Penn State Intercom......January 17, 2002

Gospel artist's music preserved
for posterity, thanks to intervention

By Bill Campbell
Special to IntercomZolten5

It's not often that a recording artist launches a solo career at the age of 73.
But, thanks to the efforts of a Penn State Altoona speech communication professor, Isaac "Dickie" Freeman, called by some one of the most important and influential bass singers in 20th-century, African-American vocal music, has done just that.

Jerry Zolten, assistant professor of speech communication, is the executive producer of Freeman's initial solo effort, "Beautiful Stars," which was released recently on the Nashville-based Dead Reckoning label. He describes it as "a significant piece of cultural history."

"In my specialty of communication, I view recordings like this as communication about culture," Zolten said. "This CD captures a music that grew out of hard times during the days of segregation and was hardly known back then outside the African-American community. It is seminal music and only now are many in mainstream America discovering it."

According to Zolten, who also wrote the liner notes for the CD, Freeman, who was born in Alabama, helped pioneer the tradition of gospel quartet singing in the African-American community. When the Fairfield Four, one of the most important a cappella gospel groups in the country, needed a replacement for their bass singer in 1948, they hired Freeman.

"When the Fairfield Four, which got its start in 1921, finally retired in 1950, they were one of the top groups in the field of African-American gospel," Zolten said. "Although the music was religious in nature, their sound influenced up-and-coming secular artists like B.B. King and countless Doo Wop vocal groups like the Spaniels, and later, the Temptations. When the Fairfields retired, Freeman went to work as a supervisor for the Nashville Water Treatment Plant and essentially stayed retired from professional singing for more than 30 years."

Zolten first heard the Fairfield Four at the 1983 National Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and spearheaded their return to commercial music. The group since has released three albums, one of which, "Wrecking the House Live at Mount Hope," Zolten produced. Since 1983, the Fairfield Four has been the recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship and in 1998 received a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.

While on the road with the group over the years, Zolten said he noticed a swell in the crowd the minute they first heard Freeman's voice.

"His remarkably low timbre and his ability to work a melody when he took the lead really knocked me out," he said. "As I listened and learned, I came to realize that Mr. Freeman was one of the top bass vocalists in 20th-century, African-American vocal group tradition, and that his voice needed to be recorded and preserved. He, on the other hand, was looking to leave a legacy.

"We both felt it was important to do an album of songs that either influenced him or were turning points or that he became known for over the course of his career. That is what we set out to do."

With Zolten accompanying on guitar, Freeman would pull up songs from his past and they would record them. Over a two-year period, they put together some 30 songs from which to pool. Zolten's producing partner, Keiran Kane, got The Bluebloods, one of Nashville's top session groups, to perform on the CD, which was recorded at two marathon sessions during the summer of 2000. Zolten also invited soulful vocalists, Ann McCrary and Regina Brown, daughters of the founder of the Fairfield Four, to do background vocals.

According to Zolten, the recording has gotten a good response thus far. Rock star Elvis Costello calls it "a wonderful showcase -- deeply felt and inspirational singing ..." Rights to the CD have been sold to Universal Entertainment for re-release on its Lost Highway label.

Impetus for it also has come from Freeman's appearance in the film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Freeman appears as a gravedigger at the end of the film and leads in a song of impending doom. In November, Freeman and the rest of the film's musical cast won a Country Music Association Award for Best Album of the Year.

"I think the CD does preserve his voice by recording him in a state-of-the-art fashion," Zolten said. "And, it also illustrates the fine line between gospel and blues music. Gospel actually is the root of the blues and this album speaks to that.

"There is a recitation at the end of the CD, called "The Liar," which Mr. Freeman learned as a child in Alabama. It is a real piece of folklore. I think the CD will help assure him as a name to be reckoned with in the legacy of African-American vocal music."

Zolten hopes to tour with Freeman and record a second album.

"Of the 30 songs we put together," he said, "we used 10 on the CD, plus one written especially for him by Garrison Keillor, so there is more material available. I hope to be able to preserve that as well."