Over the course of more than 45 years in the music business, Lee Fields has sang all over the world, from Japan and Thailand to Russia and Romania, but he’s as surprised as anyone that when he plays a Liveset.com show and hits One Eyed Jacks’ stage on Saturday, April 28, it will be his first time performing in New Orleans. “You know, I can’t believe I haven’t played New Orleans before,” he says. “I’ve played Baton Rouge, Monroe, Lafayette, all throughout Mississippi, but I’ve never played New Orleans. In my whole career!”
That career began with a small single in 1967, and reached its definitive turning point in the late ’80s, when Fields decided against the path of restaurateur and landlord in the mid ’80s. Ever since, it’s been steadily on the rise. In March, he released his crowning achievement: the record Faithful Man. Featuring members of the band that recorded Dr. John’s new Locked Down, the production of hard drums, big bass, and lush arrangements combine beautifully with Fields’ powerful singing of lyrics that run the gamut of issues surrounding human relationships.
Fields grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, about fifty miles from Raleigh. As a paper boy, he would listen Sam Cooke and Otis Redding on his bike while riding his delivery route. “I listened to a lot of music as a teenager with my transistor radio as I was delivering papers,” he explains, “and then one day I decided to maybe get a band. I wanted to become a musician.”
The Beatles’ February, 1964 appearance on Ed Sullivan inspired Fields and his friends to buy instruments and form a band, but it was those friends who dared him to enter their high school talent show, where Fields sang James Brown’s “Out of Sight”. He impressed the older kids in the talent show’s house band, The Mad Hatters, and with his mother’s permission he was soon singing in small North Carolina clubs despite being only 14 years old. “My mother would let me go out there because they always brought me back like they said they would,” Fields remembers. “I always made some money. When I was singing with them, I would bring home maybe $200,” sometimes even a little more depending on what kind of gigs we played. By the age of 16, he was making more money in a week than his hard-working father.
After three years with the Hatters, one night Fields met a New Yorker, Fred Williams, who had been raised in North Carolina. “Aw man, you need to be in the big time,” Fields remembers Williams telling him. “If you’re ever in New York, take this card, just call me. Don’t worry about where to stay, don’t worry about where to eat, I’ll take care of everything. Because you could be big, man, you could be big.”
That was all he had to hear. With a bus ticket from his mother and $20 she had given him in his pocket, Fields came to New York in 1967: “Like ol’ Stevie Wonder said, ‘It’s just like I pictured it!’” Not understanding New York’s transportation options, he immediately took a cab to Williams’ house in Brooklyn—an $18 fare. Luckily, his singing saved. A friend of Williams’ took Fields to different clubs, where he would sing James Brown songs for tips until they had collected $100. It was the beginning of over a decade of steady work in the New York area, including recording what would later become collectible records for many independent labels.
Like many musicians of the classic soul era, Fields had trouble transitioning in the ’80s. “All of my dreams seemed like they were slipping away,” he says about that time. With two kids, he and his wife—married since 1969—looked into buying an apartment building and opening a seafood restaurant on the ground floor. “We went over there, took a look at the building, and went back and sat down in the car. She looked at me and said, ‘I want to ask you something. What do you know about fish?’ I started thinking and I said, “Well, all I know is that it tastes good!” She said, “You need to stick with what you know—you know music.”
The couple invested their money into a computer and modern recording equipment. Lee began recording songs on his own, and fell into an ahead-of-its-time business plan that looks surprisingly similar to the 2012 independent artist blueprint. “In about 1990 I started making [cassette] tapes and giving them out to people…I talked a club owner in Newark into allowing me to come in the club and set up my equipment. I would maybe make 25, 30 tapes, and when people came in the club I’d just give it to them. I started getting a pretty decent crowd, so the club owner started paying me pretty decently.”
Distributing recordings for free to build an audience that pays for live performances—the bread and butter of musicians building a career today. In 1991, though, Fields struck gold with a song called “Meet Me Tonight”. “Instead of people saying ‘Give me a tape’ they said ‘How much you charge for that?’” says Fields. “I think I said to give me five or six dollars. All of a sudden, by the end of the night, all of the tapes I had with that song were gone. It went on like that to a point where I had to send out to get the tapes made up, and then I had records made up. I was playing all around Newark, Jersey City, New York. Just me and a machine and a DJ. That record kept on selling and selling until it was too much for me to press them up, so I signed it over to Ace Records in Jackson, Mississippi. The next thing you know instead of just playing around Jersey now I’m playing all around the Carolinas, I’m playing St. Louis, I’m playing down in Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia—I was playing everywhere.”
A new opportunity arose when record collectors Philip Lehman and Gabe Roth tracked Fields down. “I get a phone call one night asking me was I Lee Fields, the guy who sang “The Bull is Coming” and “Funky Screw”, and I said yeah. I didn’t pay it any mind.” The pair called him back the next day though, and soon after they got together and began James Brown-style funk songs. They released an album and toured England, with Sharon Jones singing backup. All this while Fields was still playing weekly gigs in the South, opening for stars like Tyrone Davis and Johnnie Taylor, on the strength of “Meet Me Tonight”.
Disagreements between Lehman and Roth caused their fledgling record label, Desco, to split into what would become the two powerhouses of the New York soul and funk revival scene of the 2000s: Daptone and Truth & Soul. Not one to pick sides, Fields recorded with both labels. “Just because they’re made at each other, I figured I didn’t have any beef with anyone,” he explains. “You alright with me, Gabe, and Phil, you alright with me. I knew these guys since they were kids!”
While playing a show in France with Daptone artist the Sugarman Three, Fields met French house artist star Martin Solveig. He wound up singing on a few of Solveig’s tracks, several of which became huge French hits. “I said ‘Man, this is too good to be true.’ Here I am flying all over the world with Martin Solveig. I played everywhere: the French Riviera, all over Russia, playing these big parties because he was a big-time DJ. He might send me a ticket to go to Hong Kong, and I had to do maybe 20 minutes. I played with Martin for five or six years. We played all over Europe, all throughout France, down in Phuket in Thailand, up in Istanbul.” He even brought his wife along for many of the trips. “It was like a big vacation, man. Me and the wife have vacationed all around the world.”
The most rewarding work, though, was the recording he was doing on and off during that time with Truth & Soul co-founder Leon Michels. “They would keep on calling me over to do tracks for like two years. I told my wife, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing with the records. They make some good records but I never hear anything from them.’” Finally, he was surprised by a call announcing an album of his had been completed: My World. Fields loved it.
Now, Fields and his Michels-led Expressions have managed to surpass the high bar set by My World with the new Faithful Man. More than a collection of superb songs, the album is tied together with a theme. “We decided to cover the human spectrum of relationships,” Fields explains. “Like the first song on the album, ‘Faithful Man,’ that’s temptation. ‘I Still Got It’ is about confidence. ‘Walk on Through That Door,’ that’s the situation of a person realizing that their relationship is toxic. Now for ‘You’re the Kind of Girl,’ if you got a relationship, whatever it may be, if two people plan on keeping each other they’ve got to tell each other from time to time how great they are and how much they mean to each other. If that’s not done, I can’t see how—and I’m judging by 43 years—I can’t see how a relationship could withstand the bumps in the roads of time. You’ve gotta be able to tell your loved one from time to time how special they are to you.”
After so many ups and downs throughout his years in the music business, it would be easy for Lee Fields to try to rest on the knowledge he’s built up. But it’s precisely from doing the opposite that he keeps up so much energy. “When you find an older guy who says he doesn’t learn, that’s a guy who’s caught up in his ways. And when a guy’s caught up in his ways he’s done. So what I tell myself is that I’m like a child. Any child learns more in the first two or three years of his life than he does in a lifetime. So that’s the way we roll. When people think they know so much, that’s the danger, man. That’s what keeps me energized.”
Lee Fields and the Expressions play One Eyed Jacks on Saturday, April 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. He’ll also appear earlier on Saturday in a small, private concert that will be streamed live online at Liveset.com. The stream starts at 6 p.m. and is free. You can win a spot in the audience by suggesting a question to ask Lee Fields.