Lee Fields brings a certain versatility to the genre of soul that’s been lost in the deluge of modern R&B and hip-hop. The song “Faithful Man” delivers a seething dose of intense vocal arrangements and frantic rhythm, whereas a song like “Magnolia” taps into a more introspective and lovelorn mindset.
For the 63-year-old, love is the driving force and perpetual theme that informs much of what he says, thinks and writes. The native North Carolinian says the backcountry culture of his homeland has stuck with him, even if he now lives in New Jersey, just a stone’s throw from the the bustle of lower Manhattan. (Below, Fields appears beneath the towering landscape of the city in his video for “Magnolia,” which largely takes place on the Williamsburg Bridge.)
Tomorrow’s release show for his new record, Emma Jean (out June 3 from Greenpoint’s Truth & Soul Records) is right by that bridge, at the Bowery Ballroom. We suggest you buy tickets, invite an unrequited crush and stick around for the CD release party afterward. But if you can’t make the show, you can always get acquainted with Lee through this B+B Q+A.
I became introduced to soul being raised in the south. My Dad was musically inclined as well, so he always had a lot of records around the house. I got introduced to it as a small kid, but I didn’t really get to a degree where it felt like I wanted to make it my life until I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. When I saw the Beatles, man, that was it. They were like people from another planet or something. The way they were dressed at that time, the way they carried themselves and the way their hair was cut, it was just a whole other thing. But it was until I saw James Brown on TV that the deal was really sealed. That’s what I wanted to be, I wanted to be an entertainer.
But I was also dared to go perform in a high school talent show, so on a dare I went and I entered and I sang a song and like, the girls all went nuts. And that right there sealed the deal.
We always sang around the house. My mother was a gospel singer and my dad used to have a band. Everybody sang around the house, when we did stuff like chores — we weren’t trying to be professional singers or nothin’. But to be honest, singing makes a harsh job easier. Like back in the day when we had to go out and do farm work or pick cotton and tobacco and stuff we would always sing. Everybody was singing and not because we were happy, but because the chore was so gruesome that if you just concentrated on the chore you’d be totally miserable.
Although I’ve been in Jersey and New York basically all my life I still consider myself a southern gentleman. And so the culture of the south did affect my stance in regard to the way I carry myself. If I’m entering a room with a lady, I still believe in opening the door. I also do believe in holding high respect to my fellow man. In that southern way of life, you respect people. But, you know, that never left me and I’m happy that it didn’t. I try to encourage young people today to behave with that same respect for their fellow man, because it’s a beautiful thing.
Well we don’t just sing about sad stuff. We sing about reality. “Faithful Man” is not a sad song. “You’re That Kind of Girl,” is not a sad song, it’s about a man appreciating his woman. “I Wish You Were Here” is kind of melancholy, it’s kind of sad, but we sing about all types of situations. We seek a whole 360-degree peripheral of human relationships. So, because everything is not happy all of the time. Sometimes there are moments when you want to reflect. So we sing about all types of situations. We might sing a melancholy song for a minute but then we might sing a song like “Money Is King,” which is about how the world operates and how when money is everything it a very sad thing.
Basically, love is the answer. It’s the cure to all of that ails of the world today. You hear a lot in secular music today, a lot of stuff about haters, and how much money people have and the cars they drive and how they livin’. I think all things in their proper place are good in music, but love is the answer. I’m an advocate in believing that we are what we eat and we are what we hear.
It’s like the old saying “you are what you eat,” and I believe you are what you hear as well. So if people hear more about love, they will become more loving people and that’s a beautiful thing, man, because love is the answer.
You’ve toured with a lot of soul and R&B luminaries like Kool and the Gang, the Hip Huggers, and Little Royal. Did you ever think that you’d still be around playing shows and touring 43 years after you started?
Basically I thought I’d be telling people about what I used to do at this stage in the game. But when I look at what’s happening, apparently I must be doing something right. And I’d like to continue to do this as long as it’s possible for me to do this. Because it warms my heart when someone sees my show and says, “Wow, I was so moved tonight, that experience took me to a place I haven’t thought of in a long time.” Or maybe something I sing makes someone think about a family member they lost. I’m singing about everything, from the loss of loved ones to how people need to get that cash right to pay their bills and stuff.
We also try to sing as much positive stuff as we can, because the lord knows there’s enough negative stuff floating around this world today. There’s a lot of negative stuff out there today, man, and the sad thing is, people don’t even realize that it’s affecting them. If you want a healthy mind, you have to put healthy stuff in your mind, so we try to have a balanced diet [pauses]… of mind food [laughs].
I think Emma Jean has a variety of flavors. I’m hoping that we’ve made songs that will bring people together and that can keep a relationship together. I think this album covers all of things that will be necessary to make people more hopeful and more optimistic. So I pray that the album is received in that way.