Lee Fields tells Ellie O’Byrne about the music that influenced him, as well as the family tragedy that led to a career change. And yes, he is aware he shares his name with a Cork leisure area.
Veteran soul singer Lee Fields laughs when the Cork connection in his name is mentioned to him. “Yeah, I’ve played in Cork before and I’ve been in that park and I think that’s just great,” the North Carolina born entertainer says.
Now in his late sixties, Fields’enduring career has seen him produce 14 albums and help launch the careers of fellow soul legends Sharon Jones, his former backing singer, and Charles Bradley, both now deceased.
But it was for his similarity to Godfather of Soul James Brown that Fields first became known; in his early career, he was known as Little JB. Following a mid-career hiatus during the 1980s, the era of sampling, dance and hip-hop of the ’90s and Noughties was kind to Fields; he’s been sampled by rappers including Travis Scott and J Cole, collaborated with house DJ Martin Solveig and even provided additional vocals for the 2014 James Brown biopic gets On Up.
These days, Fields lives with his wife of 50 years, Christine, in New Jersey, and tours with his band The Expressions.
“When I was growing up in NorthCarolina, they played a lot of country & western music and we only heard soul music on the weekends. If we wanted to listen to soul other than on weekends, we had to listen to a station out of Knoxville, Tennessee called Randy’s.
Music doesn’t have a colour. If there’s a country & western song and they’re singing about something that I’m going through, and it sounds good, that’s good. Ray Charles did ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You back’ in the sixties and that was a country song. Whitney Huston recorded ‘I Will Always Love You’ and that’s a country song. There’s no racial divide in music unless a person intentionally writes something to divide people. Collectively, we miss a lot of beautiful things by putting barriers up.”
“I have to give that to Michael Jackson. I don’t think anyone will ever surpass Michael Jackson when it comes to live performance. Performing was his life, it was all he knew. His moves were so precise, and his stage presence was, and it was like watching something supernatural when he was on stage.
“As far as a rock group is concerned, I don’t think any other rock group can surpass what The Beatles brought to the table when they first emerged. When I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show when I was a kid, it was like a spacecraft had landed and these men from another world came out. When I first saw The Beatles, that’s what made me want to be a performer. When I saw James Brown, that sealed the deal.”
At that point, it wasn’t the tragic incident that made me get out of music, it was trying to gather reasons as to why he would do such a crazy thing. Everything became very foggy to me and music wasn’t the most important thing in my life. The most important thing in my life was just trying to keep myself focused for the family.
At that time, I was very weak, and I felt like I couldn’t show weakness to my family, that as the male of the house I was supposed to be their protector.
I had two sons, so then I suddenly had three sons and I was trying to be strong enough to raise a family who could still look up to me as the strong one.
I began to read the Bible on a daily basis and I was pondering what I could do to make a living. I was reading the old King James version of the Bible, with the old English words and I had to look up the meaning of the words.
After a time, I realised contracts were easy to read and that I had learned how to read them through reading the Bible. That’s what drew me into real estate. Irealised I could make a lucrative career. I didn’t get rich, but I made enough to support my family.
I’m still in real estate and own properties, but music is something I’m supposed to do. I’ve been very busy in music since 1990. I'm supposed to try to make a joyful noise for the Lord. I can make music that makes people happy, and that’s what I try to do.”
“I’ve seen individual musicians become so entangled with their music that it makes them do crazy things. Musicians always seem like they carry a great deal of uncertainty about themselves. I didn’t have that problem prior to the murder-suicide, but I became like that after it. I could have turned to drugs or many other things, but I’m thankful that God-directed me to open up the book of life.”
"I think the internet has been a good thing for musicians because they have more portals to expose their music on. When I got started, the only way for people to get to know you was to get on the radio. A lot of artists who would never have been discovered have an opportunity now. The playing ground has been levelled.”
“Some musicians get caught up in fame. Being in a situation where you have no privacy and paparazzi everywhere, that’s not a life. As far as the cars and the clothes and the recognition on the street and all that stuff, I never wanted that.
“As far as recognition goes, when I go and play, the venue’s normally full. I’m not looking to be a superstar. I’m doing what I like to do, and people come out all over the world to see me perform. I wanted to do music and make a good living and take care of my family, and I’ve done that. Everything else is the icing on the cake. I don’t think anyone deserves any more recognition than anyone else in this life.”
Lee Fields and The Expressions play Live At St Luke’s in Cork on Friday, Jan 17; and the Button Factory in Dublin on Saturday, Jan 18.