Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Lee Fields: Playing the Fields

Lee Fields
Lee Fields Lee Fields Lee Fields Lee Fields

With a recording career spanning 44 years and a back-catalogue which ranges from funk and lo-fi blues to contemporary Southern soul (not to mention collaborations with French house DJ/producer Martin Solveig), raucous-voiced resurgent soul man Lee Fields returns to the UK this July for a headline show at West London venue Under The Bridge.

Born Elmer Fields in North Carolina in 1951, a church-raised adolescent Lee would first find local acclaim in-and-around his small hometown of Wilson as an opening act for visiting chart-toppers like The Platters, Percy Sledge and Solomon Burke before - at 17 years old - moving to New York City, where in 1969 he would cut his debut single “Keep Looking”. Following which the late-Sixties/early-Seventies would find him touring and playing with such funk and soul legends as Kool & The Gang, Sammy Gordon & The Hip-Huggers, O.V. Wright and Darrell Banks while simultaneously picking up the nickname “Little JB” due to his physical and vocal resemblance to The Godfather of Soul himself James Brown.

The Eighties would unexpectedly find him taking an extended break from the music business and deciding to support his then-new family through a new career in real estate. A move which, despite proving financially successful, by the end of the decade would nevertheless find him getting the urge to return to music again - resulting in the early-Nineties seeing Fields back working the live circuit around New York, Jersey and Newark and ultimately signing a new record-deal with Ace Records, for whom in 1992 he released the album “Enough Is Enough”.

However, while mid-Nineties Ace sets like “Coming To Tear The Roof Down” and “Dreaming Big” may have proved sufficient to remind his troupe of supporters that he was still active, the major upturn in Lee’s career would unquestionably arrive a year-or-so later when he ran into Desco Records owners Gabriel Roth and Phillipe Lehman. Who, having followed Fields’ musical adventures over the years and both being fanatics of raw, band-played funk’n’soul, decided he was perfect what they had in mind. Which turned out to be co-opting him into their house-band The Soul Providers as lead-singer for the album “Soul Tequila” (released in 1996 through French outlet Pure) before cutting him on the 1998 solo Desco Records set “Let’s Get A Groove On”, which in turn became the first release to spark serious interest in Lee’s work amongst the modern-day old-skool-funk crowd.

Meanwhile, with Roth and Lehman subsequently falling-out, going their separate ways and setting up their own labels, Lee - as an independent artist - would soon find himself cutting material for both; album-wise resulting in 2001’s “Give Me A Chance” for Roth’s Daptone and 2002’s “Problems” for Lehman’s Soulfire. All of which would ultimately lead to him becoming signed in 2004 to Brooklyn, New York’s Truth & Soul Records. A label co-owned by former Dap-Kings saxophonist Lee Michels and for whom Fields has since released two critically-acclaimed albums - 2009’s “My World” and 2012’s “Faithful Man”. Both of which feature the sweeping, string-laden cinematic soul sound of said label’s house-band The Expressions while additionally boasting the production talents of Truth & Soul owners Jeff Silverman and the aforementioned Michels. A twosome whose other recent credits have included Aloe Blacc’s 2011 international smash “I Need A Dollar” (and accompanying album “Good Things”) in addition to recordings by such bona fide multi-Platinum acts as Adele, Jay-Z and Amy Winehouse.

… All of which brings us neatly to today. As a forthcoming Mr. Fields - whose prolific five-decade career has seen him release on no less than 12 different record-labels! - enjoys a revealing introductory chat with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis prior to his aforementioned upcoming London live show.

PETE: Let’s start by discussing your latest album “Faithful Man”, which has been described as “taking it back to the old skool with a modern take on a vintage sound while telling tales of love, heartbreak and blues in the time-honoured way”…

LEE: “On the album I basically wanted to cover 360 degrees of human relationships by touching on all the emotions that people deal with. Like the title track “Faithful Man” is a song that deals with temptation and how we try to do the right thing at that moment of being tempted. Then we have other tracks on there where we’re dealing with love affairs that didn’t go right, toxic love affairs... Plus, in addition to covering the parameters of human relationships, we also have songs on there like “I Still Got It”. Which deals with the whole situation of getting older and being robbed of your youth, and is basically saying that if you still believe you have something to offer then, regardless of what age you feel, you can still have a fine and wonderful LIFE... So yeah, as I say, what we tried to achieve with this album was to touch EVERYBODY in some way or another. And judging by the response of the crowds we’ve been performing it to, I’d say we’ve ACHIEVED that.”

PETE: Let’s talk about your early years in North Carolina and how they’ve impacted on you as an artist

LEE: “Well, while at first I grew up in the country - in Green County - by the time I reached my teens I was living in a small town called Wilson. And back then, because things were very hard, as a family we had to come up with all kindsa ways to make MONEY. Which was why, to make a little extra change, my father used to run a little speakeasy from HOME. So come Fridays and Saturdays - because we’d have a lotta guests come over - at the age of like six or seven I’d be going to bed listening to the sounds of his STEREO! Which meant people like Jimmy Reid, Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams... You know, from a very early age I was highly influenced by those artists. To where even TODAY I try to carry over those first childhood impressions I had of music into my singing whenever I go into the STUDIO! Rather than tapping into the way I feel now, I go back to those early days to get that energy and to remember the way I felt back when the music was FRESH to me.”

PETE: While you continued recording as a solo artist through the Seventies, by the time the Eighties began you’d decided to opt out of a music career…

LEE: “Well, by the mid-Seventies music had started to change. To where, by the LATE-Seventies it had basically become all about a whole new kinda movement called DISCO! You know, it was like music had turned 360 DEGREES on me! Which is why by the end of the Seventies I thought I was DONE! The shows were coming in more and more sparsely… And, because by then I had a family I had to take care of, I basically just had to go and REINVENT myself! So I decided to go into REAL estate - not as in selling houses, but more as in buying a few properties myself, letting them out and getting a steady income from the RENTS. But though I’d basically decided to put my singing on hold, at the same time the dream itself was always still THERE - it never DIED! So when the Nineties arrived and the opportunity came along for me to get back into the music, I DID! I recorded a song called “Meet Me Tonight”, which became a big blues hit; from that I started doing a lotta shows in the South… And then from there one thing led to another, and I’ve been truly happy ever SINCE!”

The album “Faithful Man” is out now through Truth & Soul Records

Lee Fields & The Expressions perform at Under The Bridge, London on July 26


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