Father figures and break beats: The Winstons, “Color Him Father/Amen, Brother” (1969)

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(Above: The Winstons, in an ad from Billboard.)

Father’s Day weekend is upon us, and oldies stations will likely look for ways to adjust their playlists accordingly.  You’ll no doubt hear Paul Petersen’s “My Dad” at some point along the way, while some stations will turn the spotlight onto the “dads of rock and roll” or something like that.  The song that I used to love to throw in to this mix for the occasion – and play every now and again anyway – has a very different message about how families come in all different forms, and how genetics isn’t always the only thing that makes a family.

In 1969 an interracial R&B group from Washington, DC posted their one and only Top 40 hit.  The song, “Color Him Father,” is written from the point of view of a young man explaining the role his father has in their house. He sings of coming home from school, and how his father stresses the importance of education, and how he helps his mother, and all of that. At first, it seems like just another cute song with simple lyrics (“My mother loves him and I can tell/By the way she looks at him when he holds my little sister Nell” isn’t the greatest rhyme ever written, but it works).

After a quick bridge, the tone abruptly changes:

My real old man he got killed in the war
And she knows she and seven kids couldn’t have got very far
She said she thought that she could never love again
And then there he stood with that big wide grin
He married my mother and he took us in
And now we belong to the man with that big wide grin

Yep – this is a song about step-parenting, and it just got really, really dusty in here. The song went on to become a huge hit, making it to #7 on the pop chart, #2 on the R&B chart, and claiming the Grammy award for Best R&B song in 1969. A follow up single, however – “Love of the Common People” –  peaked at #54, and the group faded away.

That should be the end of the story, but it’s not, because the forgotten B-side of “Color Him Father” is something you’ve heard over and over again and possibly never realized it.

The Winstons toured as a backup band for The Impressions, who among their hits charted a version of “Amen,” which peaked at #7 in 1965.  The Winstons adapted the spiritual into a funky instrumental version called “Amen, Brother” and placed that on the B-side of “Color Him Father.” Drummer G.C. Coleman steals the show on this record, laying down a tight beat.  At about 1:26 into the song, the magic happens: Coleman plays a break beat as the band waits for six seconds – and that’s the part you know.

That six second break is the backbone to hip-hop.  It has been sampled into over 2500 different tracks – more than any other song ever. (The site whosampled.com keeps track of this sort of thing.) If you slow the 45 down to 33, you immediately hear NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.”  (If you speed it up, it sounds a lot like the Power Puff Girls theme, but I think that’s James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”) There are countless other  songs that may have not used the sample but clearly were influenced by Coleman’s break beat. The loop is so influential that in 2004 a 20-minute film was made by Nate Harrison talking about these six seconds, and it’s actually pretty interesting. It’s closing in on six million views. (The sad part of the story is that G.C. Coleman died essentially homeless in 2006, having never seen a dime of the royalties that his drumwork eventually generated.)

No matter who you celebrate Father’s Day with, or remember on this particular weekend – whether father or father figure – this song fits in quite nicely.

You can hear “Color Him Father” by clicking here.

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