Isaac Freeman – Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around
Back in the late 1940s, Isaac “Dickie” Freeman was perhaps the premier bass singer in gospel music. He wasn’t feted like his would-be rival Jimmy Ricks, whose basso profundo held down the bottom for the Ravens, the pre-doo-wop quartet once billed as “the greatest group of them all.” But that was only because Freeman was a member of the Fairfield Four, a Nashville-based quartet that sang gospel instead of pop or R&B.
Indeed, contemporaries of both men swear that Freeman was the better of the two deep throats, exhibiting, among other things, a richer tone and greater vocal control. No less than a young B.B. King, who used to listen to the Fairfield Four on WLAC when he was coming up, counted Freeman as an influence, just as the likes of Aretha Franklin and, later, John Fogerty and Elvis Costello would do.
Freeman’s gifts were so spectacular that, after bumping into him in a Philadelphia hotel circa 1957, gospel-gone-pop star Sam Cooke urged him to cross over and follow him. “We was in the same hotel Sam was stayin’ at,” recalls Freeman, who, along with fellow once-and-future Fairfielder James Hill, was then singing with the Skylarks, an Alabama quartet that cut a couple dozen pew-rockin’ sides for the Nashboro label during the ’50s and ’60s.
“Sam had been out doin’ a show and I ran into him in the lobby and he started kiddin’ me,” Freeman continues. “He said, ‘Dickie, you know you oughta come over here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘You oughta come over here and join me, man. It’s mighty nice.’ Then he pulled out a wallet and opened it up. ‘This is what I mean,’ he said.
“Shhh. I’d never seen so much money. But I said, ‘No, Sam, I still believe in the way I was born and reared. So I guess I’ll just stay on over here and sing these spirituals and starve to death.’ But you see the money wasn’t really what I was lookin’ at. I was raised, brought up, to sing the gospel.”
In other words, wasn’t nobody, not even the great Sam Cooke, gonna turn Dickie Freeman around. And the same has been true, for the past 80 years, of the various incarnations of the Fairfield Four, a Nashville institution that has sung in more or less the same a cappella harmony style since the group formed in 1921, pre-dating both WSM and the Grand Ole Opry.
This steadfastness has lately reaped Freeman and the Fairfields a flurry of awards and recognition, including a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul/Gospel Album in 1998, as well as induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Freeman and two other members of the group also landed singing and acting cameos in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack to which has sold more than four million copies. And now, at age 73, nearly 40 years after Cooke’s passing, Freeman has a breathtaking new solo album out, the first of his 55-year career.
Evidence of this harvest is plastered all over one wall of the living room of the modest South Nashville bungalow Freeman shares with his wife of nearly 40 years. The Fairfields’ Grammy is there, just to the right of plaques commemorating the quartet’s place in the Gospel Hall of Fame and the United in Group Harmony Association Hall of Fame. (The latter is an elite circle of mostly pop and R&B groups that includes just four other gospel acts: the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Harmonizing Four, the Swan Silvertones, and the Golden Gate Quartet.) A platinum record, for the Fairfields’ contribution to the O Brother soundtrack, hangs on Freeman’s wall as well, along with a blown-up snapshot of him and fellow Fairfield members Robert Hamlett and Wilson “Litt” Waters catching their breath on the O Brother set.
Not one of these things has brought Freeman the kind of wealth Sam Cooke enticed him with 45 years ago. Still, lounging about this afternoon in overalls, house slippers and a gray T-shirt, with one leg of his lanky frame thrown over the arm of a well-worn chair, Freeman — whose hushed but preternaturally deep speech is just as arresting as his singing voice — seems utterly at peace with the narrow way he’s taken.
“Make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered,” reads the inscription from the book of Isaiah that appears below the plaque the Fairfields received with their Grammy. Few words could offer more fitting testimony to Freeman’s, or the Fairfield Four’s, enduring legacy.
Due out in April on Lost Highway, Freeman’s Beautiful Stars should further secure his place in memory. And not just among gospel aficionados, but with fans of other forms of roots music, such as those represented on the O Brother soundtrack, or on the roster of alt-country perennials who record for Lost Highway.
Freeman’s record is by no means just an attempt to cash in on the O Brother phenomenon, though. The seeds for the project were sown nearly two decades ago, and the album was recorded in two days, a summer apart. Executive producer Jerry Zolten, a historian and record hound with a passion for blues, doo-wop, and black gospel, had been collecting Fairfield 78s for years when he encountered the quartet at a Smithsonian-sponsored festival in Washington, D.C., in 1983. Thing is, he didn’t realize they were the Fairfield Four till after he heard them sing that afternoon.
“I had the records, I knew the group, I show up at this folklife event,” Zolten begins, setting the stage for that first meeting. “But the group wasn’t billed as the Fairfield Four. They were just billed as generic ‘African-American gospel,’ so I didn’t know what I was I seeing. I just knew I was totally blown away.
“I ran into James Hill a little while later,” continues Zolten, who teaches communications at Penn State and is finishing a book about the Dixie Hummingbirds for Oxford University Press. “James and the guys were just wandering the mall, and when he told me who they were, my mouthed dropped. Then, when I told them I had their records, their mouths dropped. We made a pact that day that I was gonna do everything in my power to get them back out there again.”
Which is just what Zolten did — literally, hitting the road with the Fairfields as their driver and de facto tour manager. He also produced Wreckin’ The House, a live CD of a 1989 edition of the group performing at Mt. Hope Baptist Church in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. The album remains the definitive document of the Fairfields in their element: Singing in church, where the call-and-response between the group and the congregation — the give-and-take of raised voices, clapping hands, and stomping feet — invariably lifts the music to heights rarely heard on their studio recordings.