By JON PARELES
James Hill, the leader and baritone voice of the Fairfield Four gospel
group, died July 6 at a hospital in Nashville, The Tennessean
reported. He was 83 and lived in Nashville.
The Fairfield Four, founded in 1921, became one of gospel's
best-known groups. They sang unaccompanied in the classic quartet
style, with fervent voices growling and leaping out of rhythmic chords.
The group was founded by the Rev. J. R. Carrethers at Fairfield Baptist
Church in Nashville, initially as the duo of his sons; it grew to a quartet
and eventually included up to six members singing four-part harmony.
After the tenor Sam McCrary joined in 1935, the group's reputation
grew locally. In 1941 it was recorded for the folk-music archives of the
Library of Congress. The Fairfield Four won a competition to appear on
a radio show, and from 1942 to 1952 they were heard on WLAC in
Nashville, and nationally over the CBS radio network, from 6:45 to 7
Mr. Hill was born July 25, 1916, in Bessemer, Ala. With a powerful
voice but no formal musical training, he joined the group on Thanksgiving
Day in 1946, at a time when the group and gospel quartet singing were
reaching a peak of popularity.
But in the early 1950's, gospel's popularity waned. A funeral parlor
owned by the group also had business difficulties. While Mr. McCrary
toured with various groups using the Fairfield Four name, Mr. Hill and
the group's bass, Isaac Freeman, formed the Skylarks. But the heyday of
quartet singing had passed. Mr. Hill worked as a courthouse cleaner, a
sheriff's deputy and a police sergeant and ran a restaurant called the
Tombstone. He made a brief appearance as a police officer in Robert
Altman's 1974 film "Nashville."
In 1980 the Fairfield Four's late-1940's lineup was persuaded to reunite
by a gospel scholar, Doug Seroff, for a concert in Birmingham. The
group began touring again, and in 1989 it received a National Heritage
Fellowship, the traditional-arts award from the National Endowment for
The group signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records in 1990 and
was discovered by rock and country songwriters; the Four toured and
performed with Lyle Lovett, John Fogerty, Elvis Costello and Steve
Earle. Retiring members were gradually replaced during the 1980's and
90's, but Mr. Hill and Mr. Freeman continued to sing with the group. Its
1997 album, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," won a Grammy as best
traditional soul gospel album.
The group's manager, Lee Olsen, said the group was discussing whether
to continue without Mr. Hill.
Mr. Hill is survived by three sons, Wayne and Anthony Hill of Nashville
and Lawrence Dulin of Evansville, Ind.; a stepson, Riley Hackworth of
Niagara Falls, N.Y.; a stepdaughter, Margie Patton; six grandchildren;
and 17 great-grandchildren.