At 65, Lee Fields is still making the same kind of raw, honest and authentic soul music that he began his career with in the late 1960s.
That it took until the last decade ort so for Fields to find a larger audience has never felt like a problem for the 65-year-old North Carolina native, who's welded his extraordinary vocals to a new band, The Expressions, that has reinvigorated the singer.
Patience—and heartfelt music—has carried Fields through the years, from his first single in 1969 (a James Brown cover that helped earn him the nickname "Little JB") to stints with Kool and the Gang, Sammy Gordon and the Hip-Huggers and Little Royal. There was even a career in real estate until Fields returned to music in the early 2000s.
"I was never one of those guys who believed if I can't make it I'm going to perish," Fields says. "It's all about constantly creating something that people want to hear. My desire has always been to say or sing something in that moment that people will enjoy it in the moment."
Fields hit his stride beginning with the 2009 record My World, which started a string of late-career gems (2012's Faithful Man, 2014's Emma Jean and 2016's Special Night) that placed Fields alongside legends like Charles Bradley and the late, great Sharon Jones in an elite class of artists making vibrant, uncompromising soul music.
"What really keeps me anxious to do this is that I feel like I got something to say," Fields says. "I want to say it with music. I've always expressed my feelings and thoughts through songs."
Fields' latest, Special Night, is full of songs that speak to not only love, but deep and lasting devotion, like the title song, "Lover Man" and "Precious Love." But the album also holds tunes that are more outward looking, songs like "Make This World" and "Work To Do" that bring the message of community and a shared responsibility to one another and the world.
"When you make a new record, you go by gut feeling. What we go for from scratch are things that make us feel good. If you feel that little tingling, you keep right on writing until it's a song that people feel good when they hear it," he says. "What we try to share with each and every individual is joy. Some people may have more things than they have the time to enjoy, but the one thing a person can always enjoy is joy itself. The song has to bring joy."
Staying true to his style in the 2000s and 2010s almost automatically puts Fields against the grain. Whatever advantages technology brings for other artists, Fields hasn't been tempted to try. His music isn't vintage; it's downright timeless—rich tenors, giant heart, and the ever-essential lived-in voice, and therefore lived-in sense of life. It's just so very human in a world where music is hardly human at all anymore. So there's urgency and passion that can't be accomplished by chasing a throwback sound. It's essential Fields stay true to his roots.
"I'm here and I'm a true soul singer. I will stay steadfast in continuing that," he says.
"Most songs that are done today are not actually orchestrated songs, they're samples from different artists and a lot of things that are embellished or enhanced," he says. "I still rely on the old method of creating songs. What I really like doing is writing the songs with the musicians playing from the beginning to the end. I appreciate the people who have been so supportive of me continuing to make songs from scratch. I'm always going to keep it real."
Technology isn't a Fields adversary, but he considers this era a peculiar time for music. As much as computers, robots and artificial intelligence are taking over modern life, Fields thinks that humans, as free thinkers, can still connect in a truer way without technology.
"When people hear something that appeases their soul, they know. That's something that you can't put in a machine," he says. "I sing for the spirit and hopefully people feel what I sing and become happy for a moment."
Fields' records run from tender soul to burning funk, with both The Expressions and the singer himself possessing a versatility that places the music on its own plane. There are elements of the many distinct styles and sounds that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but Fields and The Expressions don't sit in any one place for long. Fans of Motown, Stax and the current Daptone artists will find plenty to like in the music. And for Fields, being a below-the-radar artist for so long could have been a bit of a blessing in finding his own particular style.
"My shortcomings were the timing," he says. "I saw the way it rolls, way back in the late '60s, like it was a big circle that's constantly changing and the entrance is constantly changing. I realized I had to be very patient, but it wasn't like if I didn't thrive in music I was going to die. Some artists believe they are born to be a star. I didn't believe that. I believe I was born to do music, to say something that's relevant, that's necessary to hear when I have the podium."
On stage is where The Expressions and Fields thrive, bringing classic showmanship to performances that tend to be first impressions for much of the crowd. In 2017, Fields and The Expressions have been playing heavily on the festival circuit, in both Europe and the United States, working to turn heads whenever they can.
"Playing live you know whether the song is really connecting with the audience. You know. The truth comes out. It shows, especially if a record hasn't been over promoted," he says. "When they hear something new and they respond, you know you've got something good. I'm finding the acceptance of the music that I'm singing and I'm so happy and so in awe of people who take their time and appreciate the music. It's a beautiful feeling and it's so gratifying. I want the people to know that I'm so pleased and so happy that they respond the way."
And there's always a new audience waiting around the bend for Fields. The HOCO Festival, for instance, is his first time performing in Tucson. It's worth the wait, on both sides.
"I thank God for my beautiful band, The Expressions," he says. "Since I've joined with them for the last nine years, it's been the most gratifying experience of my life."