Lee Fields’ musical journey goes all the way back to 1964, when he watched James Brown perform on the T.A.M.I. Show. From that moment on, Fields knew he was going to be a musician. Three years later, when he was still just a teenager in Wilson, North Carolina, his mother gave him her last twenty dollars to book a bus to New York and follow his musical dreams.
Lucky for him, his friend Fred Williams was getting married and was in the process of moving out of his Brooklyn apartment, so Fields had a place to stay. With that figured out, it was time to find where the music was. At Williams’ wedding, Fields met Lonnie Smith, who took him to some clubs later in the night. Walking into the 521 Club, Fields stepped on stage and sang James Brown tunes, just like he saw on the T.A.M.I. show years earlier. People threw money on stage, and that marked the first time Fields got paid to make music.
Dubbed “Little JB” for his sonic resemblance to the “Godfather of Soul,” Fields began performing at clubs around the city with Sammy Gordon and the Hip Huggers. He was drawing a crowd. He just needed someone to invest into what he was doing, and he needed some original records. That’s when he met Ray Patterson, who ran a cab company and wanted to invest in Fields’ music. Patterson drove Fields all the way to the Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, the same place James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” There, Fields linked up with producer Kip Anderson and made his first record, “Bewildered.” But after the release of the record, the IRS derailed Patterson’s musical ambition, and stopped Fields in the process. That was setback number one.
Luckily, Fields caught the attention of Teddy Powell and Gene Redd Jr. Reed was a prominent Black promoter in New York, and Reed was working with a young band called Kool & the Gang. This was before their rise to fame. Fields joined them for shows. He also met his now-wife Christine and they moved to New Jersey in 1969. Life was good. But unfortunately, Reed passed away and Kool & the Gang would go on to release their self-titled debut album without Fields. No hard feelings, but that was setback number two.
But Fields still had the stage. No one could take that away from him. Throughout the 1970s he flourished at clubs throughout New York. He linked back up with Sammy Gordon and the Hip Huggers and they record two records at A-1 Sound Studios, “She’s a Lovemaker” and “Let Talk It Over,” which would later become the name of his debut project. During those sessions, Fields met Herb Abramson, who was the owner and engineer of the studio. Abramson has worked with some heavy-hitters, like the Coasters, Big Joe Turner and Don Covay. Abramson wanted to sign Fields to a deal, but Fields had been down that road before and declined the offer. Instead, his singles were picked up by London Records for distribution, and there it was ‘Let’s Talk It Over,’ his first full-length project. Then came another setback.
The stages he once flourished on were switching from live bands to DJs in the 1980s. The disco takeover was underway. Still recording and releasing singles under his own label BDA (Better Days Ahead), he switched his soulful sound for a disco track called “Stop Watch.” It charted, but it made no money. After setback number three, he was officially over the music industry.
Fields took a step back from music and went into other ventures, like real estate, and even wanted to open an eatery that sold fish sandwiches. But he and his wife both knew that that wasn’t the path for him.
“My wife looked at me and she said, ‘Wait a minute, what do you know about fish?'” Fields recalls. “I start thinking, ‘Well it tastes good.’ And she said, ‘You have to know how to take care of the fish. You just can’t open an eatery like this without having experience. What I think you should do is stay with your music.’ I said, ‘Baby you know music has changed. It’s not like it was in the early years. They are using DJs as opposed to bands.’ She wanted me to stick to music. She was 100% with me buying all kinds of equipment and taking another approach in the music business in the late ’80s, early ’90s.”
Learning how to work the equipment himself, Fields recorded the song called “Meet Me Tonight” and it took off. He began traveling and performing in the southern blues market, and hasn’t looked back since.
“At the time, that was inspired by reading the Bible,” says Fields. “I was so uncertain about my way at that time. I read the Bible every day for hours, because I didn’t know which way to go, and I was looking for the answer. The Bible says, ‘Seek and you shall find.’ Then I read a verse that said when the Christ returns, he’s returning like a thief in the night. I thought it was very interesting for Christ to be referred to as a thief in the night. I just couldn’t get that out of my head idea out of my head and I came up with a song called ‘Meet Me Tonight.’ That song was released in 1990. I haven’t stopped traveling and making music since. Although that wasn’t the biggest record I had, it opened up the door from that point.”
After the success of “Meet Me Tonight,” Fields would go on to sign a five-year deal with Ace Records, who released classic albums with artists like Isaac Hayes, Lightning Hopkins, Mavis Staples and more. Fields released his first album under the title Enough is Enough and continued performing, while releasing three more albums with Ace, Avanti Records, and putting out his 1997 album, Giving it To You Straight, on his own label.
A year before that, he met Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann, and Phillip Lehman for a session at Desco Records. They recorded “Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do” the first 45 RPM release for the upstart New York independent label and it featured the debut of Sharon Jones on background vocals.
In 1998, Fields and Desco Records released Let’s Get a Groove On, which not only established him as a veteran in the soul world, but along with Desco house band, The Soul Providers, helped create a new funk revival. In 2000, Roth and Lehman parted ways, but they each formed new labels, Soul Fire and Daptone. Fields would continue to release singles for Daptone and released his 2002 album Problems on Soul Fire before parting ways with the label the following year.
Over the years, Fields released music with Leon Michels of Truth & Soul, which came to be known as Big Crown Records. And that brings us to Fields’ present-day homecoming at Daptone. Roth was keen on working with Fields once again, and Fields finally agreed to go into the studio and discover what Roth had in mind. The two picked up right where they left off with Fields’ latest album Sentimental Fool.
Roth says in a statement, “I wanted to cut a different kind of record and really give Lee room to sing. We took our time and got painfully deep into every one of these tunes, stripping them down to pure feeling.”
Every time Fields sings a note on this album, you can feel ever word. Whether its hardship in the song “Extraordinary Man,” or the love for his wife Christine in “Forever,” his goal is to make you feel every emotion on this record, and it works. Roth’s vision was to showcase Fields’ voice on every song. You can feel the rawness and beauty through the lyrics.
At this stage of his career, setbacks are behind him. He long ago surpassed being “Little JB.” Lee Fields has become a legend in his own right, and this album is soul music at its purest. Good thing he didn’t let the setbacks stop him.
On the Record: A Q&A with Lee Fields
Marquis Munson: So the first time I heard your music it was back in 2019. I was 19 years old listening to J. Cole’s song “Ladies” which samples your song of the same name. This was around the same time as your album ‘My World’ was out. So I went back and listened to that project and became a fan of your music. You’ve been sampled by so many hip hop artists. You’ve been doing this for song long, do you feel like it opened your music up to a newer audience?
Lee Fields: Oh, yes, no doubt. We gained a lot of fans from Travis Scott and J. Cole sampling us and I really appreciate it. Music, as its done today, is a little different than it was in the beginning. In the beginning, all music had to be heard by a certain medium. But now, with people sampling music and music is everywhere on your computer, it made the art of exploding record much easier. Although it’s still hard, you can reach more people today. Yes, I appreciate all of the rappers. Artists that is being sampled, that’s a compliment. Because then you’re opening up the door for somebody else. So your music is being transformed in all kinds of art forms. That’s a beautiful thing, man. Wish Travis Scott, J. Cole, and the rest of them sample more of my music. Help yourself.
MM: In previous interviews you talk about writing what you see and singing about what you feel. So what were you seeing and feeling during the process of Sentimental Fool?
LF: On this album what I decided to do, instead of it being just about me, I was listening to others ideas. ‘Sentimental Fool’ was Gabriel Roth, the Bosco Mann’s idea. Years ago, he mentioned that he wanted to get me back in the studio and it finally happened. He was so adamant about getting me back into the studio, I felt like, ‘Hey, maybe this guy sees a vision.’ Sometimes it’s good to just listen to others. Matter of fact, its good all the time to listen to others and then decide what you feel is appropriate for yourself. For those who got their ears closed, how can you learn anything if your eyes and your ears is closed.
MM: Is that how you came up with the album title ‘Sentimental Fool’ based off of that song or looking at the project overall?
LF: I have to give credit to Gabriel Roth on that again. Because when I came over to Daptone, for years Roth has been saying that we got to do a record. In the early days of Daptone, I was one of the first artists that he had in the beginning, before Sharon Jones and all the rest of them. So I decided to see what the Bosco Mann had in mind. I decided to take a backseat and let this him just guide me. Let him show me why all of these years he’s been trying to get me to do a record, he had this fire. On this album, I’m just going to let him mold me into what he feels and see what this energy throughout the years was all about. So I give credit to Gabe because of his passion. ‘Sentimental Fool’ was Gabe’s passion and the title was his idea because he had a vision. I took it every way that he felt like I should go. He’s the driver, whatever he wanted me to do. So on this album, my skills and energies went in the direction that Gabe directed me in.
MM: The way you describe it the first thing that came to mind was a coach and a quarterback. Basically he gave you the game plan and you’re the quarterback executing the offense.
LF: I was listening to my coach on this one because we’re trying to win. When the situation arose, I looked at the coach and they gave me the signals. So Gabe was the coach, I was the quarterback, and my band is the team. I’m a team player, too. What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to win.
MM: Your first record was in 1969 and this is your 21st record. A decade spanning career of consistent music. How has your approach changed throughout the years when making a new record?
LF: I don’t think my approach changed. What has happened that its more defined now. I’m able to recognize things that I shouldn’t do and should do immediately. My response is quicker now because I don’t have to dig deep down inside and say, ‘How should I do this?’ I can feel in the moment of the song what I should do. So in that way, I become more familiar on how to do things. But as far as the technique itself, it hasn’t changed. Because when you are recording a record, you draw from your emotions and you draw from the feelings that you have. If that is not done, I don’t believe that the record could be as heartfelt as it would be if you draw from your emotions. The path is almost instinct now because I’ve done it so long. But I still rely on that feeling of truth. When you say something, you say it right. You can feel that this is the way it’s supposed to be said. So I still rely on that technique, but I try to be more passionate at times and less passionate when the time comes. In other words, I try to be right on point with what I’m saying in the song. So I can say it just like I would say it to my wife or a person would say it to their partner, I try to make it as real as possible. So when they hear the song like, ‘Oh, man, I felt that.’ That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about passions, the way you say things. You try to be as convincing as possible on every line, so that the song will have a life of its own. The song becomes a living entity when the true feelings. Somebody’s always going to be playing the record when they’re in a certain mood and that would be the only thing to appease that moment.
MM: So growing up who were the artists that brought that feeling out of you and influenced your music?
LF: I think the highest on the list would be Sam Cooke. Johnnie Taylor, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. I was a huge The Beatles fan when I was growing up. Watching those guys on the Ed Sullivan show, they were my characters from another planet because nobody was dressing like that. Nobody was doing it like that. Chuck Berry and then the blues people like O.V. Wright, B.B. King, and Elmore James. If another one pops up in my mind I’m just going to yell it out [Laughs].
MM: You mentioned James Brown and he has been a big influence in your career, even with the nickname Little JB. Did you feel like you had to create your own sound because you didn’t want people to only remember you as the moniker Little JB?
LF: I felt like I had to define and make myself different. I wanted them to know they were listening to me. I didn’t want to mimic James Brown. Although he was a great artist, I didn’t want to mimic him and just be in his shadow. I wanted to do what I could do. Our voices are very similar, so it took a long time for me to find how to sound like me. It was achieved, but that was one of the struggles even to this day. When I record, I try to be me and say it the way I would feel it, as opposed to mimicking another artist. I think that’s one of the reason I’ve had longevity. Because I’ve been in search of that since the beginning and still when I record, I want to be as me as possible. Which I think who I am is a combination of many. People say you are what you eat, I think artists are who they’ve seen and put their interpretation on all of the influences. But leave your mark when people can distinguish it, ‘Oh man, that sounds like Lee.’ They know that because you put your mark on it. That’s when you know, when people start saying, ‘Oh, that sounds like Lee Fields,’ that’s when you know you’ve achieved that because people are recognizing you for you.
MM: Speaking of legendary artists with James Brown, you also worked with Kool the Gang before they released their debut LP in 1969. Being new at the time in the business, was there any lessons that you learned from that experience?
LF: They were so devoted at such an early age. I was devoted to my music as well, but nothing like they were devoted. They would come off stage after a hard set. They didn’t go out and take a break or mingle with the people. They called it skull busting. They went back in the dressing room and said, ‘Here’s how we can make the next set much tighter.’ They spent the whole 20 minutes or whatever the time was they had off the stage and made improvement and adjustments so the next set would even be tighter. That’s the kind of guys that they were.
MM: How did you link up with your own band The Expressions and did you get a chance to work with them on this record?
LF: Well, some of The Expressions are on this record. Some of the guys couldn’t do it because they were on tour and we needed to get the album done because we had a certain time that we were working with. So a few of the guys I couldn’t get because of time issues. But the majority of The Expressions are on the album and I thank those guys for what they did and continue to do. It’s been an experience and trying to find words is almost impossible because there’s so many things that is happening at the moment.
LF: With all of the songs on the album, some people seem to gravitate to certain songs and some people have gravitated to other songs. I love “Sentimental Fool’ and I also love “Extraordinary Man.” That song was inspired by watching some veterans. They had a sign trying to get money for a meal and Me and Gabe were riding through. We started talking and I said, ‘Its sad a person go all the way and put their lives on the line, lose a leg or an arm or something, come back to the country and they got to be standing out there asking for money.’ It’s really sad. Although they get some benefits, but I don’t think the benefits they get isn’t enough. So me and Gabe started talking about it and we gave the guy a few bucks. That’s when Gabe wrote Extraordinary Man. When I heard the words to that song, it almost made me cry. Especially thinking about those veterans. That’s what made this album so different and refreshing to my career. I got the chance to do all kinds of stuff and a song like “Extraordinary Man,” I was very passionate about this song.
MM: I was going to ask about some of the lyrics of that song, “Try to be an extraordinary man, it was easy when I was strong. But when I stumble, you don’t always come along. “When I listen to the record, this was the one song that spoke about pain and hardship.
LF: When I put my vocals to it, I had to put myself in a position of pretending I just got back from a war and coming home with a lost lamb or something of that magnitude and not being able to do the things I want. He’s a married guy and it’s affecting his relationship. It’s tried to convey all of those feelings in the song. How he feels like it he’s being treated now with less admiration, but he has no other choice. But it feels like every day he has to find good cause to go on another day. I’m sure they are veterans that have serious issues and they’re just dealing with everyday things and it doesn’t get better. This was me and Gabe’s way of putting it out there like that. I’m sure there are some guys or some women that’s experiencing that today. I think our veterans should be treated a little bit better in many ways. For person to go out and put their lives on the line for the country, that’s a whole lot. So that song is for the veterans and for anyone that is going through some real hard issues right now. So it’s not only for the veterans, but for anyone dealing with something they can’t talk about at random that’s affecting their lives.
MM: One of my favorite songs on this record is “Forever.” On that song you seem like you are singing directly to your wife, especially when I heard the line, ‘So many songs have said these same things before, but this one darling is for you and me.’ Was she the inspiration for that song?
LF: You hit it right on the head. Yes, she was. Because she’s been with me so many years and stood by my side in times where it was hard for me to find reasons to keep the struggle going. She was there encouraging me. So that song is definitely for her and for any other spouse that’s doing the same things for their mate. But in my case, this one was for us [Laughs]. But it could be for anyone who has a good spouse helping them find the light and the right path to go.
MM: I also love the stripped down version of that song as well. When you perform these songs, are you using stripped down versions, instrumental elements or a mixture of both?
LF: When we do this live, we have the band. As we progress in the shows, we don’t know where it’s going to lead to. It might be a stripped down version in the show. But as of now, we are rehearsing it using the musical version and all of the instruments in.
MM: I know Gabe talks about really wanting to showcase your voice on this record. What were those sessions like with you and Gabe trying to figure out the sonic approach on this record?
LF: So I did a stripped down version at the beginning for the rhythm section. Then once the horns and everybody had their parts worked out, I did a version in the studio. When the band was in the studio recording, I was in there with them recording live. So that it would be one unit. Sometimes when you record with everybody, it seems more unified when you do it like that. Because everybody’s energy just raw at that same time. So we did it with the band and that was the recording that you hear on the record. But I have cut it several times prior to that for the rhythm section and then when the horns got there, we put it in another rhythm section itself. They had to play their parts all over again. I’ve had chances when the first idea was put down with just the rhythm, I would cut that time, then I went back and cut it again when everybody was there. It was like I was practicing live until the song got right in me where I just felt it and that was the last take. Even after the night we cut it with the band, I went back in and did certain parts over want because I wanted to feel it. Just like I wanted to tell my wife how I really felt. I wanted to tell her that this song was for you and me. Gabe would say ‘You want to do it again?’ I would say ‘Nah man, that’s it.’ Because I got to a point where I felt it. It was exactly the way I wanted to say it. I get very jubilant when I think about that song “Forever” because I always wanted to tell her that. You can say I love you and all of that, but sometimes you just want to say this song is for me and you.