Those of you who first caught the Fairfield Four at the Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank in 1995 will remember how beautifully pure, raw and rootsy the a cappella gospel quartet sounded. Well if that moved you, this CD reissue of the Fairfield Four's last truly magnificent LP, Bells Are Tolling, will transport you straight through the portals of the Pearly Gates. The Fairfield Four are Nashville's premier aggregation, considered by scholars to be at the top of their field.
Founded as a family trio at the Sunday school of the Fairfield Baptist Church on Hermitage Avenue in the early 1920s, the quartet won a Colonial Coffee Company contest to appear on a regular radio spot at Nashville's powerful 50,000 watt WLAC. Sponsored by Sunway Vitamins, their CBS network hook-up broadcasts were heard throughout the United States. The quartet, who sang in a style that embraced both the older gospel jubilees and the newer emotional extemporisations, became extremely popular in the South and Midwest and acquired a prestige with the public no other quartet could match.
By the 1940s, they were touring extensively and on the home front hosted major gospel extravaganzas at the Ryman Auditorium featuring the major luminaries of the day. Their first recordings were made in 1946 for Bullet on Lower Broad Street, Nashville. Seminal members in the group then were lead tenors Sam McCrary and John Battle, baritone Willie Frank Lewis, tenor George Gracy, basso Rufus Carrethers and his brother Harold. By the time the group had switched to the Delta label, McCrary and Lewis had recruited a super-group composed of baritone James Hill of Bessamer, Alabama, tenor/house-wrecker Edward Preacher Thomas from Louisiana, tenor Preston York from Atlanta plus basso-supreme Isaac "Dickie" Freeman from St John's, Alabama. With this all-star line-up the group became invincible in "Battles of Song" against other leading quartets.
A rift occurred in 1950, and Thomas, Freeman and Hill defected to the Skylarks. McCrary struggled to keep a fully professional group on the road and by late 1958 was compelled to press-gang an excellent young group, the Silver Quintet of Gary, Indiana (who had recorded for Vee Jay in Chicago) and make them into the Fairfield Four.
Under Hoss Allen's supervision the new group cut at least two sessions at Nashville's famous RCA Victor Studios in late spring 1960. The lead singers here are Sam McCrary, Clarence Mills and Joe Henderson (who soon had a U.S. Top 10 hit with the Brook Benton-like Snap Your Fingers). As a cappella was fast becoming a thing of the past, a three-piece rhythm section was added to the mix. The result was an exciting, fervent collection of both new and old standards on an album for Hy Weiss's Old Town label that, due to unwarranted poor sales, became as rare as hen's teeth. This long overdue release serves to justly rectify the matter.
by Opal Louis Nations