The Fairfield Four, the most distinguished proponents of traditional African American a cappella gospel singing working today, were organized in 1921 by Reverend J.R. Carrethers, assistant pastor of the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The a cappella style of the Fairfield Four was drawn from the Birmingham, Alabama quartet tradition exemplified by recording groups such as the Bessemer Sunset Four, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, and the Famous Blue Jay Singers with lead vocalist, Silas Steele.
The Fairfield Four were among pioneers of African American gospel groups that used radio to reach broader audiences. Radio led to making records and, beginning in 1946, the Fairfield Four released sides on the Bullet, Dot, Delta, and M-G-M labels, and later on Champion, Old Town, and Nashboro. Extending themselves through the far reach of media, the Fairfield Four would influence both sacred and secular vocalists across the land, among them blues singer B.B. King. “Before I left my hometown of Indianola, Mississippi,” says King, “the Fairfield Four used to come on the radio every morning real early before we went to work. I became a great fan and, in fact, (Sam) McCrary had a lot of influence on my singing over the years, and that’s the truth.”
Today, the Fairfield Four are best known from their appearance on the soundtrack and on screen in the Coen Brothers 2000 film, O Brother Where Art Thou. They are multiple Grammy winners with albums including Standing in the Safety Zone (1992) and I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray (1997) on Warner Brothers, Wreckin’ the House (1998) on Dead Reckoning, The Fairfield Four and Friends Live from Mountain Stage (2000) on Blue Plate, and by their bass singer Isaac Freeman with the Bluebloods, Beautiful Stars (2003) on Lost Highway.
Among their awards and honors, the National Endowment for the Arts, National Heritage Award, 1989; Tennessee Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994; Nashville Music Award Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995; James Cleveland Stellar Award, 1996; Grammy Award, Best Traditional Gospel Recording, for ICouldn’t Hear Nobody Pray, 1997; Gospel Music Hall of Fame, inducted, 1999.
The Fairfield Four, continuing to perform a cappella, have been singularly important in revitalizing and preserving the oldest style of traditional African American spiritual and gospel singing. Amazingly, the current line-up still maintains its ties to the earliest configuration of the Fairfield Four. Robert Hamlett was a key figure in the Fairfield Four’s reemergence in the 1980s and Joe Thompson, a relative of the Fairfield Four’s founding Carrethers brothers, worked with Reverend Sam McCrary’s Fairfield Four throughout the 1950s. –Jerry Zolten
The current members of the Fairfield Four are Robert Hamlett, Joe Thompson, Levert Allison, Larrice Byrd, Sr., and Bobbye Sherrell. Their five soulful voices combine into a rich harmony that’s as soothing as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night.