BY JONATHAN VALANIA Lee Fields may well be the slowest-rising star in show business — he’s certainly among the sweetest. At 63, an age when most artists of his style and stature have long since been put out to pasture, Fields’ career is just now catching fire, after decades of fits and starts — and even a premature retirement in the 80s — stretching back to his first recording in 1969. Which works out well because everybody knows that happy endings in show biz come to those who see it as a marathon, not a sprint. And by anyone’s measure, Lee Fields is winning, and not just in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word.
Born in the South but having lived most of his life in or around New York City, Fields was blessed with voice that many compared to a young James Brown, so much so that he was dubbed ‘Little JB’. Fields rode out the 70’s with a string of rawboned funk/soul recordings that never quite became hits, but years later would become prized artifacts amongst hardcore soul scholar/collectors. Frustrated by his lack of commercial success and with a family to raise, Fields quit music and went into real estate. But the fire in the belly never really went away.
At his wife’s urging he started performing again in the 90s, eventually finding himself in the employ of Gabe Kaplan and Philippe Lehman, a pair of Brooklyn hipster soul merchants, who were almost single-handedly reviving the classic funk/soul brotherhood with labels like Desco, Soul Fire and Daptone. This led to a hitmaking partnership with French DJ/house music It Boy Martin Solveig in the early aughts and culminated in Faithful Man, his 2012 homage to the Philly International sound. In advance of his performance tonight at Penn’s Landing, with Ted Leo, we got Mr. Fields on the phone to talk about all the above and then some.
LEE FIELDS: My mother was a gospel singer, singing in the church. My dad had a band when he was a young man, and had all the latest records and stuff around the house. Between the church and between my dad, it was inevitable. I was destined to do music. But I didn’t take it serious as a singer until I was about fourteen, when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. I said, “Oh man, that looks like a cool thing to do.” One night I had a dare to go on a talent show. I took my friend up on the dare, and won the talent show. And when I saw the girls going crazy I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
PHAWKER: You saw the Beatles in ’63, that’s when you decided that this was something you’d be interested in doing. It would be another six years or so, when you did your first proper recording. Tell me about the circumstances of the first recording session. How did that come about?
LEE FIELDS: My manager at the time, this guy found me at a club and he wanted to manage me. I didn’t know. I thought that’s how it happened. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he wanted to manage me. It seemed like I had a person on my team. I wasn’t out there by myself anymore. So, he wanted to record me. We went from New York, where I was living at the time, all the way down to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Arthur Smith’s studio where James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” We recorded “Bewildered” and I started building up my first fan base around New York. But the my career stagnated for a minute, until the early seventies when I recorded Let’s Talk it Over. Until then, I was still working a lot around New York in various clubs, Long Island and places. So I was very excited, no doubt.
PHAWKER: What happened with the “Let’s Talk it Over” album?
LEE FIELDS: London Records picked it up, so it got a lot of recognition at the time. It was working very good for a few years but the deal fell through on the record because music was starting to change. More pop-oriented acts. So, that fell a[art. It took me a while to get over the initial shock that I wasn’t with them anymore ‘cause you know, you’re a young man, you’re dreaming. You think that this is gonna be it. So that was one of the things that gave me hard skin, man. That tough skin. I realized that the problem with the music business is that nothing is predictable. You gotta go by your gut feeling, and you gotta have confidence in yourself. I remember the Bible teachings that my mother taught me, about having faith. That’s what I thought and really focused on. There must be some power other than the things that I could do. So I began to believe that a person making it out here would need energy from faith. I happen to be Christian, so I did a lot of hard work and a lot of praying.
PHAWKER: You have a remarkable voice and it’s often compared to a young James Brown. I’m wondering, did you ever meet him or did you ever see him live back in the day?
LEE FIELDS: I saw him live and I met him. I met him down at Augusta in ’73. I was a young kid, you know, early twenties. And I said ‘Oh, wow. I’m gonna meet James Brown at his radio station.’ He owned a radio station, WRDW, down in Augusta. One of the guys at the radio station, one of the DJs, brought me in. He had a show that he was producing, so he brought me in. I was being interviewed on the radio station; James Brown was just getting back from Japan. They said he was coming out to the station I was being interviewed on to introduce a tour. It was so amazing; I was in a state of awe. That day felt like a dream. It was so surreal. He was definitely my hero.
PHAWKER: Do you remember what he said to you?
LEE FIELDS: I was so star struck. He would talk to me, but it was like a dream. It just got really real. He said some good things, “Young man, you’ve got to have confidence in yourself and your music.” He said something of that nature. “You’ve got to work hard.” He told me some wise things, as you would expect. “Everything will come through.”
PHAWKER: For much of the eighties, you were not doing music, at least publicly. What were you doing during that time?
LEE FIELDS: I was pretty active up until the eighties. I had my fan base and everything, and I was doing quite a few gigs. But in the eighties, new music stepped in. It was like, dance music. I began to listen to dance music very carefully. I learned as much as I could about dance music. But it seemed like it just wasn’t my time. I had a family then, and it was my dream to raise my kids right. Being a father, I had to man up. I had to bring in some bread. I had to reinvent myself. I bought a lot of real estate books, and read up about real estate. Once I got the hang of it I got a few cheap properties and fixed them up myself. Taught myself how to put the hot water heater in, that kind of thing. I had to learn a lot of stuff, because I couldn’t afford to pay nobody. I had to learn a lot about houses, how to fix them up, and rent them out. I liked it because in the beginning my desire was to become a businessman. But I still had a burning desire for music. It was there. I was still keeping up with all of the good records. The show business bug was still there.
PHAWKER: In the early 90s, you got back in the game. What changed?
LEE FIELDS: I was gonna buy a building over in Newark that had three apartments and a storefront. I was gonna rent out the apartments, and turn the storefront into an eatery that sold fish sandwiches for carryout. I saw a [carry out fish place across town] where it looked like he was making a killing doing that, selling fish. I firgured I had three apartments to rent. That would cover the mortgage, and give me a decent cash flow. Then I just turned the storefront portion of the place into a carryout fish place, and I thought it was a good idea. But then I took my wife over to look at this building. I knew she was gonna love it. I explained the plan to her, but she had a look in her eyes. She seemed a bit reluctant to do this. When I got over to the place, she looked at it. She looked at me and said, “What do you know about fish?” I said, “Well, it tastes good.” [Laughs] And she said, “You don’t know nothin’ about fish. How would you keep them?” When I thought about it, I didn’t. She advised me to stick with what I knew. I knew music.
For most of the ‘90s I was quite busy working the blues circuit. Then I met [co-owners of the now defunct Desco Records] Gabe Roth and Phil Lehman about ’97. Next thing you know I’m all the way in London, and the next thing you know, I’m on tour with The Soul Providers. I was touring all over the place, and liking it. One song led to another, and next thing you know, that label became defunct. Phillippe Lehman and Gabe Roth, they were no longer partners. Roth started up Daptone [and Lehman started Soul Fire records, which later became Truth & Soul] So I was recording for Roth’s label as well as recording for Lehman. Then they changed the name from the Soul Providers to the Dap-Kings. Sharon Jones was singing for the Dap Kings, and I was singing with the Sugarman 3, which was a smaller unit, so we could go to places that we couldn’t take the big band. So we went all over Europe, and all kind of places, opening up doors. This French DJ named Martin Solveig heard one of my tracks and he wanted me to cut this song called “Good Man” with him. Cause I wasn’t on contract with anybody. So I cut a song with Martin Solveig around 2000, and he called me back about a year and a half later wanting to do another song. In 2003 with “Everybody,” and that was a huge record in Europe. It was a dance record. Now here I am singing house music! I didn’t change my style, I’m still a soul man. I was singing soul on a house record, and next thing you know, we’re touring in Europe everywhere. That went on for about six years.
Next, Leon Michaels and Jeff Silverman said they had a project they wanted me to work on. I was busy now, busier than I ever was in the nineties. Early two-thousands, I’m still busy. I was singing with Martin Solveig at the time, I would fly home from Russia or France and I would go into the studio and record with them That went on for two years. We started around 2004, but there was so much stuff happening. They didn’t tell me what they were doing with the recordings. Around 2006, they tell me that the album is finished. I said, “What album?” They said “You got an album out there.” I was wondering what happened to all of those songs. It was the My World album. I came home from recording that day and told my wife, “Guess what? We got an album, baby!” She was so happy. I’ve been on the road ever since. Then the Faithful Man album came along. So, since 1990 I’ve been super busy. All over the place. And I’m still busy thanks to God Almighty.
PHAWKER: One of your best-known recordings is a track called, “Funky Screw.” So, what is a ‘funky screw’?
LEE FIELDS: The Funky Screw is a dance. The title is a little provocative. In the ‘70s, everything was totally provocative. Even today, I think it went overboard. Back then it was good to have a title that might suggest [sex], but when you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about something else. The “Funky Screw” is a provocative title, but it’s a dance. It has nothing to do with what it may imply. Back in the ‘70s, if you had a provocative title, the lyrics must be clean. But nowadays, they have provocative titles and the lyrics match the titles. Back then, they left something to the imagination. In other words, you could listen in front of your kids. They would have no idea what you were talking about. That’s how they made songs like that. But nowadays, there’s nothing left to the imagination.
LEE FIELDS: Well, that’s my philosophy. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know anything about medicine. The only thing I know about is music. There’s deep stuff like philosophy and medicine and law and all of that. My philosophy is that I think happiness or being in a good state of mind is healthy for people. I think when a person thinks of things that depress them, and all of the things inside them that suppress joy, I think it’s bad for your health. I think it’ll hurt you. When a person has a joyful spirit, the body operates better. At least for me it does. If I wake up in the morning and think of something depressing, and instead think about the laughs that I got inside of me. When something’s funny, enjoy it. Savor the moment. I would advise everybody to try that, and see how they feel about it. I truly believe that suppressed laughter can hurt you. We should be as joyful as we can. Everything nowadays is so depressing. Turn on the television, oh this man that did this stuff. You turn on the radio, this man that did this, this woman that did this. And then you turn on the news, everything just puts you deeper into the pit. You know what I mean? So laughter, man. It works for me. I get up in the morning and think about something funny, and I just look at the world from a positive perspective. I get my laugh on, man. Ain’t nothing wrong with it.
PHAWKER: I think that’s good advice. And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you for telling us your story, and I’m glad to see at sixty three that your career is going stronger than ever. Most people are done by now, or were done a long time ago. Your staying power is remarkable and inspiring. You still sound great, and you’re still making really vital, powerful music. More power to ya.
LEE FIELDS: Well thank you and thank you so much for letting me tell my story. Please come say ‘hello’ at the show.