The soul singer stays true to the values of classic R&B.
It would be easier to be suspicious of cratedigger soul if Gabriel Roth and the musicians in his orbit weren’t so good at it. Before Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Roth and French record collector Philip Lehman formed a band, The Soul Providers, and on a whim, they sought out soul singer Lee Fields, who plays One Eyed Jacks tonight.
“Philip said I was his favorite singer, so they found me back in the late ‘90s,” Fields remembers. To that point, he had been a journeyman. The North Carolina native first released music in 1969, but he was a regional success, somebody that a collector would know and others might not. Roth remembers their first recording together with Wax Poetics:
[Lehman and I] were out at this heavy metal recording studio on Long Island called Dare, out in Deer Park, and we were out there just recording a bunch of tracks. We were talkin’, just bullshittin’, like, “Oh man, who could we get to sing on this tune?” And Phillip was like, “Oh, we should get Lee Fields to sing on this tune. We should get Lee Fields, it would be amazing.” It was just like, “Yeah, great,” you know? That’s a perfect example of something like…anybody would’ve said that, but Phillip, he just got on the phone—I mean, this is before the Internet, you know—Phillip got on the phone and called BMI or something, and tracked down Lee Fields. Like a private detective, tracked him down. It turned out he’s right here in Plainfield, New Jersey. And that was probably one of the biggest phone calls that ever happened for me, ’cause hooking up with Lee Fields is amazing, man. That guy’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. He’s unbelievable. He called him up and said, “Hey, will you come sing on this track?” I don’t know what Lee wanted, a few hundred bucks. He came down and he sang, and that was that. I’m still real proud of that record. That was really the first 45 I ever made. It was “Steam Train” and “Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do.” And Sharon came in to sing backgrounds on that. That’s how I met Sharon. We needed backgrounds. Lee sang, “Baby, why dontcha let your man do what he wanna do?” And then we needed the backgrounds: “Do what he wanna do.” That was what we called Sharon for.
That started Fields’ relationship with Roth and the musical crew that formed the Dap-Kings, Antibalas, The Mighty Imperials and The Sugarman Three, and Truth and Soul Records, which has released three Fields albums including 2012’s Faithful Man. Each relies on the eternal truths of soul: the passion of the singer and the groove of the band - in this case, The Expressions.
At first, Fields was a little wary when Lehman and Roth approached him. “What do these two young white guys know about soul music?” he wondered. “To my surprise, they did their homework. They knew more about the songs of that era than a lot of people who lived through it. They found these records and studied them.” In fact, he found the band better able to play classic should than many of his peers.”Most contemporary artists were trying to be Parliament-Funkadelic or whatever the current thing was. They tend to think that the music was taken. No, it was abandoned. These guys were smart enough to say, Hey, that’s valuable music.”
Fields has cut three albums for Truth and Soul Records starting in 2002 as well as vocals for house music tracks by French producer Martin Solveig including the 2009 hit “Jealousy.” It’s a long way from the James Brown-like R&B he started with, but Solveig let Fields be Fields. “He allowed me be to soulful on his records,” Fields says.
He’s pragmatic about those recordings. “You do this for love, but at the end of the day, everybody needs a check. When you make a little money, everything is so much nicer. It’s a beautiful day; let’s get it started!”
He doesn’t have time for outside projects these days. Since the release of Faithful Man, he has toured regularly including a number of stops in New Orleans. He and The Expressions have almost finished a new album that he expects will be out in the spring, but he is enjoying the touring for now. “A person does something and the public starts to show appreciation for what you do; that’s the cream on top,” Fields says. Get the chance to get to tour in places you always dreamed of seeing - that’s living in the moment. People who come see us, they could see a lot of other people in place of us. Every drop of sweat is worth it.”
My Spilt Milk has tickets to give away to see Lee Fields and The Expressions tonight at One Eyed Jacks. Register here for a chance to win. The contest closes today at noon.