If you can call a living man a legend, soul singer Lee Fields deserves the title. The original DIY artist; when the music industry changed around him, Lee Fields changed the industry.
When Lee Fields came to Bristol with his band The Expressions to perform his latest album It Rains Love at Fiddlers, we took the opportunity to join him for a drink at Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Clifton.
The original DIY artist; when the music industry changed around him, Lee Fields changed the industry
For someone whose childhood in North Carolina would flit between bible studies and the wild parties his parents threw on the weekends when they would turn their house into a juke joint – a controversial source of income in 70s Southern America – the prohibition style cocktail bar seemed like a fitting choice. Sipping a Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 – ‘straight up, no ice’, Lee begins the story of his half decade music career.
Lee left for New York with nothing more than 20 dollars in his pocket
At 17 years old, Lee left for New York with nothing more than 20 dollars in his pocket. Luckily, he was embraced by the local circuit, who nicknamed him Little JB, due to the similarity of his and James Brown’s voice. Before long, Lee was a popular live act and recording artist, releasing with records labels until the late 70s.
However, when his wife’s sister was murdered by her husband, before taking his own life, Lee decided to step out of the limelight. He moved to Newark, New Jersey with his family and their nephew to deal with their grief in private.
A decade later, encouraged by his wife, Lee was ready to enter the world of music again. Though by that time in 1990, the music industry had changed. The popularity of disco throughout the 80s meant that venues wanted to book DJs, not bands.
‘I told my wife, listen, music ain’t what it used be. Music has changed. And she said, “But music is what you know”.
‘When I used to rent a sound man, he was so expensive that by the time I paid him and the band, it wasn’t worth going out there all night long, and I’d been reading about how people were going to be recording digitally.
‘So I bought a sound board, a Yamaha 4416 and some speakers – I was just buying what this voice in my head was telling me to buy. My wife wanted me to get back into music and I had to figure out how to do that.
I bought a sound board, a Yamaha 4416 and some speakers
‘Next, I bought a bunch of sound modules, an eight-track recorder, two deck machines and a digital analogue tape. I had everything I needed to make music in my basement. The only problem was, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.
‘I could tell the wife was getting a bit uncertain about whether we made the right decision. I had everything set up downstairs by the washing machine and every time she came downstairs, I would make an excuse to leave, because she wanted to know why there wasn’t music coming out of there.
‘A friend of mine finally showed up and taught me how to hook everything up and make it work. After a couple of weeks, man, I’m making some music down there. I was cutting song after song in my basement.
‘On the weekends, I talked different club owners into letting me come in as a DJ and singer act. I had a DJ playing the music, and I would sing for the tracks I had made in my basement.
I talked different club owners into letting me come in as a DJ and singer act (…) After a few weeks, the place was getting packed
‘First night we were there, the place was maybe one quarter full and at the end of the night I gave out the tapes I had cut. After a few weeks, the place was getting packed. Every week there was more and more people, and I’m cutting songs and just giving them to people. Then I cut a song called Meet Me Tonight.
‘One night, I was getting ready to give out the tapes and the DJ was playing that song, when somebody came up to me and asked who the singer was. When I said it was me, he asked me how much I charged for it.
‘Charge? I said give me eight dollars or something, and he gave me the eight bucks. All of a sudden, somebody else is coming up wanting to get one too. Before the end of the night, they were all gone.
‘The next week, the club was super packed and I had pressed up more tapes, since I knew I could sell them. After that, we went out and bought a load of set recorders so we could make them in bunches.
The tape was in such demand that we had to get them manufactured
‘The next thing I know, I’m getting calls to play all around Newark and over New York. The tape was in such demand that we had to get them manufactured, so I called and ordered a couple thousand. The next thing I did was get some 45s made and put them in juke boxes.
‘If you lived in Newark at the time and went by a juke joint or blues club, you only had to stay five minutes and you would hear that song. I was selling so many damn records that I had Ace Records give me a contract out of Mississippi – the song had spread all the way down the east coast!’
Ace Records give me a contract out of Mississippi – the song had spread all the way down the east coast
Lee has been writing, recording and touring his deeply personal, uplifting soul songs ever since. He’s been working in unison with American rhythm and blues band The Expressions for the past ten years; though he has made some musical departures, lending his voice to a number of club tracks, most notably touring and recording several tracks with French house producer Martin Solveig. However, Lee believes that soul is a way of singing, not a genre of music.
‘You hear of a lot of guys calling themselves soul singers. You ask them, what is a soul singer? Most of them will probably tell you, you know, it’s the style of music. Soul singing, I don’t think is a style in particular, soul singing is when you’re singing from the spirit.
‘I believe we are comprised of two entities, the physical body and the spirit. The spirit is of God and the flesh is of this world. Flesh is very mundane, but the spirit is not. So when I sing, I don’t sing to people, I sing to their spirits – I’m singing to their souls.’
I don’t sing to people, I sing to their spirits – I’m singing to their souls
Another thing that hasn’t changed in 50 years for Lee is his positive message. He has never compromised on lyrics, which are as important to him as his outstanding vocal arrangements; outlasting huge cultural shifts towards styles like gangster rap, pop and punk rock. Lee writes meaningful love songs, as pure and innocent as his first release five decades ago.
‘We’re so concerned about what goes in our bodies, what about our minds? You want a healthy body, so people will say I’m not going to eat any more of this – too much cholesterol. I’m going to cut down on this and eat more of this. All of a sudden, your body gets better. It’s the same thing with words.’
It Rains Love by Lee Fields & The Expressions is out now on Big Crown Records.
Photos by Dominika Scheibinger
Location: Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bristol
Drinks: Jack Daniels Old No.7, Strawberry Field, Greenhouse Project