The Fairfield Four
African American gospel quartet singing
The Fairfield Four is the most distinguished traditional African American a cappella gospel quartet working today. Organized in 1921 by Reverend J.R. Carrethers, assistant pastor of the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, this year the legendary Nashville-based group celebrates 95 years of bringing the gospel message to audiences worldwide.
The a cappella, or unaccompanied, gospel quartet tradition has its roots in the Negro spirituals of the American South. Enslaved Africans combined English hymns with West African rhythms and singing to create a musical form that expressed both Christian devotion and the desire for freedom. In the 1870s, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble from Nashville’s historically black college that prominently featured spirituals in its repertoire, undertook a series of wildly popular tours that inspired the development of “jubilee” gospel, a style featuring close harmonies and formal arrangements. Over time, the jubilee quartet style became less staid, incorporating the spiritual fervor of the Holiness church and syncopated rhythms.
The original group that Reverend J.R. Carrethers formed in 1921 was built around the voices of his sons Rufus and Harold, and their neighbor John Battle. The quartet sang a cappella, performing traditional spirituals such as "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" and "Dry Bones." In time, The Fairfield Four became professional. Rufus Carrethers and Samuel McCrary emerged as singers of reputation, Carrethers for his rhythmic style of bass singing, and McCrary for his exceptional clear tenor voice. The Fairfield Four’s style was drawn from the Birmingham, Alabama quartet tradition, characterized by a percussive bass voice anchoring middle harmonies sung often on repeated rhythmic syllables ("boom a lanka lanka lanka") and a tenor voice out front carrying the lead.
Although its line-up inevitably shifted over the decades, the group’s beautiful harmonies and stirring gospel message did not. And while many of their contemporaries eventually opted to add backing rhythm sections, The Fairfield Four steadfastly remained committed to singing unaccompanied. The group was among those pioneering African American gospel groups that reached broader audiences through radio. In 1942, they won a contest sponsored by the Colonial Coffee Company—the "prize," their own morning show broadcast over 50,000-watt WLAC out of Nashville. Within a few years, their broadcasts were syndicated in major cities across the United States.
Their growing fame led to extensive tours during the 1940s and early 1950s. The Fairfield Four released several records on Nashville labels, inspiring musical greats like B.B. King and Civil Rights activists alike, but, ironically, the popularity of a cappella gospel was on the wane, and the group disbanded in the early 1960s. They reunited in 1980 as interest in the style returned, and they were invited to play Birmingham’s “Quartet Reunion” and the 1981 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. In 1989, The Fairfield Four received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists. During the 1990s, the group recorded and performed with artists like Elvis Costello, and in 2000, became the popular face of gospel quartets when they appeared in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2016 they won their third Grammy® Award. While the founding members have all passed on, the current singers—Joe Thompson, Levert Allison, Bobbye Sherrell, and Larrice Byrd—ensure their sound lives on. As Mr. Allison told The Tennessean, “Our style is rare and we refuse to let it die away.”