Lee Fields: out from James Brown's shadow | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Lee Fields: out from James Brown's shadow 

Lee Fields: an old soul who has stayed relevant

Photo courtesy of the Windish Agency

Lee Fields: an old soul who has stayed relevant

The year was 1967, and Lee Fields had just finished singing a set at Tom Woodards, a juke joint tucked away in the forest outside Wilson, N.C. Fields remembers it as the kind of rough-and-tumble, liquor-license-free setting that cooked on the weekends and brooked no half-assed performances; you brought it all or you didn't bother getting on stage.

"You could hear the bass way before you get to the place," says Fields, 61, from his Plainfield, N.J., home.

Fields was just 16 on that long-ago night, so when a well-dressed man handed him his business card with a New York City address and told him that was where he needed to be singing, it left a big impression. If he ever made it up there, the man added, Fields should look him up.

The man was right, of course. If Fields wanted to be on the radio like his heroes James Brown, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and—this being Southern radio—Porter Wagoner, he'd have to leave Wilson. He'd have to leave behind his three siblings and the small house that his father, John, a construction worker, had labored so long and hard to pay for. But mostly he'd have to cope with the emphatic objections of his beloved mama, Emma, who'd introduced him to singing at Sunday services but wanted him to attend college.

Yet the dream of seeing his name on a big marquee engulfed him. So, taking the well-dressed gentleman at his word, when Fields turned 17, he packed a duffel bag and headed to New York City. By the time he showed up at the address on the business card in Brooklyn, Fields had $2 left in his pocket and no idea if the man even still lived there; he'd never bothered calling ahead or telling him he was coming.

"Man, I was so naïve," Fields says, laughing at his younger self. "I didn't even know this cat—I'd met him one time. But the stars got stuck in my eyes: 'Man, New York! That's where I'm going!'"

His timing proved fortuitous, and the man—Fred Williams, who now lives back in Wilson and is still in contact with Fields—proved gracious. Williams was getting married that same day and giving up his $100-a-month apartment; he asked his landlady to let Fields step into the week-by-week lease, and she agreed. At the wedding, Fields made a friend close to his own age, who took him to a local club that night after Fields told him he had come to New York to make it as a singer. When he got up on stage and began belting out Southern blues and James Brown moves, Fields couldn't believe the audience's reaction: They threw money at his feet.

By the end of the night, Fields had nearly a month's rent and some partying money (cigarettes were 27 cents a pack, gas 33 cents a gallon in '67). In the weeks that followed, he sang and danced at some of the hottest clubs in the borough and beyond: Tempo Soul City, the Fulton Terrace, the Boston Road Ballroom and 521, where the owner, Gene Goldstein, allegedly ran numbers when we wasn't booking Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex, or pre-disco Millie Jackson and Gloria Gaynor.

"I hardly ever saw Gene," Fields says with a diplomatic parry. "Only thing I knew, he was a smooth operator, well dressed every time you saw him. And when we got paid, he'd always pull out this big roll of bills—I don't know how in the world he got that roll in his pocket—and break you off whatever he owed. The money was always straight."

No matter where Fields sang during his first weeks in New York, he says the make-it-rain response was the same. And though that promising beginning may not have led to stardom, it did kick-start an enduring professional singing career that, now in its fifth decade, could reach its aesthetic and popular peak with the release of Lee Fields & the Expressions' second LP, the marvelously soulful Faithful Man. And though his family soon followed him up the East Coast and his trips back home became less frequent, his North Carolina roots still play a pivotal role in his music and, indeed, in everything Fields does.

Faithful Man's old-school soul builds on the groundswell that 2009's My World initiated for Fields among another generation of soul music fans. Interest in the music, especially the undiluted funk and soul of the 1960s and early '70s, has helped older artists like Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones rekindle their careers after decades of stasis. (Jones got her revival break singing backup for Fields in 1996.) But with the exception of a stint in real estate during the '80s soul music drought, Fields has been a tireless working musician ever since he arrived in Brooklyn.

Still, the country boy landed in the middle of a heady era in New York, and the temptations were legion. Fields says he partied hard for two years and even looked the part, driving around in an enormous Cadillac in his "gangster hat—just like it was in the movies, man!"

But he saw soon enough where that trail led, and he wasn't interested in going down it. "With my Southern upbringing, I still had a lot of that church in me, you know? So a lot of things I wouldn't do. I saw things that were happening there, a lot of very promiscuous things, and I relied on my church upbringing and what my mother and father taught me to keep me from it."

Right before his 19th birthday, Fields got married and turned his focus almost exclusively to his music career. (Forty-three years later, he's still married to the same woman, with whom he has three children.) His first single, "Bewildered" b/w "Tell Her I Love Her," came out in 1969 on the Bedford label. It's now a collector's item. Fields' vocals on the A-side's organ-saturated slow blues groove sound like those of a much more experienced singer. They hint at the emotional honesty of Redding and ride the dynamic pulse of Brown; Fields even throws out a couple of emphatic yelps in the coda, just like the Godfather of Soul might have.

Through the '70s, Fields followed with a series of hard funk singles for various long-gone labels and eventually released his first full-length in '79; mint copies of Let's Talk It Over sell for high-three and four figures on collectors' sites. But even though his delivery was versatile enough to earn him singing slots in that decade with acts ranging from Kool & the Gang to funk guitar wizard Sammy Gordon & the Hip-Huggers, the nickname "Little J.B." stuck.

That didn't exactly hurt Fields when he first hooked up with the hard funk revivalists of the '90s, but he first had to weather the '80s. The disco era left few true soul survivors standing. If you weren't playing drum machine-based soul in the '80s, Fields says, you were considered washed up. He adapted his approach to have three dance songs chart in Europe during that decade, but you can hear the resignation in his voice when he says the '80s were "very, very difficult for me" as a musician.

As it turned out, he only had to wait a few years to return to his roots. Fields' re-emergence coincided with hip-hop's funk-and-soul sampling craze of the early '90s and the crate-digging Northern Soul revival in the British Isles (c.f., The Commitments, the '91 film). After the faux-soul of '80s synth-and-beats R&B, audiences yearned for some grease in their funk and some genuine soul in their soul. On the strength of a jukebox favorite, "Meet Me Tonight," released in late 1990, Fields returned to the road as a soul-blues crooner and played—often to mostly female audiences—the Chitlin' Circuit from St. Louis and Jackson to Pensacola and D.C.

He eventually signed to Ace and released three LPs in the mid-'90s. The songs reveal a voice and delivery that still pack plenty of power and emotion, especially given that the music was watered down by digital synths and the leftover wet-snare sound so ubiquitous in the '80s.

Thankfully, Fields came to the attention of Phillip Lehman and Gabriel Roth, who started the Desco label in 1996. Their stated mission was to revive the undiluted sound of "hot and nasty" '60s and '70s funk, and they released a gaggle of 45s from artists like Sugarman 3, Joseph Henry and Sharon Jones, many with the label's house band, the Soul Providers. Fields recorded a blazing funk track ("Steam Train") that made the Soul Providers' debut full-length in 1996, Soul Tequila (later reissued on vinyl as Gimme the Paw in 2000). Several more singles followed, and though he may not have known it at the time, he'd begun the most fertile chapter of his career.

In 2000, Desco split into Roth's Daptone and Lehman's Soul Fire labels. Before Desco closed, though, Fields and the Soul Providers released Let's Get a Groove On in 1999, a gritty and hard-hitting backbeat funk party with Fields doing nothing to dispel the James Brown comparisons. Allmusic.com's review of Fields' next full-length, 2002's Problems, even complained that the music didn't quite live up to Groove or Fields' "irresistible James Brown Disciple Number One act."

In a nice bit of symmetry, one of the Soul Providers, Leon Michels, had first toured with Fields when he was 16. Michels had already started a band, the Mighty Imperials, which also recorded for Desco. Together with Jeff Silverman, he would form Truth & Soul records in 2004, once Lehman shuttered Soul Fire. Fields was one of the first people the new label reached out to, and thus began the five-year process of recording My World—this time with the Expressions, a backing band with some familiar faces in it.

"It's the same clan of musicians that I've known ever since they were teenagers," says Fields. "They're like my musical sons."

Michels is now practically a grizzled vet at 29, but he says he's still amazed by Fields' professionalism after all these years. "When we go on tour, he's literally the only one not complaining," he laughs. "He's just down for anything. He puts in the work and then he gets on stage and gives it everything he's got every single night."

What's emerged over these most recent records is a new and more nuanced soul singer. And just in time, too. As much as that close association with Brown may have helped revive his career, it also limited Fields. Even now with the Expressions, when he sounds more like an Al Green/ Wilson Pickett hybrid fronting the Impressions or O'Jays, there are Brown fans out there who are quick to dismiss Fields as a cheap knockoff. (An irate fan recently blasted NPR on its website for wasting coverage on a "second rate James Brown hack.")

Faithful Man should dispel that idea once and for all. The record sounds like a compendium of flawlessly blended soul styles, all set in a variety of indigo moods to match the themes of love and relationships that the songs build on. It fulfills Truth & Soul's mission of creating a soul LP that is both "tough as nails and sweet as honey," with lush strings and vocals layered over hard-hitting rhythms. Michels, who plays saxophone, keys and guitar, also arranged the rich Philly Soul-style strings on both records; he concedes that he didn't much know what he was doing the first time around on My World, and says Silverman is "10 times better" at engineering now, too.

Instead of the years-long, piecemeal writing and recording approach of My World, these songs were worked out over a three-month stretch of 10-hour sessions diligently adhered to two and three times a week. Fields typically took a couple of different approaches to each song, then went back and sang it with as much feeling as he could muster once he'd decided on a particular attack. The process was often painstaking, but Fields still sees making—and sharing with the public—that elusive true soul sound as a privilege and honor.

"It's like we're chasing after an unseen substance; you can't feel it, you can't touch it and you can't see it," he says. "You know it's there when you are aware of it from the inside, from your psyche. It's all about the spirit, it's all about singing from the spiritual self, although it has nothing to do with religion. It's like a GPS for the soul, man."

The secret to these two records with the Expressions, he adds, has everything to do with following that guidance system all the way back to where, and how, he was brought up.

"I'm a Jerseyite now, but I'm still a North Carolinian at heart," he says. "The way I approach songs, I think about some of the things I learned and experienced as a boy growing up in Wilson. I try to approach my music as that fresh mind every time that I record. When I do that, I give more vigor to the recording."

His vigor would be impressive at any age, let alone 61. But it's his commitment to this music that comes through in every soulful or funky note and keeps it from sounding like a museum piece or K-tel tribute collection. As Michels says, "The term 'retro' makes my skin crawl. To me, what's retro is Bruno Mars on stage dressing like a doo-wop band in matching gold suits—that's fucking retro. Lee is a soul singer, period. It's just real music."


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