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While James Brown was the hardest-working man in soul music, Lee Fields is the hardest-feeling, dishing out emotional exorcisms with every hoot, holler, and wail. Even the name of his backing band — the Expressions — is loaded with burning sentiment.
This Saturday, Sweat Records will bring Mr. Fields to Miami for some good old-fashioned live music. So New Times got in touch with him to learn a bit about the spirit of soul, dance music, and his 43-year career.
New Times: How is soul music in 2012 different from soul music in 1968?
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Lee Fields: Absolutely nothing. Soul comes from the spirit. I hear a lot of singers describe soul as their trials and tribulations. But soul is dealing with the spirit. And the spirit is of God. When I sing soul, I let the spirit dictate how I should say whatever I'm saying, because the spirit knows how to connect people with people.
Is your lyrical content spiritual?
I'm a secular singer. I sing about here and now. I'm a realist. But I keep my faith and I pray.
Were you in a choir as a child? What was your experience with music growing up?
My mother had us sing on Sundays. You know, your mother has you get up early on Sunday and makes you shine your shoes and go to church.
In North Carolina, when I was 5 or 6 years old, my father did farm work. A decent job was very hard for a black man to find back in those days. So on the weekends, my father and mother would turn their house into a little speakeasy. In other words, they gave a lot of parties. And that's how they saved enough money to buy their first house. Back in the '60s, that was amazing.
I remember the parties and I remember the music — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly. I was watchin' the women on Fridays and Saturdays, man. And the women would be dancing like crazy, doing all of these crazy dances. And everybody's drinkin', havin' a good time. We were supposed to be asleep. But every child who closes his eyes is not asleep.
What really baffled me was we would go to church on Sunday, and now the women are dancing, but they're falling on the floor. The preacher's preachin', and they're reachin' up to the sky and falling on the floor. I became very interested in music because of that. On Friday and Saturday, they sound like they're having a party. And on Sunday, they're falling out. I knew there were two different kinds of music.
Did you have a lot of opportunities to perform in North Carolina? Or did you always know you had to leave to make it?
My brother and I started out as a team, when I was about 14. I was doing James Brown stuff, and he was doing Otis Redding stuff. We had quite a few outlets to play. But I thought that in order to get great opportunities, I needed to go to New York. I was totally naive.
A gentleman had given me a card and said, "If you're ever in New York, call me. You can make it." Without a second thought, I took that seriously. I hadn't called this guy, but when I was about to turn 18, I told my mother I was gonna quit school and go to New York. She cried and begged me to stay. But I had made up my mind. She gave me her last $20 and a bus ticket. And I went to New York.
I was amazed at how big the buildings were. I was like the guy Stevie Wonder was singing about: "New York, just like I always pictured it." I had to get to Brooklyn. So I asked people how to get there, and they told me to take the train. "Train?!" I was totally dumbfounded. "What have I got myself into now?" I hadn't even called this guy yet.
I got a taxi. I had that $20 in my pocket, and the taxi cost me $18 to get to Brooklyn. So now I got $2 in my pocket and I don't know if this guy's home or not. I knocked on the door and he was there. But he was cleaning out his apartment because he was getting married the next day. He was so shocked to see me. He talked to the landlady, and the landlady let me stay there for $25 a week.
What do you think about contemporary music?
I get down with contemporary stuff. You know Martin Solveig? I had three major hits over in Europe: "Jealousy," "I Want You," and "Everybody." All of them were Martin Solveig featuring Lee Fields. He got me all over the dance scene. I was doing dance music for like six years. It was his show. I came out in a black suit, sang, and people went nuts. He sent me all around the world. I hear he's working with Madonna now.
Did you miss soul when you were doing dance music?
I was playing dance music, but I'm a soul man. And I was bringing it to the table like a soul man.