer still practices his music but just at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

WYGANT: After the Winstons broke up in 1969, he worked for the D.C. public transit system and went back to school.

SPENCER: I had nothing after the record. I had a high school education and a Grammy, which had no value. So I had to go back to college. And I just fell in love with reading.

WYGANT: He ended up pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at Howard University. In 2000, he returned to his hometown, Wadesboro, and taught history at the local high school. It's here that he raised his son, Richard, in a modest brick house. In the living room, his Grammy award and gold record are lost in a sea of pictures and framed diplomas.

SPENCER: That's Richard's degree. That's Pfeiffer University. I swear to God. I'm more proud of that than anything.

WYGANT: In the past few years, Spencer has received some recognition. In 2015, a DJ in the U.K. set up a GoFundMe page in Spencer's name as a thank you for the Amen break. Almost 2,000 people donated about $26,000. He posted a video of himself on Facebook holding a giant check.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPENCER: You guys are the best. Thank you very, very much. Amen.

WYGANT: This October, Spencer will join such legends as Andy Griffith, James Taylor and Ben E. King when he's inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. For NPR News, I'm Erin Wygant in Wadesboro, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WINSTONS' "AMEN, BROTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tags: