One night last summer I couldn’t sleep and when I finally gave in I had to find something to do, so I tippy-toed downstairs and watched one of my favorite movies, In the Heat of the Night. The next morning after a bleary breakfast I wrote a post here on the blog that somehow incorporated everything from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to Austin Powers. I’m too embarrassed to read it again, but you can if you’d like (here).
So apparently when I’m sleepy I think of Sidney Poitier, because the other night I couldn’t sleep and found myself downstairs watching Lilies of the Field.
Something is really lost when you take this scene out of context. Homer (played by Poitier) has just built a church for these nuns, doing most of the work alone before he is tricked into accepting assistance. He was a wandering handyman who stopped at their farm for some water, and found them unable even to repair a fence. The soul of Lilies of the Fields is the conflicting wills of Homer and Mother Maria, played by Lilia Skala. In a preceding scene Homer has tricked Mother Maria into thanking him for his work in what is actually the climax of the story.
Homer’s Irish goodbye doesn’t conclude their relationship. Mother Maria has the last word by letting him go quietly. In Poitier’s case it was especially quiet — his singing voice in this scene was performed by Jester Hairston, who also composed the song, “Amen,” which Homer is teaching to the nuns.
Hairston appeared on screen with Poitier a few years later. Do you remember the scene from In the Heat of the Night where the old white guy slaps Virgil Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him right back? It’s the easy to remember because its the awesome-est of many awesome things Poitier did on screen. The butler for that old bastard was played by Jester Hairston. Click back to our previous Poitier post and watch it again (here’s an extra link in case you missed the first one) — you’ll find the face-slapping at about 3:43, and Hairston will shake his head shortly after that.
What a tiny role for someone who created something so enormous! Now you’re probably wondering what’s so extraordinary about another song sung by nuns in yet another feel-good nun movie. Here’s where it goes next.
The Impressions recorded “Amen” the following year, after Curtis Mayfield had seen the film (further proof that everyone likes Sydney Poitier). It was not the first version of Hairston’s song to be recorded by a group, but it was the first hit. For the Impressions it was the first hit not written by Mayfield. Several more artists recorded the song, including Otis Redding, whose version was a posthumous hit in 1968.
The most famous recording of “Amen” was by a group called the Winstons. It didn’t even credit Hairston (“Arranged by the Winstons”). It contains six seconds that are some of the most heard moments in pop music history: A drum break played by G.C. Coleman that begins about a minute and twenty seconds into the song. Our copy skips pretty badly on the break (we actually keep it for the single’s awesome A-side, “Color Him Father”) so here is a video from Youtube of the entire song.
The “Amen Break,” as it is known, is right up there with similar sublime moments in old wax — the beats from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and the Honeydripper’s “Impeach the President,” for instance. One on this list of ‘collectables’ that surprises people is Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.”
You can watch this documentary if you’re interested in the history of the “Amen Break.” You will hear many of the hundreds of records that sample G.C. Coleman’s performance on the Winston’s record. And it all began with an arrangement that Jester Hairston was asked to create because, well, Sydney Poitier can’t sing.