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Members have included John Battle; Willie "Little Axe" Broadnax (joined group, 1950s), tenor; Harold Carrethers (founding member); Rufus Carrethers (founding member); James Dotson (founding member); Isaac "Dickie" Freeman (joined group, 1930s), bass; George Gracey (founding member); Lattimer Green (joined group, 1930s); Robert Hamlett; James Hill (group member, 1946-50); Nathaniel Irvin; Willie Frank Lewis (group member, 1940s-50), baritone; Willie Love (joined group, 1950s), tenor; William Malone (founding member); Samuel McCrary (joined group, 1935), tenor; Joe Rice, tenor; Walter Settles, tenor; Edward "Preacher" Thomas (joined group, 1940s); Wilson Waters; Preston York (group member, 1940s-50). Addresses: Agent--Lee Olsen, c/o Keith Case and Associates, 1025 17th Ave. South, 2nd Fl., Nashville, TN 37212.
The Fairfield Four is a legendary gospel group whose a capella singing embodies an African American style that dates back to the 1800s. They have been a part of the American scene for more than eight decades, and have been honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, as well as a Grammy Award and the James Cleveland Stellar Award, the African-American gospel equivalent of the Grammy. They have performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City, and their rhythmic, emotional style has influenced generations of performers both inside and outside of the gospel genre, including Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, and Steve Earle.
Although the group was defined as a quartet, this does not refer to the number of singers, which varied; the term refers to the fact that the group sang harmony in four parts: alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. The Fairfield Four's style was based on old African musical styles that came over to the United States with the slave trade. Writing in the Nashville Scene, author Bill Friskics-Warren quoted Penn State University professor Jerry Zolten as saying, "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." This, according to Zolten, is what the Fairfield Four did: "Each voice had its own little rhythmic space, as well as a melody line."
"A Voice Like an Air Raid Siren"
The group was founded in 1921 in the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The Rev. J. R. Carrethers asked his two sons Rufus and Harold, as well as church member John Battle, to sing for church services and socials. The group had these three members for several years until Nathaniel Irvin joined, after which the membership of the group remained fluid for the next several years. Some of the men who sang with the group were Lattimer Green, James Dotson, William Malone, and George Gracey.
In 1935 a pivotal moment in the group's history occurred when tenor Samuel McCrary joined the singers. McCrary's clear, bright, compelling voice and emotional singing style added significantly to the group's impact on audiences. Zolten commented that the song "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" was a landmark performance for McCrary and the group. "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."
With the addition of McCrary, the group's music began to reach a wider audience. In 1937 they appeared on radio station WSIX. In 1941 musicologist John Work III, on assignment from the Library of Congress to record American music, taped the group singing during a Sunday service. This was the first recording of the Fairfield Four.
In July of 1942 the group won a competition sponsored by the Colonial Coffee Company; the prize was a regular performance slot on the 50,000-watt radio station WLAC, which aired nationally as part of the CBS network. Listeners all over the United States heard the Fairfield Four sing every morning from 6:45 to 7 a.m. This wide radio exposure led to requests for the group to perform in many different venues. They often traveled 600 miles or more in order to perform. According to Friskics-Warren, the group's musical director and bass singer Isaac "Dickey" Freeman said that they were known even in rural areas because of the radio program. "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 group also sang for hometown crowds in Nashville at all-night gospel shows in the Ryman Auditorium. Among the frequent performers were Mahalia Jackson, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Five Blind Boys, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Fairfield Four were known as "house wreckers" because they always "brought down the house." At one performance in the Mount Nebo Baptist Church in Nashville, this nickname became literally true, when the congregation got so carried away during a performance that carpenters had to come in the next day to repair the damage.
Despite this incident the group was notable for its dignified behavior and discipline. They met each week to discuss finances and travel plans as well as to practice new songs. They also levied fines against any member who did not obey the rules they had set for the group's behavior. For example, any member who was caught drinking within five hours of a performance would be fined five dollars--a great deal of money in those days. A member who chewed gum during a church service would be fined one dollar.
In 1946 James Hill joined the group, and they were offered a recording contract with Bullet Records in Nashville. This made them one of the first gospel acts, as well as one of the first African-American groups, to be recorded in America. Before the group disbanded in the 1960s, they would make more than 100 recordings.
As the group traveled throughout the South to perform, they often encountered racism. In a typical incident, while driving one night in Texas they ran out of gas. They stopped at a small station, but the attendant refused to wait on them, and when McCrary knocked on his door, the man threatened to shoot out their tires if they didn't leave.
At that time the South was racially segregated, and African Americans were not allowed to use the same facilities as whites. They had to use separate restrooms, restaurants, and other services, and those provided for them were usually in shabby condition. In some cases, such as hotels, no services were provided for them at all. Most hotels only served whites, so the singers slept in their car when they were out on a tour. However, Freeman told Friskics-Warren that after a concert it was much easier to find a place to stay. "Sister and Brother So-and-So would say, 'I'll take two of y'all,' or whatever."
In addition to racism, the group was also beleaguered by the fact that gospel music was changing, and listeners were beginning to prefer a more contemporary style instead of the group's traditional harmonies. This made it harder for them to find performance venues. In addition, the group lost the money they had invested in a funeral parlor in Nashville when the business folded because of poor management. These losses were sad, because at the end of the 1940s the group actually had one of its strongest lineups: McCrary, Hill, Freeman, Edward "Preacher" Thomas, Preston York, and Willie Frank Lewis. The group split up in 1950, and Hill, Freeman, and Lewis moved to Greenville, Alabama, where they founded a new quartet, the Skylarks.
McCrary, however, kept the Fairfield Four name and added tenors Willie Love and Willie "Little Axe" Broadnax to the group. McCrary became a minister in 1954, and the group worked occasionally until 1960. They cut an album for RCA that year, but times were changing, and so was American society. African Americans were demanding their civil rights, and the old-time music of the Fairfield Four seemed out of step with current events. Now considered "Heritage Music," the group's blend of gospel, hymns, slave songs, and jubilees seemed to some activists to portray an old-fashioned, negative stereotype of African Americans, and the album did not sell well. Once again, the group broke up.
For the next 20 years the members made their livings at other jobs. McCrary became pastor of St. Marks's Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville; Hill worked as a police sergeant; Freeman worked for the Nashville Metro Water Company.
"The Quartet Just Caught on Fire"
In 1980 Nashville-based gospel fan Doug Seroff asked the group to come together again and perform at a special concert in Birmingham, Alabama. McCrary, Willie Love, James Hill, Isaac Freeman, and guitar player Joe Whitaker performed to a warmly receptive audience. At the concert, perhaps spurred on by the audience's reception, they gave a phenomenal performance. Hill told Friskics-Warren, "Man, I don't know what happened, but the quartet just caught on fire again. We haven't stopped singin' since." They went on to sing at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife. In 1989 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the group a Heritage Fellowship in recognition of their work. The group also recording with various artists, including Charlie Daniels and humorist Garrison Keillor.
In 1990 the group was introduced to Jim Ed Norman, president of Warner Brothers Records. He loved their performance, and signed them to his label. The members at that time included Hill, Freeman, Walter Settles, W.L. 'Preacher' Richardson, and Wilson 'Lit' Waters. McCrary, who had kept the group going for so long, had died the year before.
"It's a Pretty Magical Thing"
With the success of their 1992 album Standing in the Safety Zone, which was nominated for a Grammy, the group went on tour opening for singer Lyle Lovett, and were amazed by the outpouring of audience enthusiasm. According to their manager, Lee Olsen, in the Nashville Scene article, "If James [Hill] 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.... It's a pretty magical thing."
In 1995 they were the first recipients of the new Annual Nashville Music Award for Lifetime Achievement. Their album I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray, released in 1997, won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Recording. The group released a live CD, Wreckin' the House, in 1998, to wide acclaim. Hill, then 80 years old, remained active in telling interviewers about his pride in his gospel roots and the group's role in preserving African-American music and history. Hill died in 2000, but in his obituary in the London Independent, writer Paul Wadey quoted Hill as saying, "We just sang like our mothers and fathers taught us to sing. We are just keepin' that old gospel tradition alive.... We like to stick to that old-time, toe-tappin', foot stompin', hard-gospel singin'." In 1999, in recognition of their commitment to that heritage, the Fairfield Four were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Although various members of the group have died, the group continues to sing and add new members. As Freeman told Friskics-Warren, "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."
by Kelly Winters
Fairfield Four's Career
Group formed in Nashville, TN, 1921; appeared on WSIX radio station, 1937; began 12-year run of appearances on WLAC radio, 1942; released several albums with Dot label, 1947-49; original group split up; McCrary recruited new singers; released numerous albums on various labels, 1949-54; group again disbanded, 1960; reunited for a concert in Birmingham, AL, 1980; received Heritage Fellowship, 1989; signed with Warner Brothers, 1990; released Standing in the Safety Zone, 1992; released Wreckin' the House on Dead Reckoning label, 1998; released Fairfield Four and Friends Live from Mountain Stage on Blue Plate label, 2000; released The Bells Are Tolling on Ace label, 2001; released Road to Glory, 2001.
- Selected discography
- "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around/Standing in The Safety Zone," Dot, 1947-48.
- "When I Get up in Heaven/Amazing Grace," Dot, 1947-48.
- "Tree of Level/Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," Dot, 1949.
- "Dear Lord, Look Down Upon Me/Savior Don't Pass Me By," Dot, 1949.
- "In The Wilderness/Let Me Tell You About Jesus," Dot, 1949.
- "In The Upper Room/I'll Tell The World," Dot, 1950.
- "I Don't Know Why I Have to Cry/When I Move in the Room," Dot, 1950.
- "Don't Drive Your Children Away/Does Jesus Care," Dot, 1950.
- "Nobody To Depend on/Old Time Religion," Dot, 1950.
- "No Room at the Inn/Talking About Jesus," Dot, 1950.
- "I Love The Name Jesus/Leave Them There," Dot, 1950.
- "On My Journey Now/Love Like a River," Dot, 1950.
- "Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow/Don't Drive Her Away," Dot, 1950.
- "Packing Every Burden/Don't Leave Me," Dot, 1951.
- "My Prayer/Come on to This Altar," Dot, 1951.
- "Waiting for Me/Angels Watching," Dot, 1951.
- "I'm in Your Care/I Can Tell You the Time," Dot, 1951.
- "When We Bow/Let's Go," Dot, 1951.
- "Hope To Shout in Glory/All the Way," Dot, 1951.
- "I'll Be Satisfied/I've Got Good Religion," Dot, 1951.
- "Come Over Here/Who Is That Knocking," Dot, 1953.
- "His Eye Is on the Sparrow/Every Day," Dot, 1953.
- "How I Got Over/This Evening Our Father," Dot, 1953.
- "Stand by Me/Hear Me When I Pray," Dot, 1953.
- "When The Battle Is Over/Standing on the Rock," Dot, 1953.
- "Somebody Touched Me/Mother Don't Worry," Dot, 1953.
- "We Never Grow Old/Jesus in Heaven," Dot, 1954.
- "God Knows I'm a Pilgrim/Heaven in My View," Dot, 1954.
- Standing in the Safety Zone Warner Brothers, 1992.
- I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray Warner Brothers, 1997.
- Wreckin' the House Dead Reckoning, 1998.
- Fairfield Four and Friends Live from Mountain Stage Blue Plate, 2000.
- The Bells Are Tolling Ace, 2001.
- Road to Glory Fuel, 2001.
November 2005: Group member Lit Waters died at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, of cancer. He was 74. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, November 28, 2005.
- Billboard, July 22, 2000, p. 6.
- Capital Times (Madison, WI), June 4, 2001, p. 3A.
- Denver Post, July 31, 1998, p. E7.
- Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), July 14, 2000, p. 96.
- Independent (London, England), July 12, 2000, p. 6.
- Nashville Scene, February 26, 1998.
- Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 15, 1999, p. 5E.
- Seattle Times, July 8, 2000, p. A4.
- Alabama Hall of Fame, https://www.alamhof.org/Fairfield.htm (March 19, 2004).
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