Life's roads are circuitous, often taking us farther from our goal before delivering us on its doorstep. Such is the case of Lee Fields, a gifted soul singer from the late '60s who is riding hipsters' newfound soul embrace to greater relevance than he's ever had. With his latest release, Faithful Man, Fields continues to define himself beyond the highly appropriate nickname, "Li'l J.B.," hung on him of course because of his uncanny physical and vocal resemblance to The Godfather of Soul.
Fields got his start during the heyday of funk. In 1967, at 17 and with $20 in his pocket, he packed his bag for New York City. He hoped to meet up with Fred Williams, who'd handed Fields his card after seeing him perform at a juke joint near his home in Wilson, N.C. Fields arrived — without calling — on Williams' wedding day, but Williams was gracious, inviting him along and letting him stay at his house.
"If I would've been just 10 minutes later I would've been in a pickle," Fields says. "If I would've known then what I know today, I probably wouldn't have even left."
Fields earned $100 his second night in the city, playing an impromptu show after befriending someone at the wedding. He stayed busy from that point until disco hit and began to suck, as some might say, the life out of soul. The '80s nearly broke him. Gigs dried up, and he had to find odd jobs to feed his family.
"I was petrified," says Fields. "My dream was slowly but surely diminishing. The dream was still there, but the reality was that I wasn't making any money, so I got out of there. I call it manning up."
As the '90s began, retro-soul enthusiasts grew in number, encouraged in part by hip-hop sampling and the British crate-digging "Northern Soul" craze. Fields was back to work, but feeling increasingly straitjacketed by the James Brown comparisons.
"It was an advantage in the beginning," Fields says. "James was so hot, so it was easy to work. But that soon became an albatross. [I realized] in order for me to be me, I'm going to have to knock down this wall I'm imprisoned behind being another man. That was a hard thing. I just couldn't settle for that. Thank God I met up with The Expressions."
Fields is referring to his backing band, who he calls his "musical sons." They rescued him when he was in danger of being left behind in Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' dust. Jones was one of the backup singers when Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman started Desco in 1998 to release a soul 45, "Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do," featuring Fields.
Lehman and Roth fought over money and split, with Roth taking Jones and starting Daptone Records. Lehman teamed with Jeff Silverman and Leon Michels to form Soul Fire, which eventually became Truth and Soul. Michels and his band, The Expressions, saw Fields as something more than James Brown Disciple No. 1. But it would take a while to realize that vision. In 2009, they released My World, which deemphasizes Fields' energetic, deep-funk traits in favor of slower, easygoing soul — not unlike a hard-edged Sam Cooke.
"We would cut a record here, we'd cut a record there," Fields explains. "I was sort of wondering, 'What are they doing with all these records?' We'd cut the record and it'd just disappear. I didn't know if they were shopping it around or what, but I'm glad they weren't, and I'm glad they didn't try to sell the songs. I'm just glad it turned out the way it did."
Michels & Co. stretch out even more on Faithful Man, tackling a range of styles complementing Fields' takes on the different facets of life's relationships. His passions run from the temptation-besieged narrator of the bluesy title track to groovy psych-inflected funk ("You're the Kind of Girl") and the sweeping strings- and horn-laden Motown elegy "Wish You Were Here." There's even a soulful take on the Stones' "Moonlight Mile."
"They wanted to have everything up in there, a little Philly soul, Stax, Motown," Fields says. "I had an opportunity to experiment with all these sounds, so that was a beautiful thing for me. It's really been about finding myself."
Fresh from a 24-city European tour, Fields couldn't be happier about the course his life has taken.
"I don't get the James Brown stuff anymore," he says. "Finding myself where people say, 'Hey, that sounds like Lee Fields.' That's a beautiful thing. I realize that it's a privilege to be up there, and so many people and things had to transpire for this to happen for me. So when I grab that microphone, I squeeze it hard and give it everything I got, because I realize a whole lot of children want my job."
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