Isaac "Dickie" Freeman was an exceptional singer, gifted with one of the finest bass voices in spiritual or secular music. Freeman, who died last week at 84, was the anchor on a host of superb recordings and performances by The Fairfield Four, a landmark ensemble whose show on WLAC was nationally distributed by the CBS radio network. But Freeman made equally magnificent records with other gospel groups, among them The Golden Tones, The Kings of Harmony and The Skylarks. He left The Fairfield Four in 1950 for The Skylarks, but returned to Nashville in 1962. Freeman enjoyed a second period of prominence with the Four when the group reunited for an Alabama concert in 1980, thanks to gospel author and scholar Doug Seroff.
During Freeman's later days with The Fairfield Four, they performed with such rock and country notables as Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Lyle Lovett, Amy Grant and Johnny Cash. They gained new fame and cachet with contemporary audiences through an appearance in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and on the film's smash-hit soundtrack. They earned a Grammy for the spectacular album I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray. Freeman's 2002 solo release Beautiful Stars was universally acclaimed. It matched him with Mike Henderson's The Blue Bloods as well as The McCrary Sisters — the sisters' father, Sam McCrary, was The Fairfield Four's tenor lead and Freeman's predecessor as musical director and group leader.
"In the world of popular music he was among a handful of bass singers whom everyone knew and respected," says music historian, producer and writer Jerry Zolten. "I remember having a conversation with Pookie Hudson [lead singer of the R&B vocal group The Spaniels], and he told me Dickie Freeman was someone they all looked up to. The bass vocalist in The Oak Ridge Boys [Richard Sterban] told me how much he admired Freeman. I would put him right there with Jimmy Ricks [bass voice of The Ravens] among the giants of bass singers."
Zolten, author of Great God A'Mighty!, a highly praised book on gospel legends The Dixie Hummingbirds, and an associate professor at Penn State, was the 2010 winner of the Kjell Meling Award for distinction in the Arts and Humanities. He also joined forces with producer Kieran Kane to help bring Beautiful Stars to fruition.
"I remember he didn't want to just cut a record, he wanted to do something special," says Zolten. "We did that record live; the only after-dubs were The McCrary Sisters' vocals. Dickie did those introductions straight from the heart, and there would be times he would walk out of the control room and his eyes were full of tears, he was so moved. He was such a pleasure to work with, and that was an unforgettable experience."
Nashville vocalist Odessa Settles traveled with The Fairfield Four, and was a neighbor of Freeman's for several years. "It was a great honor to travel with such an international treasure," Settles says. "One thing about him was he was really an outstanding musician. He did a lot of the group's arrangements. When you saw them in rehearsals, you realized how much of an impact he was having as a bass man. He was fantastic, and was a wonderful person to have as a neighbor."
Despite The Fairfield Four's crossover success during Freeman's latter years, neither they nor Freeman have gotten the widespread mainstream fame given other seminal groups from their era — The Soul Stirrers, Blind Boys (both Mississippi and Alabama), Swan Silvertones, Pilgrim Travelers or Dixie Hummingbirds. The Four are in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. But they have not yet been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influence, despite their noticeable impact on numerous R&B groups. Author/historian/journalist Bruce Nemerov says they were unquestionably the equal of any ensemble, but maintains that Freeman's devotion to gospel was such that he didn't actively seek that type of attention.
"Dickie stayed true to gospel his entire life," Nemerov says. "He didn't really care about that crossover stuff. As a singer, he was incredible. His tone was pure, his range vast, and his sound impeccable. They used that voice to ensure the group stayed in key, and the harmonies were right. He was the complete bass singer. That thumb-popping technique funk bass players use, he was doing that vocally long before anyone adopted it to an electric instrument. He was also a brilliant rhythm vocalist."
"Gospel is really the foundation for almost every type of popular music in America, be it jazz, rock, pop, country, anything," Zolten adds. "Isaac Freeman's bass set a standard that will never be surpassed. While he might not be that well known to the casual fan, musicians and people who really love music know who he was and why he was so important. His passing is a huge blow."
Funeral arrangements had not been announced as of press time.