“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
’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.”