Byrd and White: African American Quartet Gospel Singing

Veteran Gospel singer and instrumentalist Larrice Byrd (1953–), of Nashville, has spent decades playing in churches, on the road, and in the studio. In 2009, Larrice joined the legendary Fairfield Four as the baritone singer in the group’s “third generation” lineup. Founded in Nashville in 1921, the Fairfield Four is an institution in African American Gospel Music. Performing as an a cappella, four-part harmony ensemble, the Fairfield Four emerged within a Southern gospel quartet tradition that drew on earlier spiritual and jubilee styles, but that featured innovations of the time, including up-tempo, often syncopated arrangements, percussive bass singing, and a strong, emotional tenor melody lead. The Fairfield Four were part of a wave of such gospel groups that gained regional popularity on radio and via commercial recordings. By the 1940s and 1950s, they were performing around the country. The 1960s ushered in a rise of electric guitar, piano, and drums in gospel music, and the a capella quartet style waned in popularity. The Fairfield Four disbanded in 1960, but reemerged twenty years later for a reunion tour. 

Over the past nine decades, the Fairfield Four have won multiple Grammy awards, received the 1989 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and performed on the historic soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In 2015, along with current members Joseph Thompson, Levert Allison, and Bobbye Sherrell, Larrice and the Fairfield Four released Still Rockin’ My Soul, which earned the Grammy for Best Gospel Roots Album. Even though members of the group have changed throughout the years, the tradition has endured with each new iteration of the Fairfield Four. Music scholar Jerry Zoelten writes, “the Fairfield Four not so much as a specific lineup of people, but rather as a living tradition that has been going since the 1920s” (2005, 90). The current lineup of the group was trained by then surviving member Robert Hamlett, revealing the continuity of tradition with new infusions of members. 

Despite the group’s impressive longevity and impeccable reputation, the tradition is fragile today, as few young singers are willing to study the older a cappella style of quartet harmony. “When you look around the world, so much has been lost,” Larrice says. “We’re losing so much. It’s very important to us to keep the tradition, the old style. It’s more of the message than anything. We just love the tradition. We all just grew up with this good style of music.”

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Larrice taught apprentice Quileo White the full Fairfield Four style, including how to sing all four harmony parts, how to arrange chord structures and inversions, how to create vocal rhythm, how to blend, and when to breathe. For Quileo, a multifaceted instrumentalist and singer in many musical styles, quartet singing reconnects him to his family legacy, as his great grandfather Willie Lewis sang with the group. But the project is more than that too. “Music plays a valuable role in black history in the days of slavery and the civil rights movement music was what inspired our ancestors to persevere through oppression,” Quileo says. “It has provided hope, joy, and motivation to our people as a whole.”

One day in February 2020, Larrice and Quileo met at the Greater Pleasant View Baptist Church in Brentwood. Quileo spent that afternoon recording, re-recording, listening back to, and singing along with tracks for each vocal part of the Fairfield Four standard “There Must Be A City.” Larrice added his own vocals and enthusiasm as he coached his apprentice through every complicated line.

Folklife staff visited Larrice and Quileo in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day. 

Media:

Further Reading: