Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Voices Raised

The uplifting, enduring harmonies of the Fairfield Four.

By Bill Friskics-Warren

MARCH 2, 1998:  "Life is short, art is long," goes the old saying--the point, of course, being that works of art outlast their creators. Not so in today's pop culture, certainly not in the disposable world of popular music, where record buyers embrace performers as "the next big thing" one minute, only to cast them off as has-been "flavors of the month" the next. Chalk it up to the short attention spans of channel- and Web-surfing audiences. Or blame it on record companies that have all but abandoned the notion of artist development. But no matter what the reason, few contemporary acts endure. Even fewer make enduring music.

With a career that spans eight decades, the Fairfield Four loom like Mount Rushmore against this ephemera-littered horizon. Founded in Nashville in 1921, the Fairfield Four were lifting their voices when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. They were singing "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" when the Allied Forces defeated the Nazis and when Martin Luther King Jr. led the march on Selma. They were around before the widespread availability of commercial phonograph records--and they could well outlast the compact disc. As the repository of a style of black harmony singing that dates back to the 1800s, this a cappella ensemble has remained steadfast amid a century of constant change.

The National Endowment for the Arts recognized as much in 1989 by presenting the group with the prestigious National Heritage Award. Lifetime achievement awards from Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter and from the Nashville Music Awards followed in 1994 and '95. The Fairfield Four's recent recordings have also led to two Grammy nominations, and to invitations to appear at Carnegie Hall, at Lincoln Center, and on Late Night With David Letterman. And last year, the Stellar Awards, the black gospel equivalent of the Grammys, bestowed its highest honor, the James Cleveland Award, on the group.

But more than longevity assures the Fairfield Four their place in history. The group's emotional, rhythmically charged singing style was instrumental in the development of R&B, soul, and rock 'n' roll. (Some music historians even suggest that their particular style of singing may be responsible for the development of the "blue note.") Among others, such legends as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King have cited the quartet as an influence. Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, and Steve Earle are among the group's biggest latter-day fans; each has invited the Fairfields to accompany him onstage and on record. And yet, unlike Nashville's more celebrated country-music exports, after nearly 80 years, the Fairfield Four still aren't a household name in their own hometown.

This hasn't always been the case. During the 1940s, Nashvillians--not to mention listeners around the country--heard the Fairfield Four for 15 minutes every morning on WLAC, a 50,000-watt, clear-channel radio station. The program's sponsor was the Nashville-based Sunway Vitamin Company.

"We were on WLAC about 12 years," remembers manager and baritone James Hill, 81, who joined the group on Thanksgiving Day, 1946. "Every morning at 645, you heard the Fairfield Four--most of the time in person, but when we'd be out-of-town, we made transcriptions."

"WLAC was pretty strong out of here back then," recalls musical director and bass Isaac "Dickey" Freeman, 69, who came to the Fairfield Four from Baltimore's Kings of Harmony in 1949. "We'd go to a country town, and people would be comin' up on mules and wagons, and on horseback. 'I listen to your group all the time,' they'd say. 'You all wake me up goin' to work in the mornin'.' "

The Fairfield Four may have reached radio listeners across America, but it was their live shows, featuring what black-gospel historian Doug Seroff calls their "pressing, emotional" style, that made them one of the premier quartets of the era. Defining that a cappella style, explaining what made it unique, is something else altogether.

"The movement, the hand clappin', the pattin' of our feet," Freeman says, "I think that's what made us different."

Hill agrees, "All the music we had was our feet and our hands."

Jerry Zolten, a writer and scholar who teaches a course on the cultural roots of rock 'n' roll at Penn State University, emphasizes the quartet's blending voices, something born of an unspoken communion akin to telepathy. "Groups like the Fairfield Four defied conventions of Western harmony," he says. "They invented ways of making chords and of putting those weaves together.

"In African rhythmic music, there is no sung melody so much as there are overlays of rhythm parts. Each drum has its own particular rhythm. If you listened to the drum by itself, it wouldn't sound like much. But you put 'em all together, and you get this very complex weave. That's kind of what harmony groups like the Fairfield Four did. Each voice had its own little rhythmic space, as well as a melody line."

Quartets, it's worth noting, billed themselves as such not because they had four members, although this was often the case; rather, the term "quartet" derives from the way groups arranged their harmonies for four vocal parts--alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. When an ensemble had five members, for instance, it usually featured two tenors who would trade the lead back and forth.

Formed in 1921 in the basement of Fairfield Baptist Church, at the time located on Hermitage Avenue, the Fairfield Four began as a trio under the direction of the congregation's assistant pastor, the Rev. J.R. Carrethers. The group's initial incarnation consisted of Carrethers' sons, Rufus and Harold, and their neighbor, John Battle. According to Hill, it wasn't until Nathaniel Irvin joined several years later that the Fairfields actually numbered four members. Several other young men--Lattimer Green, James Dotson, William Malone, and possibly others--occupied the fourth and, at times, fifth or sixth spots in the group.

This edition of the Fairfield Four sang in church and at social occasions throughout the '20s; they didn't emerge as a quartet to be reckoned with until 1935, when Samuel McCrary came in on first tenor. Indeed, his arrival may well have been the pivotal moment in the group's 77-year history.

"Sam had a unique voice," says Hill, who had followed the group for years before becoming a member. "He had a full sound. People liked it because it had a lot of feeling in it. Rev. Irvin was a pretty good tenor singer, but he was nothing like McCrary."

"Sam was just blessed with this incredibly clear, bright tenor," Zolten explains. "And the tenor was the main voice in any quartet. That's the voice that really stood out and carried the message and took people on an emotional trip." The historian singles out "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" as McCrary's defining moment: "That's where he uses his voice like an air-raid siren. He would take the word 'don't,' and he would run it up to a height that gave you the shivers. And then he'd swing it right on back down.

"He just had an exceptional voice, one that puts him among a handful of great gospel singers--people like Archie Brownlee [of The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi], Claude Jeter [of The Swan Silvertones], and R. H. Harris [of The Soul Stirrers]."

The addition of McCrary signaled the end of the Fairfield Four's days as a local phenomenon. In 1937, the quartet debuted on WSIX. Then, on Oct. 19, 1941, eminent musicologist and Fisk professor John Work III taped the Fairfield Four singing during Sunday worship. On assignment with the Library of Congress, Work was the first person to record the group, although the Fairfields did go on to cut sides for a number of commercial labels, Bullet, Champion, Dot, and Old Town among them.

In July of the following year, the Fairfield Four won a competition sponsored by the Colonial Coffee Company. The prize was a regular radio slot on WLAC that aired nationally through the CBS network. Suddenly, the Fairfield Four found themselves reaching an audience that extended far beyond Nashville's city limits. And with that exposure came a demand for live appearances.

"Back then, Rev. McCrary would book us," Freeman remembers. "We would go 600 or 700 miles, maybe, and the crowds would be great. Just about anywhere we went, the crowds would be great. You couldn't get in the place. You told people the Fairfield Four was comin', and that was it."

In a capsule history of the group, Seroff confirms that the WLAC broadcasts "transformed the Fairfield Four into national celebrities, henceforth known as 'The South's Famous Fairfield Four.' " Freeman acknowledges as much, although he's quick to point out that the group's prospective rivals were few.

"You've got to remember," he says, "there was only about four or five major groups travelin' back then. You had the Soul Stirrers, the Flying Clouds of Detroit, the Harmonizing Four, and the Dixie Hummingbirds. The Harmonizing Four and the Dixie Hummingbirds mostly stayed on the East Coast. They didn't get down South much. So the competition wasn't too great. And we were on this 50,000-watt radio station that you could hear pretty much everywhere."

"They were tops back in the '40s," says Lee Olsen, who now manages the group and produces their records. "They were like rock 'n' roll stars. People tore their clothes as they were leaving concerts because they would ignite the crowd so much."

As memorable as the Fairfield Four's road dates were, the group often saved its best performances for its hometown audience. Foremost among these were the All Night Gospel Shows at the Ryman Auditorium. Produced by Wally Fowler, cofounder of Bullet Records, the label for which the Fairfields made their first commercial recordings, the Ryman shows typically featured the biggest names in gospel music. The voices of Mahalia Jackson, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Five Blind Boys, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe all shook the Mother Church of Country Music to its foundation.

Yet no matter how stiff the competition, the Fairfield Four invariably cut their rivals, living up to their reputation as "house wreckers"--the group that always brought down the house. This was literally the case at one contest held at Nashville's Mount Nebo Baptist Church. On that particular night, the assembly got so carried away during the quartet's performance that church leaders had to bring in carpenters the next morning to repair the damage.

House wreckers though they were--and at a time when many gospel quartets were notorious for their less-than-saintly lifestyles--the Fairfield Fair prided themselves on their discipline and decorum. The group met weekly to review itineraries, go over finances, and work up new material (a tradition they still observe today). These gatherings were also occasions to levy fines against members who broke the rules of conduct they had set for themselves. The following were among the bylaws listed in the 1943 notebook of baritone John Battle "Any member caught drinking within eight hours of program be fined $5," reads one item. "Any member caught with chewing gum while in service be fined $1 upon entering church," reads another.

The Fairfield Four in 1949. Top, l.-r. Sam McCrary, James Hill, Willie Frank Lewis; front, l.-r. Edward Thomas, Isaac Freeman, Preston York

Yet the limits that the Fairfield Four imposed upon themselves were nothing compared to the racial barriers they faced while on the road--discord that stood in striking contrast to the group's seamless harmonies. "You had to be careful," Hill recalls. "I remember one night in Texas, we were about to run out of gas. Finally, we ran across a little town where there was a station open. We pulled in there, and the guy was sittin' with his feet up on the desk. He could see us, but he wouldn't come out. So we sat there for awhile. Finally, McCrary got out and knocked on the door. He came to the door and told us, 'You better get that thing outta here or I'll shoot its wheels off.' We never did get no gas. We were just lucky enough to get to another station before we ran out."

"Travelin'," Freeman explains, "it was rough. Some places we could use the restroom, some we couldn't. The ones where we could, we always had to go around back. And at that time, they would have two restrooms--one marked 'white,' the other marked 'colored.' And that was about what it was like as far as food--eatin'. A lot of those places, you could go in, but when you went in, you went into the back and you sat down, waitin' to get waited on, and a lot of times they just kept passin' you by. They'd see you sittin' there but wouldn't serve you till finally you'd just get up and walk out."

Lodging was virtually out of the question. With most hotels serving only white patrons, the group usually slept in its car. More often than not, they changed clothes at the churches and auditoriums where they performed. After a night of singing, Freeman says, it was much easier to find accommodations. "Sister and Brother So-and-So would say, 'I'll take two of y'all,' or whatever."

Doubtless, racial discrimination took its toll on the Fairfield Four. Complicating matters was the fact that, by the late '40s, contemporary gospel had begun to supplant traditional harmony singing, making it increasingly difficult for the quartet to get bookings. Adding insult to injury, the group's joint business venture, a funeral parlor located on Lafayette Street, went belly up due to mismanagement around the same time.

The end of the decade marked the end of the Fairfield Four's most potent and enduring lineup, which included McCrary, Hill, Freeman, Edward "Preacher" Thomas, Preston York, and longtime member Willie Frank Lewis. "Voice for voice," historian Seroff claims, this was "the strongest Fairfield Four lineup ever." The ensemble officially split up in 1950, with Hill, Freeman, and Thomas moving to Greenville, Ala., to start a new quartet, the Skylarks. That group achieved considerable acclaim during the 1950s, releasing several outstanding sides for Ernest Young's Nashboro label, but by the early '60s, they too had disbanded.

For his part, McCrary continued on, keeping the Fairfield Four name active and recruiting such veteran tenors as Willie Love and Willie "Little Axe" Broadnax, the latter of the Spirit of Memphis Quartet. After he entered the ministry in 1954, the McCrary-led Fairfields worked sporadically through 1960. They even cut an album for RCA that year, produced by WLAC's Hoss Allen. But by then traditional gospel singing had fallen even further out of favor. With McCrary off pastoring a church, the ensemble again called it quits.

The 1950s had not been kind to the Fairfields. "They couldn't buy a concert," Olsen explains. "They had church singin', and singin' for the plate, but they lost their radio show and they weren't the same Fairfield Four anymore." Indeed, whereas in the '40s the group pocketed $600-$800 a week ($35 was the living wage), 10 years later, they couldn't even tour and break even. In view of these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that such gospel sensations as Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter pursued pop careers. Freeman and Hill, extraordinary singers in their own right, had similar opportunities.

"Sam Cooke tried to get me to change over," Freeman explains. "But I said, 'No, I still believe in the way I was born and reared. I'll stay where I feel comfortable.' You can guess how I felt when I heard about that tragedy," he adds, referring to Cooke's violent death in 1964. "And Sam was just one of 'em. Joe Henderson, the guy that put out 'Snap Your Fingers,' he died the same way. That scared me off during that time."

"Mr. Young tried to get us to sing pop music, but I just couldn't do it," Hill says, referring to the Nashboro Records exec's attempts to get the Skylarks to abandon a cappella gospel music. "I wasn't brought up that way. And then I saw them fellas, how they'd change. Some of 'em didn't last long, didn't live long, and most of 'em didn't amount to nothin' recording pop and R&B. I've often thought about that song that says, 'What is it to gain the world and lose your soul?' "

Two of the Fairfield Four's mainstays James Hill (left) and Isaac Freeman

With traditional a cappella harmonies having gone the way of the Edsel, the members of the Fairfield Four's classic '40s lineup, most of them living in Nashville, occupied themselves with their day jobs and family lives. McCrary was pastor of St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church, Hill a Metro Police sergeant, Freeman an employee of the Metro Water Company. The Fairfield Four, it seemed, were a thing of the past--that is, until Doug Seroff asked McCrary to assemble the group, inactive for 20 years, for a quartet reunion he was organizing in Birmingham for the fall of 1980.

"I'm not sure any of us knew what to expect," Hill recalls. "They all had guitars and drums, and keyboards and things. But we went down there. And man, I don't know what happened, but the quartet just caught on fire again. We haven't stopped singin' since.

"We were surprised that so many young people liked hearin' us. I guess they can hear what we're singin'. I don't care if it's a guy singin' a song or a preacher preachin' a sermon, it's got to carry some message."

The Fairfield Four's message certainly got through to Amy Grant, who heard the group perform in 1990 as part of the Metro Arts Commission's "Arts in the Airport" series. Knocked out by the quartet's harmonies, she invited the Fairfields to sing at a cancer benefit she was hosting at her home. Among those in attendance was Warner Bros. Records president Jim Ed Norman.

As Olsen remembers it, the Fairfield Four came in and blew everyone away--Norman included. The record exec caught up with the singers a day or so later and, soon afterwards, signed them to a deal with his label. At the time, the Fairfield Four lineup included Hill, Freeman, Walter Settles, W.L. "Preacher" Richardson, and Wilson "Lit" Waters. McCrary, alas, wasn't able to take part in the Fairfields' renewed recording career; he had died the previous year.

After the 1992 release of the group's Grammy-nominated Warner Bros. debut, Standing in the Safety Zone, the Fairfield Four spent several months on the road opening for Lyle Lovett. The group expected a warm reception, or at least a polite one, but Hill and company never anticipated the wildly enthusiastic responses they encountered each night.

"When we started singin' with Lyle, man, those folks didn't want us to quit," Hill remembers. "Opening up for him, we had 30 minutes. But every night when it came time for us to stop, they wanted us to sing some more. Somethin' just happens when we get out on that floor."

Olsen describes this phenomenon as well as anyone does: "A lot of it has to do with James' ability as a leader to feel out the audience as to what they need at any given moment. The other thing is the ability of the group to perform together. They have this extraordinary ability to find a groove with their music, rhythmically as well as emotionally and pitch-wise. If James is on his lead in terms of callin' the songs, and the group is in the groove, the audience doesn't stand a chance. And once the audience catches fire, then that just feeds back to the group, and they catch fire and it's sort of this loop going back and forth between the group and the audience. It's a pretty magical thing."

The effect is similar to what takes place during worship in many African American churches, where preaching, praying, and singing lift people's spirits, producing a high degree of emotional intensity. "I think that's what most folks go to church for," Olsen adds. "You see that in all churches, but you really see that in the black churches. People go there to get happy."

Interestingly enough, the Fairfield Four's latter-day audiences have been predominately white. The same has been true of the quartet's collaborators, who, in addition to Costello, Earle, and Fogerty, include everyone from Charlie Daniels and Marty Stuart to Pam Tillis and Lee Roy Parnell. Even more curious, as Zolten points out, is the fact that this new generation of fans was raised on rock 'n' roll radio--and yet they appreciate the group precisely because it predates Elvis and The Beatles.

"It seems like the youngest crop of established country and bluegrass singers," Zolten observes, "have this awareness of just how influential and central these quartet harmonies were. The Oak Ridge Boys can't say enough about how influenced they were by black gospel. The Nashville Bluegrass Band puts their cards right on the table. [But] the older singers, everybody from Bob Wills to Bill Monroe, didn't really play up the roots of their tunes during their heyday. The musicians all knew it, but the public probably didn't."

The Fairfield Four, today, performing with one of their recent converts, Elvis Costello

At the same time, Zolten doesn't believe that black listeners have abandoned the Fairfields, or that they don't like the group's music. "I think black listeners haven't hung on to their traditions in quite the same way," he says. "They like to move on to new things. And 10 to 15 years ago, there wasn't that much interest among black record buyers for this sound that came out of a time that, really, a lot of folks wouldn't mind putting behind them." (The Fairfield Four, it's worth noting, only recently started performing in overalls, costumes perhaps reminiscent of those worn by fieldhands.)

Hill's take on the group's newfound popularity isn't as analytical: "Elvis Costello, Charlie Daniels, Johnny Cash, our singin' just fits in with 'em. When they hear us sing, they look like they get some feelin' out of it." The group's guest peformances on a number of contemporary artists' records certainly bear Hill out--as does Pam Tillis' gritty cameo on I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray, the Fairfields' second consecutive Grammy-nominated LP.

Audiences come and go. But throughout their nearly 80-year history, the Fairfield Four have sung for anyone who would listen. Along the way, they've "had church," as Hill likes to call it, in the unlikeliest of places. "When the group was over in London with Elvis Costello," Olsen explains, "James said he was gonna turn the Queen Elizabeth Hall into the Queen Elizabeth Baptist Church. And then proceeded to do so, even among some stuffy Londoners."

Transformations such as these take place every time the Fairfields set foot onstage. Much has changed in the past 50 or 60 years, a time during which gospel and pop music have undergone seemingly endless permutations. Yet through it all, the Fairfield Four have sung the same a cappella harmonies they've always sung. And with nothing more than their hands, voices, and feet, the quartet has unleashed rhythms as driving and dynamic as those heard on Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" or Elvis' "Milkcow Blues Boogie."

Today's group may not be the house wreckers that the Fairfield Four once were. But the quartet's blending voices still possess an unspoken power that no amount of volume or shouting can match. And because the life of the group doesn't depend on a single member, or on any configuration of members, doubtless the Fairfield Four will continue to lift their voices well into the next century. That's certainly befitting of a Nashville institution that predates the Grand Ole Opry, not to mention a group whose influence extends to soul, R&B, country, rock 'n' roll, and arguably even rap.

Says Freeman: "We made a commitment to the Lord that we would continue to do this as long as we were able. That was our promise, and we're trying to keep it."

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