Interview: Lee Fields on staying young, working with electronic music producers, and being more than ‘Little JB’

 
 

Usually when people think of soul music, they think of artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Hits such as “I Feel Good”, “Ain’t That Peculiar”, “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”, and “Respect” will take up residence in your head and never want to leave. There’s another soul artist that has been mostly under the radar and still going strong since the late 1960’s. That’s Lee Fields, he’s had a prolific career that’s lasted over 40 years and he’ll be touring through New England over the next few days with his backing band The Expressions.

Fields kicked off a mini tour of the frigid Northeast last night at The Iron Horse in Northampton, and comes to a sold-out Sinclair in Cambridge tonight and Fete Music Hall in Providence on Saturday before heading to Philadelphia for a special Valentine’s Day show at The Fillmore’s Foundry. With a busy weekend ahead, Vanyaland had a chat with Fields about what keeps him performing live at his age, working with Martin Solveig, being compared to James Brown, soul music in the 2010s and what fans can expect from him for the rest of the year.

Rob Duguay: Since you put out “Bewildered” in 1969, you’ve had a career spanning over 15 albums, countless singles and numerous EPs with your most recent release being Emma Jean in 2014. Most musicians from the era you started from who are still around have either retired, they haven’t toured in quite some time and/or it’s been a while since they’ve released new material. What motivates you to still be a prolific artist?

Lee Fields: For the love of music and the appreciation that the audience shows. I would say that it’s a duel between the latter being number one and just the love of music. What the people give me when they come to see my shows it can’t be explained. It can’t be explained because the feeling is so rewarding and energizing to see people respond the way they respond. I can’t find words to describe.

When you have a sincere love for performing you just want to keep on doing it. When you feel the electricity from the crowd you must appreciate it even more.

It keeps me motivated and it keeps me wanting to do it over and over. The places where I perform where people are feeling what I’m doing and getting to take the stage in front of these people all over the world is like a dream. If it is a dream, please don’t wake me up.

Let’s hope it isn’t.

[laughs]

In 2006, you recorded “Jealousy” with acclaimed French producer and DJ Martin Solveig and you both followed that up with “I Want You” in 2008. There’s a certain disco vibe with both songs. What was it like working with Martin? Did you ever feel out of your element?

No. I’m never out of my element. Not to say it in a pompous manner, I’m not one of those guys with a huge ego. All things are in my element because I see things for what they are. Working with Martin was an intricate and important part of what I do. I enjoyed working with Martin and I enjoyed where he was taking music and he’s still taking music in that direction. I’m not out of my element because I try to look at things from a broader perspective. In other words, I try not to pigeon-hole myself into a certain thing. Although I’m not a great singer, I’m not a great anything but all things I appreciate. From the philosophy of Plato to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which I’m not really intelligent at. I’m not eccentric, I’m just a guy who enjoys life and I look at everything. I don’t let anything pass me by, I look at everything.

That’s a refreshing perspective to have. Throughout your career you’ve been compared to James Brown to the point where people even refer to you as “Little JB”. How do you take those comparisons? Do you embrace it? Does it bother you at all?

You know, a resemblance to James Brown is a resemblance to The Godfather. So being compared to him I see as what people would normally do. There’s an uncanny resemblance and our voice textures are similar and to accept that in regards to being compared to one of the greatest entertainers that has ever lived is a huge compliment. It’s a true compliment and I take that in high regard. I think people that know what I do know that Lee is Lee. They know my voice, they know who I am.

It’s great to know that you welcome it rather than being alienated by it. You said it yourself, you’re being compared to The Godfather Of Soul and things could be a lot worse. This decade especially has seen soul music making a distinct comeback with the likes of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Charles Bradley and many others getting noticed far and wide. What did you think when you saw all of these new soul artists popping up out of the woodwork?

Sharon actually used to be my backing singer for a group called The Soul Providers before The Dap-Kings changed their name to The Dap-Kings. I was the lead singer for that band, Sharon was well prepared and trained with the expertise of The Dap-Kings so she didn’t really pop up out of the woodwork. Charles Bradley is a friend of mine and he toured with me on his first album. I take my hat off to Charles and I wish him continued success, he’s a good friend of mine.

As far as other artists that have taken the role of soul, I’m happy to know that people still love the music so much. Especially talented people who can take any road they want to go down and they choose the soul road for what they want to do with their musical life. I’m very, very appreciative and very gratified that people are taking that soul route. Soul is from the spirit and the spirit is from God. The word soul when they say soul music has a history all the way back to biblical times. This is about the spirit, this is what my people had through slavery and it has the same kind of feeling with other people who had been enslaved, put in bondage and were put in dire circumstances at the time. Music is always there.

It’s still early in the year but what do you have planned for the rest of 2016? Can we expect a new release from you and The Expressions?

Oh yeah, absolutely. We’re working on some material as we speak. We’re going to do some more songwriting and we’re trying to make sure that we choose the right songs. We don’t choose songs about what’s popular today. We’re not a cookie cutter band, we don’t want to make something similar to these guys or that guy just for the financial sake of it.

What we try to do is make songs that we really believe that people are really thinking about, songs that the people are really into. That’s our way of doing things and we’re in the process of trying to dig as deep within our own. Writing songs about what needs to be said right now to put people in more of a happier mood or to identify with what people are thinking. Keeping it fresh.

LEE FIELDS AND THE EXPRESSIONS :: Friday, February 12 at the Sinclair, 52 Church St. in Cambridge MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, sold out :: Bowery event page :: Saturday, February 13 at Fete Ballroom, 103 Dike St. in Providence, RI :: 7 p.m., all ages, $15 in advance and $18 at doors :: Fete event page

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