While listening to Beautiful Stars, Isaac “Dickie” Freeman’s first solo album, there is much at which to marvel.
Most obvious is Freeman’s basso profundo voice, one of the most important in 20th century music, here placed in a setting where what is traditionally a musical foundation becomes its structure. Clearly, Isaac Freeman is the rare bass who knows how to sing lead. Or there are the songs, all but one, traditional gospel pieces that illustrate not only Freeman’s personal history but also gospel’s pivotal role in the evolution of blues, soul, R&B, and rock and roll. Or there is the backing music provided by the Bluebloods, one of Nashville’s most acclaimed blues bands whose R&B playing that reinforces the defining American tension between “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”.
The album itself is stunning, though how it came to be is fascinating as well. Freeman, now 73, grew up in Johns, Alabama, just southwest of Birmingham. When Isaac was a child, his mother, a soprano, often took him with her to the front of the Bethlehem Baptist Church when she would solo; however, when he was still quite young, she died (his father left shortly after his son’s birth). Isaac then lived with his grandmother, another church regular. Soon after, Freeman and other local boys began singing in quartets.
In 1946, when Isaac was 17, his grandmother died, and he moved to Cleveland where he began singing professionally. Then, in 1948, he became part of the legendary and influential Fairfield Four, a Nashville-based group that sang gospel rather than the more immediately profitable rhythm and blues. The Fairfield Four also had their own show on 50,000-watt WLAC and a national audience.
Because of social and financial pressures as well as changing musical tastes (gospel soloists had begun to supplant quartets), the Fairfield Four officially broke up in 1950, which led Freeman to join the Skylarks, a group that disbanded in 1962.
After that, Freeman worked maintenance at the Nashville Courthouse for five years; then he hired on with the local water company until his retirement in 1992.
But in 1980, Doug Seroff reassembled the Fairfield Four for a Birmingham performance, and it went so well that the group began doing a few shows again. Eventually, they met Jerry Zolton, a Penn State Communications professor, who helped steer the Fairfield Four back to recording. The group ultimately earned a Grammy (1998) as well as membership in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. And, yes, that’s them in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?. They’re the gravediggers singing “You Gotta Go that Lonesome Valley”.
Zolton, who serves as Executive Producer of Beautiful Stars, also raised the idea of Freeman’s solo album.
According to a press release accompanying Beautiful Stars, after giving it some thought, Freeman decided, “Well, I could go back to my childhood when I was coming up in Johns, Alabama — the songs my mother and the people in her choir sang a cappella.”
Zolton took the project to Kieran Kane who agreed to produce the sessions. Dead Reckoning, the label he owns with Kevin Welch, had released the Fairfields’ live album, Wreckin’ the House, in 1998. (It’s worth noting that before this, the group had accompanied Welch had on his song “Life Down Here on Earth” and appeared in the video.) Kane also brought in the Bluebloods: Mike Henderson (guitar), Glenn Worf (bass), John Jarvis (piano), and John Gardner (drums). Contributing backing vocals were Regina Brown and Ann McCrary, daughters of the late Rev. Sam McCrary who was an original member of the Fairfield Four.
Kane’s production largely consisted of letting the musicians: Everything was recorded live, except for the vocals added by Brown and McCrary.
Dead Reckoning’s release of Beautiful Stars earned very positive reviews that drew the attention of the more mainstream Lost Highway Records whose re-release and commercial clout should gain the album the kind of attention it merits.
And if ever there were an album deserving more attention, it’s this one.
“It’s just a God-given talent,” Freeman has said of his voice. “I never had any training, as far as my music is concerned. Looking at it on paper, I couldn’t tell you one note from the other. But my voice has been this heavy since I was 15, and so I say it’s God-given.”
He adds, “I did have someone who influenced me. Porterfield Lewis of the Heavenly Gospel Singers [of Birmingham] was my idol, and he used to give me a lot of pointers on how to sing bass. But that’s all the training I ever had”.
Trained or not, the power of Freeman’s voice is always apparent.
Beautiful Stars opens with a recitation as Freeman, in effect, welcomes the listener into the sanctuary and establishes a shared ground of experience. “The song,” Freeman says, of “Standing on the Highway”, “struck me real deep, for it had been a few years since my mother passed, and I know there are a lot of you out there, feel today like I felt in those days. Let me just share a verse of the song with you.” Then Freeman and the Bluebloods take “Standing on the Highway” from a somber, contemplative moment to a gospel celebration of life with Mike Henderson’s guitar adding to the gathering. Although Freeman sings in the first line of the song, “As I walked down the lonesome highway,” by the song’s end, there’s no sense of his being alone.
From that point, the groove never stops. Although the next track, “Because He Lives”, is slower with the song’s steady drumbeat representing the singer’s faith as well as God’s love, the following track, “Lord I Want You to Help Me”, brings the celebration back. The song’s use of call-and-response reiterates the fact that the singer isn’t alone: Here, he’s with a family of music and musicians — again, especially Henderson’s guitar — just as he has never been deserted by the Lord.
“Don’t Drive Your Children Away” is another look at Freeman’s learning after his mother’s death that, as he puts it, “I didn’t have nobody else to depend on but the Lord”, and the call-and-response of “Jesus Is on the Main Line” reiterates the notion that the faithful will not be abandoned.
A highlight is the title track, “Beautiful Stars”. As the song begins, Freeman explains over some reassuring piano provided by John Jarvis, “Here’s a song my mother learned me to sing. My mother was a solo singer, and she sang at the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Usually whenever there was a special program, they would always call on her for a solo, and she would take my by the hand, and I would stand there while she sang and look up and repeat the words out of her mouth until I learned the song. And the song goes something like this.” Here the beautiful stars are signs of “wondrous love”, again, that of his mother as well as of the Lord who does not abandon his children.
Garrison Keillor wrote the album’s only non-traditional number for Isaac Freeman following a Fairfield Four appearance on Prairie Home Companion/ “You Must Come in at the Bottom” is a clever gospel tune set to a work-song beat, with Freeman explaining, “In the biblical days, the good Lord spoke to Daniel, he spoke to Jonah, and when I was about 15, he spoke to me”. Here, however, God asks Daniel to go to Babylon and Jonah to go to Ninevah to “sing bass”, something both biblical heroes doubt their ability to do. But they are admonished, “If I can raise the dead, I can make a bass of you”. Besides, Freeman sings, “He’ll raise you high on the day you die, but you have to start out low.” Here, Freeman’s bass voice is a metaphor for humility though Beautiful Stars shows just how stellar his skill is.
Included, too, are “When We Bow in the Evening at the Altar” and “Don’t Take Everybody to Be Your Friend” though the closing musical track, “I’ve Got Heaven on My Mind” provides the album’s sense of closure. (Following it is a recitation of “The Liar”.) Freeman begins the song by saying, “For the past years, I’ve sung with my family, the Fairfield Four.” He explains that “some have passed”, but “today the Lord has blessed me to stand before you and share this song”.
In the course of the piece, Freeman sings, “As I walk this narrow way, you can always hear me say that I’ve got heaven on my mind,” alluding to the “lonesome highway” from the first song and showing how Freeman has negotiated his journey. Thus an album that begins with Freeman describing his mother’s death when he was a child comes full circle as he contemplates his own. There is no fear or complaint, however, for Freeman has made clear throughout Beautiful Stars that he, and by extension, the listener, are never alone.
As he says at the end of “Beautiful Stars”, “I feel like I can see my mother right now.” Music is a source of praise, comfort, and memory, and Beautiful Stars is a celebration.