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Bring Back the Funk

Lee Fields and the Sugarman 3 prove it's all about the groove

Lee Fields is so funky you have to take out mold insurance before you can get near him. Long well known to the likes of hardcore funk aficionados and serious record collectors, lately he's been busting out all over the world with his return to classic funk and soul sounds.

In the early '70s, Fields earned a name for himself with the classic 45s "Funky Screw," "Let's Talk It Over" and "Everybody Gonna Give Their Thing Away to Somebody (Sometime)," all of which today fetch upward of $75 on eBay. Fields also performed with an early incarnation of Kool & the Gang back then but never cut anything with them.

During the '80s he disappeared from the scene, only to come back in the last decade with three soul-blues records on the Ace label and another one on Avanti. His monster record Let's Get a Groove On, released on the New York-based retro-funk Desco label, marked his return to old-school funk in 1999. Hailed by critics as the best James Brown album in 25 years, it solidified Fields's place in funk history.

Fields gazes into a future full of funk and free of fried fish.
Fields gazes into a future full of funk and free of fried fish.

Despite the fact that it owes an obvious stylistic debt to the hardest-working man in show business, it also proved that the man once known as Little J.B. was no mere imitator.

"I'm a funkster, and I'm a blues guy," he says from his home in New Jersey. "When I sing, there's elements of all music. When I write, there's a particle here and a particle there."

In addition to a dollop of funk and a mess of blues, there's also more than a smidgen of organ-drenched, Jimmy Smith-style soul-jazz in the band's music. Basically, for Fields, if it grooves, it moves, and to hell with the rest. "It's just about making the groove right," he says. "It's like what the JBs have over so many new funk bands in knowing what not to play. Our thing is to make it raw and hypnotic."

His enthusiasm for his music and his bandmates can't be contained -- he puts more energy and soul into an interview than most bands put into a live performance. Ask how he spent the 1980s, for example, and prepare for him to testify.

"I was engaged into being an entrepreneur," he opens, with the same confessional tone of a sinner relating a tale of woe overcome. "I was buying some properties with some money I had saved in the '70s. It became very lucrative. I have no regrets about that, but there was a longing. Sometimes we might think we have everything. Back then I might go and cut ten or 15 minutes in the studio, but that was it. I was doing the real estate thing. Everything was solid for me financially. I was driving new cars, dressing sharp and had a pocket full of cash. I was happy and content, but something was missing."

So he once was lost. But then one day, he was found. Read on, as Fields orates the parable of the fish sandwich: "What happened was I went to look at some property in Newark; it had an apartment on top and on the ground floor they were selling fish sandwiches. I thought it would be a good thing to go over and get that property. So I brought the idea to my wife and she said, 'What do you know about cooking fish?' And when she said that, that's what really rang a bell. After that it was all about focusing on the music. The more I got into real estate, the further and further I got away from music, and I was becoming more and more unhappy. Now since I've been back in music, my life is complete. I've been all over the world and crowds have been great."

The other half of the equation is the Sugarman 3. The lineup includes the leader and namesake saxman, Neal Sugarman, drummer Lee Albin, organist Adam Scone and guitarist Alex Street. They've also added a trumpet player for this tour, and counting Fields, the three have become six. Fields has nothing but high praise for the trio times two.

"They generate a sound that goes down all the way to the pit of the heart, and when it touches the people, you can tell, you start seeing them jumping a little bit," he says, just getting warmed up himself. "You know you're down to the soul then. They keep laying that groove and laying that groove [and] all of a sudden the audience is like total euphoria. It's like a place, but you can't get there in your car. You can't get there in no vehicle. The only vehicle that can take you there is the right melody, and them boys got it, man.

"I'll tell you one thing, what goes in your ear will end up on your tongue. The music is so good, you're gonna have to taste it. It's like they be playing all kind of different flavors…it's like bein' in a musical candy store, all of these good assortments of flavors. And it's gonna taste good. Every time I start talking about it I get so excited!"

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