“Amen” is a traditional gospel folk song that can be regarded as one of the most influential songs in music history for the following seven decades after its release. Recorded in 1948 and released in 1949, the song accompanied the 1963 film Lillies of the Field starring popular Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier.
“Amen” was arranged by Jester Hairston, a notable figure within gospel and choral music. Born on on July 9, 1901, Hairston lived his early life in the rural community of Belews Creek in North Carolina before moving to Hemstead, Pennsylvania. He studied music at the Juilliard School in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and went on to work in the professions of composing, song writing, conducting choruses, and acting. The choir that Hairston arranged for “Amen” was the Wings Over Jordan Choir of Cleveland, Ohio. This prominent African-American choir was founded in 1935 and greatly contributed to the history of gospel music while making strides towards dealing with race relations in the 1930s and ’40s.
The song that Hairston and the Wings Over Jordan Choir released contributed a great deal of influence within the music industry after being popularized during the success of Lillies of the Field. One notable artist whose attention was caught by the song was Curtis Mayfield of the R&B, soul, and gospel group The Impressions. After seeing the film, Mayfield was inspired to make a rendition of the song by The Impressions. This song went on to be the #1 song for 3 weeks on Cashbox Magazine’s R&B chart and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1964.
In addition to The Impressions, “Amen” inspired other artists to cover and create more renditions of the original song. Some of these artists include Marv Meredith, Otis Redding, Lloyd Price and Erma Franklin, Elvis, and, most famously, The Winstons. The Winstons’s instrumental funk cover of “Amen” was titled “Amen, Brother.” “Amen, Brother” was on the B-side of their record “Color Him Father” and includes one of the most sampled portions of any song, known as the “Amen Break.” This 6 to 7 second clip of the song has been sampled by songs such as Salt-N-Pepa’s “I Desire,” N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Oasis’s “D’You Know What I Mean,” David Bowie’s “Little Wonder,” as well as a myriad of others. The influence of Hairston’s and the Wings Over Jordan Choir’s “Amen” can still be heard to this day through the frequent sampling of the Amen Break in a wide array of genres including hip-hop, techno, reggae, as well as many others.