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If Father’s Children are remembered at all, it’s for the wrong recordings. In the late ’70s, after years of shuffling members and managers and gigging itself ragged, the D.C. soul ensemble finally signed to a major label, Mercury Records, and went to L.A. to make Father’s Children, a smoothed out, commercial-sounding, mostly uninteresting attempt at a lite-funk payday. The album’s limp lead single, “Hollywood Dreaming,” failed to chart. Mercury axed the band, which soon returned to D.C. and broke up. Father’s Children reformed in the last decade, released a new album, and still plays around town, performing both originals and soul standards.
Once, though, Father’s Children’s songs crackled with holy thunder. The group started out as a doo-wop outfit called The Dreams in the late 1960s. They made a home base in the People’s Center in Adams Morgan, where youngsters could play pool or make art or find spirituality. After a car crash on I-95 destroyed their gear but left every member unharmed, The Dreams converted to Islam. Inspired by scripture, they renamed themselves Father’s Children.
In sessions beginning in September 1972 at D.B. Sound Studios in Silver Spring, the seven-piece ensemble created music that reflected their tumultuous era, their decaying urban surroundings, and their moon-gazing version of Islam. But Father’s Children never got to keep the recordings, because their managers failed to pay the tab. Instead, the tapes gathered dust in producer Robert Hosea Williams’ garage until 2006, when local soul historian Kevin Coombe recovered them. Now the recordings are an album called Who’s Gonna Save the World.
The most immediately striking songs are damaged and distraught in the vein of Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. “Everybody’s Got a Problem” begins with a smother of prismatic keys before settling into a tense groove, over which singer Nick “Nizam” Smith puts the political into personal, and then messianic, terms. “Dirt and Grime” is swampy and menacing and skeletal; in a cracked but evocative tenor, Smith sings, “My dirty, filthy habitat/is where I got my habit at/of cheating, stealing, never feeling/pain of a brother, you dirty mother…”
There’s an end-times feel to the album’s taut first side, with its ruminative, almost prayerful moans and entropic guitar fuzz. The much jammier second half starts out on an apocalyptic note, too, with the pulpit-beating “Kohoutek”—named for the comet, associated with numerous doomsday prophesies, that would near the earth in 1973. But almost every time the band evokes dystopic themes, it quickly turns to Allah.
Who’s Gonna Save the World also has a psychedelic side, from its lush and sorrowful harmonies to an eccentric brand of Islam, inherited from the People’s Center’s manager Norman Hylton, that is rich in hippie idealism. “The world keeps rolling along, and I keep singing my song,” the band chants toward the end of the album, before erupting into an earnest, affecting coda of “Come on people ride with us on the universal train.” There’s also one hint of the glossy balladry that the band would later embrace. “Linda,” a lightly and smartly orchestrated tear-jerker that was later rerecorded for a single on D.C.’s Arrest label, is a worthwhile outlier.
The rest of the time, Father’s Children inhabit a strange space between sunshine soul and rough-hewn funk, between post-riots distress and New Age idealism, between doom and salvation. They couldn’t have kept this alchemy up, but at the time, they also couldn’t be kept down. “Hey brother,” they preach at one point. “Rise above the physical and peep the soul.”