ERWIN — Unicoi County native Clarence Bailey remembers standing beside his father and grandfather as a child, trying his best to sing bass as they did.
When his voice changed a few years later, Bailey was able to carry on the family tradition, one that has allowed him to share the stage with a number of gospel musicians, take part in numerous recordings, travel to various parts of the country, and still keeps him busy more than 50 years later.
Bailey, who is most likely recognizable to some in the area for his singing in the American Quartet and The Landmarks, first sang bass with a local church group at the age of 14 as part of a WEMB radio broadcast. A year later he began singing with the Foster Brothers Quartet, a group of teenagers comprised of brothers Gene, Arnold and Gerald Foster and Ralph Hughes. Not only were performances from the group broadcast on WJHL and WCYB, but Bailey said the group also traveled throughout the country to perform, as close as the Carolinas and as far as Midwestern states such as Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
When the Foster Brothers Quartet disbanded, Bailey went on to join the Kingsport-based Apostle Quartet, which included Wallace Nelms, a future member of The Landmarks.
The Foster Brothers Quartet reunited in 1979, and Bailey was back on board, once again performing throughout the country. During this stint, the group was also joined by singer Ronnie Webb, who is now a member of The Landmarks.
Bailey left the Foster Brothers Quartet in 1985 and lent his deep, distinctive voice to the Redeem Singers, a Bakersville, N.C.-based group, until 1992. Throughout the 1990s, Bailey filled in with The Landmarks when needed.
“I couldn’t go with them as their regular bass singer because of my job on the railroad,” Bailey said.
But following his retirement from the railroad in 2000, Bailey was able to join The Landmarks full-time. He said he, Nelms, Webb, and lead singer Larry Pate of Unicoi were on the road “about every weekend,” performing throughout the Midwest and the South.
The Landmarks sold the group’s bus in late 2005 and came off the road. Shortly afterward, the American Quartet asked Bailey to fill-in for the group’s bass singer who was unable to make a scheduled New Year’s concert. Bailey has predominantly performed with the American Quartet ever since.
“I started singing with them as a fill-in that weekend, and I’m still filling in with them,” Bailey said. “That’s the regular group I sing with now. When I sung that next weekend, their bass singer quit.”
The American Quartet travels throughout East Tennessee and the Carolinas, performing at concerts and church services. During open dates on the group’s schedule, Bailey still performs with the reformed Landmarks, with himself, Webb, Pate and North Carolina-native Ernie Phillips making up the group.
Bailey said that whenever he is called upon to help groups in need of a bass singer, he does his best to accommodate. Because of this, he has had the opportunity to perform with local groups such as Majestic Heights and the Harvey Family, and even got the chance to record with the Statesmen Quartet, filling in for regular bass singer James “Big Chief” Wetherington after his vocals were somehow left off of a track.
Bailey said he was raised in church, so singing traditional Southern gospel music was a perfect fit.
“It just felt natural for me to sing gospel music in a quartet,” he said.
It’s a style of music that fewer and fewer are performing, Bailey said. The four men performing four different parts must be perfect on their key, pitch and time.
“You’ve got to say your syllables at the same time that the tenor singer, lead singer and baritone singer says their syllables or you’ve got a miss,” he said.
Bailey said he has taken more money out of his own pocket than he has put into it in his more than 50 years of singing Gospel music. When the American Quartet performs at churches, no money from these churches is requested. Bailey said the true reward from performing outweighs any possible monetary gain.
“It is something that you can do for other people and you can see their enjoyment in what you’re doing,” he said. “Then, the ultimate goal is to deliver the plan of salvation to someone who is not a Christian and maybe, hopefully, get them to make a decision to change their life and turn it around and do the best they can do, which ain’t no better than I can do, to follow in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
While his weekends are often filled, Bailey, who turns 69 early next year, said he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon and said he will keep singing “as long as God gives me the health and the talent.”