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“I look at the hu­man be­ing as two en­ti­ties, one is the phys­i­cal and what you see in the mir­ror. But the other is the spirit.” The in­com­pa­ra­ble Lee Fields opens his soul to Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

’M READY to rock.” Lee Fields is on the phone and he’s ready to talk about soul mu­sic.

“Soul mu­sic is about spirit, man. I look at the hu­man be­ing as two en­ti­ties, one is the phys­i­cal and what you see in the mir­ror. But the other is the spirit and this is what an­i­mates the body. It’s elec­tric­ity, it’s what makes the body work.

“When I speak about soul, I speak about the an­i­mat­ing force that is not of this earth, that’s for sure. When I sing, I’m be­ing dic­tated by that force and it puts in the pas­sion needed to drive that song and to trans­fer emo­tions to the lis­tener. When you say that you’re re­ally feel­ing what this guy is say­ing in the song, that’s soul mu­sic. It’s com­ing from that place, the right place.”

Lee has been com­ing from the right place all his life. Straight out of North Carolina. De­but record back in 1969 when retro-soul was soul the first time around. Decades of records and tours with OV Wright, Kool and the Gang, Lit­tle Royal and many more. The re­birth in the last few years with the fan­tas­tic My World al­bum in 2009. A re­birth that still go­ing strong with this year’s Faith­ful Man.

He can re­mem­ber the first time he heard soul mu­sic. Back in the day, his home was the party gaff in the neigh­bour­hood and the good times flowed ev­ery week­end.

“My daddy would turn the house into a lit­tle speakeasy at the week­end where peo­ple would come and hang out. Money was tight back then, jobs were hard to come by back then for a black man in North Carolina. The jobs he could get were barely enough for us to sur­vive. That speakeasy was where I be­gan to fall in love with the mu­sic.”

Fields heard and dug them all: Sam Cooke, Muddy Wa­ters, John Lee Hooker and, of course, James Brown. “It was al­ways blues and soul.” He learned that you would never go wrong with blues and soul.

The young Fields had no plans to be­come a singer. “First off, I wanted to be a sol­dier. When that didn’t hap­pen, I was all about try­ing to ac­com­plish some­thing, try­ing to have some­thing. When I started, I wasn’t plan­ning on be­ing a singer. I was more drawn to busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties.”

But Fields could sing. He had the voice, the poise and the panache. “I’d sing Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke songs when I was do­ing my pa­per round be­cause I loved mu­sic. Be­cause of the job sit­u­a­tion my fa­ther was in, I wanted to have some­thing I could hang onto. The elders would say ‘get your ed­u­ca­tion and get a good job so you won’t have to be do­ing the drudgery for­ever’, that kind of thing, the kind of thing elders al­ways say.”

It was James Brown who showed Fields the light. “What drew me to singing was James Brown. Peo­ple used to saw I re­minded them of him. At first I didn’t pay all that much at­ten­tion to it, but then I saw him in a movie and saw what they meant.

“I got on a stage at a tal­ent show and started singing and the girls started go­ing crazy. I said to my­self ‘Lee, this is the busi­ness I got to be in’.” This is fol­lowed by a vol­ley of ex­plo­sive cack­les down the phone. Yes, he saw the light al­right.

Fields quickly fig­ured out there was cash to be made in the singing busi­ness. “I could make a lot more money than I was mak­ing from my pa­pers so I thought maybe I should spend some time on this. One gig led to an­other and an­other and an­other. I then moved to New York and kept gig­ging. It never stopped. Ex­cept for the 1980s, they were kind of slow.”

In the 1990s, Fields was ap­proached by Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth, the duo be­hind the Desco and Dap­tone la­bels. They wanted to re­cruit Fields, record him and re­lease some records.

“I met them and I was go­ing ‘what do these two white guys know about soul?’ But they knew, man, they knew! And in ret­ro­spect, Stax Records! There was white and black peo­ple work­ing there, it was never one or the other, the mu­sic was the uni­fy­ing thing. It was like a rain­bow rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple and backgrounds.”

Fields praises Lehman and Roth to the skies. “I’d give the credit for this soul re­vival to them. At the time, I had a hot south­ern soul record called Meet Me Tonight and I was do­ing the south­ern soul and blues cir­cuit with peo­ple like Ty­rone Davis and John­nie Tay­lor.

“But Philip and Gabriel were the first to re­alise there was a big­ger au­di­ence for this sound. They started pro­duc­ing and re­leas­ing records by me, Sharon Jones and other artists. They wanted to do records like they were done back in the day and the way the records turned out are a trib­ute to their vi­sion and pas­sion and the bril­liant play­ers as well. They were smart.”

This brings Fields back to talk­ing about soul mu­sic again. “The soul that I sing comes from the fields in slave times when peo­ple were out there work­ing un­der the hot sun. It comes from the en­ergy and the pain and burden of those times when peo­ple tried to get as soul­ful and spir­i­tual as they could.

“They’d sing be­cause even though they were in a very bad place as re­gard to their phys­i­cal sur­round­ings, they could sing and get as close to the spirit as pos­si­ble and be moved and lessen the pain. When I sing, re­gard­less of how tired or drained I am, I’m try­ing to con­nect with that spirit and that spirit en­er­gises me and gives me peace and com­fort and joy.”

He draws a line be­tween singing for the Lord and singing for his sup­per.

“Church peo­ple are singing about the good news. We soul singers don’t for­get about the good news, but we know that we have to also deal with the here and now as well.

“It’s right and proper to give thanks to the Lord, but we also have to deal with how we sur­vive right here right now. We sing about what’s hap­pen­ing to us now, we sing about our sit­u­a­tions, we sing about our joy and pain in this world. Give to the Lord what is due to the Lord and give to Cae­sar what is due to Cae­sar. I don’t know about Cae­sar, but I hope I’ve paid all my dues to the Lord.” An­other loud cackle comes down the phone.

These days, Fields is in clover. The ret­rosoul re­leases have given him a new lease of life and he gets to record and tour and bring his soul mu­sic to the world. Things could not have worked out bet­ter for Lee Fields.

“Man, I’m hav­ing a ball,” he ex­claims. “This is gravy, this is the cream on the top. Ev­ery day is brighter than the one which passed by. More and more peo­ple are com­ing round to what I’m do­ing. I don’t take it for granted be­cause it’s not about me. It’s about all the peo­ple around me. It’s not one man, it’s a lot of peo­ple. When we come to­gether, all egos are dropped at the door and we’re a team. I use terms like ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’ rather than ‘ me’ and ‘I’. And it’s a beau­ti­ful thing.”

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