Soul Brother Lee Fields: Singing "Brings On the Sweats"
Photos courtesy of Truth and Soul Records
Whatever you may be doing right now, Lee Fields is having more fun than you are. In January the sixtysomething New Jersey-based soul singer will perform in Australia, meaning his high-energy delivery (now backed by his airtight band the Expressions) will have thrilled audiences on every continent outside Antarctica. He'd probably play a research station down there if it had a PA system.
Fields' enthusiasm is catching; you can practically hear him grinning over the phone.
"I feel like Superman," Fields glows from a recent tour stop on the way to Madison, Wisconsin. "Everything's been going so well for me. Everything's just been so wonderful, seeing so many places in the world. The more places the merrier, you know? I'm just having a grand time."
Like his close contemporary Charles Bradley, North Carolina native Fields is a journeyman soul singer who is doing some of his best work in his golden years. With last year's Faithful Man on Truth and Soul Records, Fields has now released music in six decades dating back to his 1969 breakthrough single "Bewildered." Although he has collaborated with Madonna's MDNA DJ Martin Solveig, yielding funk workouts like "Superficial" and "Jealousy," Fields' potent sound remains largely untouched by modern studio trickery. He sounds just fine on his own.
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According to his Truth and Soul Records bio, Fields has recorded for at least 12 different record labels and worked with who knows how many producers. His dynamic stage show earned him the early nickname "Little J.B." (as in James Brown), and he actually sang for Kool & the Gang for about six months when that group was a successful act in the New York area but the "Celebration" hadn't really started yet. Weathering the disco era taught Fields to be flexible, he says.
"It made me very aware of how music changes, and how in order to survive in this business you have to be very vigilant," muses Fields. "You have to be watchful of the changes. But also you stay who you really are, and you watch the music so you can put who you really are into today.
"That's what I do," he affirms. "I'm the same guy, but I know how to sing a certain way to make it fit in with what's happening right now."
Interview continues on the next page.
1979's Let's Talk It Over: Dig the threads.
After the '80s "chilled off" for Fields, his career reignited with "Thief In the Night," a hit on the Southern soul circuit in the early '90s. He cut a few records for Dap-Tone records - home to arguably the retro-soul revival's leading act in Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - before landing at Brooklyn-based Truth and Soul, which released 2009's My World as well as Faithful Man and this year re-released his plaintive 1979 LP Let's Talk It Over.
Truth and Soul also matched Fields with the Expressions, a younger group of musicians who must have stayed after class polishing that classic soul sound and sturdy funk grooves. Fields, who has been out with the Expressions for most of the year -- two weeks at a time before a few days off -- says his outfit requires barely any rehearsal.
"Everybody in the band is a perfectionist," he beams. "They play it just like it's supposed to be played."
Fields orders up some room service.
Fields' fortysomething years of performing and collaborating has given him a keen idea of what a good soul song should be.
"A soul song should have so unadulterated feelings for whatever the story is for that song," he says. "Most soul songs have a story, and whatever the story is, the artist should be able to sing that story with conviction to a point of where it's believable.
When you hear the song, you believe that whatever the story is, it has happened," continues Fields. "The artist has to sing it with true conviction."
Fields sings with the kind of conviction that, not long after the opening notes of the Expressions' set, his brow will be glistening and his sharp suit will already show signs of soaking through. He's not shy about the source of all his energy, either.
"I truly believe that a soul singer has to sing with the spirit, because the spirit is the soul," Fields says. "And when you have faith -- my belief that there's a creator is very, very, very real for me. So I pray that the spirit enters my body, and I pray that people can feel that.
"So I sing the songs, and I pray that I be touched, and that I will touch the people." he continues. "That's the way I go about it, and that brings on the sweats. When I feel that, it's energy, man. I look around and I'm reaching for a towel."
Lee Fields & the Expressions perform Sunday, November 10 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Mikey & the Drags open; doors open at 7 p.m.
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