Damian Taylor reports on the long and labyrinthine history of vintage gospel group FAIRFIELD FOUR
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Where once the Fairfields were considered relics of a by-gone age, suddenly a new audience had emerged, keen to explore the roots of American music. The group were asked to perform at the Smithsonian Institute in November 1981 as part of the US government's promotion of Black American Quartet Traditions.
Whittaker's very brief cameo with Fairfield Four ended in 1982 as he and Willie Love (for a second time) left, being replaced with Elder WL 'Willie' Richardson and Wilson 'Lit' Waters. Their numbers increased in 1984 when Robert Hamlett was introduced to the group as the Fairfield Four yet again restarted their stalled career. Hamlett was seen as a key instigator in breathing new life into an aging group. James Hill was now charged with looking after the group's business affairs due to Sam McCrary staying faithful to his Nashville ministry and only helping out with the group as and when he was able to.
As the decade wore on, more opportunities emerged. In 1989 the National Endowment For The Arts rewarded Fairfield Four's near 70-year existence with a Heritage Fellowship in honour of their work and longevity. In the same year a new Fairfield Four album, 'Revival', was released (though it wasn't until 2012 that it was re-issued on CD). A year later the group performed for Jim Ed Norman the president of Warner Brothers who were in the process of setting up a Christian music subsidiary, Warner Alliance. Norman was so enraptured with the veteran harmonisers that he offered the Fairfield Four a recording contract.
In 1991, the group were invited to play at Carnegie Hall as part of the venue's centenary celebrations and they also amazed the crowd with their energy at Mariposa Folk Festival, with the audience not wanting them to relinquish the stage to Los Lobos. Discussing their live performances later that decade, Fairfield Four's manager Lee Olsen said, "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."
The group's line-up in 1991 consisted of James Hill (baritone), Issac Freeman (bass), Willie Richardson, Wilson 'Lit' Waters and Walter Settles, who was a replacement for Sam McCrary. McCrary's near half century association with the Fairfield Four was finally ended in July 1991 with his sad death.
The group's Warner Alliance album 'Standing In The Safety Zone' was released in 1992 and reached 22 on the US Gospel charts. The album had more than a touch of country about it. The Cross Rhythms reviewer wrote, "Timeless acappella renditions of traditional songs like 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' and 'Children Go Where I Send Thee' are a poignant reminder of just how beautiful the pre-quartet jubilee sound actually was. Black gospel devotees may be astonished that there's a guest appearance by the Nashville Bluegrass Band and that this album was completed in co-operation with the Country Music Foundation."
Awards and recognitions followed with Fairfield Four given the Tennessee Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, the Nashville Music Award Lifetime Achievement Award a year later and the James Cleveland Stellar Award a year after that. In 1995 Joe Rice became the newest member of the Fairfield Four.
In 1997 Warner Bros released the Fairfield's 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray'. It was something of a curiosity featuring as it did guest appearances by Britain's Elvis Costello, country star Pam Tillis and author/raconteur Garrison Keillor. Its diverse guests in some ways reflected the group's growing popularity in the mainstream music world. Former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty enlisted the Fairfield Four to sing on the track "A Hundred And Ten In The Shade" on his 1997 album 'Blue Moon Swamp'. Fogerty's album was to go on to win a Grammy as Best Rock Album 1997 while 'I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray' picked up a Grammy as Best Traditional Gospel Recording.
A year after their greatest success to date, the final original member of the group went to be with the Lord when in March 1988 Rufus Carrethers died. Whilst the news hit the group hard, it did not dim their enthusiasm for touring the college and blues venues across the USA. They released a new album 'Wreckin' The House' on independent record label Dead Reckoning. They toured to promote it while also gigging as part of John Fogerty's entourage plugging 'Blue Moon Swamp'. The energy levels of the group whose average age was 68 amazed the crowds. James Hall commented, "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'." Their reward was yet another award when in 1999 Fairfield Four were inducted into Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Detroit.
At the turn of the millennium the Fairfield Four arguably created their epitaph, the one piece of work for which they were known above all others. Originally written and performed in 1931, the song "Lonesome Valley" was recorded by Fairfield Four for the film soundtrack O Brother Where Art Thou. The movie, directed by the silver screen hitmakers the Coen brothers and starring George Clooney, was a modern satire based loosely on Homer's Odyssey. Set in the Deep South in the Depression years and featuring a stunning musical soundtrack of folk, blues, country and gospel, the Fairfield Four even managed to make it into the closing scenes as grave diggers. To the industry's surprise, the soundtrack album, produced by T-Bone Burnett, went on to go Platinum.
At the time of the soundtrack recording the Fairfield Four lost another member when old age caught up with James Hill who passed away in July 2000. His loss coincided with the release of a live album: 'Fairfield Four And Friends Live From Mountain Stage'. A year later came the re-release of 'The Bells Are Tolling' on CD format, before 'Road To Glory' was then released. In 2002 Isaac Freeman recorded an album, 'Beautiful Stars', with one of Nashville's most acclaimed blues bands, the Bluebloods. On the song "I've Got Heaven On My Mind" Freeman began by saying, "For the past years I've sung with my family, the Fairfield Four." He explained that "some have passed", but "today the Lord has blessed me to stand before you and share this song." The tracks on 'Beautiful Stars' were to be the last Freeman recorded as in October 2012, he too passed on.
With the death of Freeman new members were drafted in to the Fairfield Four. Ed Hall had sung as part of the Fireside Singers and the Fairfield Four Juniors in the 1940s, whilst Joe Thompson rejoined the group. He not only worked with Sam McCrary's 1950s Fairfield Four reincarnation (although he was never recorded) but was also a relative of the two Carrethers brothers. Joining those two are Levert Allison and Larrice Byrd Sr, who both still sing alongside current longest serving members Robert Hamlett and Joe Rice.
Last year Britain's Acrobat Music released the compilation 'The Best Of The Fairfield Four 1946-1953'. Although it focused on only a seven year period of the group's mammoth history, it does offer some dazzling acappella recordings made for Bullet, Delta and Dot Records. We can but hope that one day some enterprising company will release a box set showcasing a wider sweep of their music. Perhaps on their 100th year anniversary!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.