The Gospel According to Lee Fields
Soul man tells it all ahead of Saturday’s ice cream social
By Thomas Fawcett,
11:30AM, Fri. Jun. 22, 2018
Saturday’s Ice Cream Festival boasts an after hours lineup of sweet soul music topped by soul survivor Lee Fields, 67. His “Honey Dove” is a confection so pure he recorded it twice, first for 2002’s Problems and again on 2009’s My World. The latter was the first of four albums with the Expressions, the crack Brooklyn band that joins him at Fiesta Gardens.
Austin Chronicle: How long have you been in Jersey?
Lee Fields: I moved to the New York area from North Carolina when I was about 17. My mother was crying. She gave me her last $20. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was so naive.
There was a guy I knew from my home state and I didn’t even call and tell him I was coming. I just got on a bus and went there, and when I got to his house, he was getting married the next day. I had no idea.
I moved to Jersey right after I got married at 19 years old. It’s a nice place to live and we’ve been here ever since. When I bought my house years ago it was on Garfield Avenue. So it’s Lee Fields in Plainfield on Garfield ....
It was meant to be!
AC: And you first moved to New York for music?
LF: Oh yeah. I came to New York in the last part of 1967. I stayed in New York for a couple years, in Brooklyn. Soul was at its peak at that time. You had artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown and King Floyd and Johnnie Taylor. It was hittin’ off, especially in Brooklyn.
Soul music is as close akin to gospel as you can be. Soul music is singing about issues of today. It explains a person’s sentiments about what is going on in their life.
AC: This is coming from the guy who recorded a song called “Nasty Sex Dance.”
LF: Oh yeah. Well, in my career I’ve crossed a lot of bridges. I’ve found out that for the sake of music itself we don’t have to do that. Even then, there’s no profanity in that song!
You can talk about anything, but it’s the way you do it. The difference is that song was Southern soul. That wasn’t soul music. There’s a difference between Southern soul and soul music. Soul music is about being very careful of what you put in your music.
I tried to get a Southern soul deejay to play some of the new music I’m doing and he wouldn’t play it. The Southern soul artists think it’s not as interesting as the music I was cutting when I was doing Southern soul. I said, “Listen, is there more to music than singing about sneaking in and out of somebody’s back door, and about sex?” There’s gotta be other things we can sing about.
That’s the reason I don’t do Southern soul anymore. I do soul now. As we grow we learn. It got to a point where every song they wanted it to be about sneaking in somebody’s backdoor. It got redundant, man.
That’s why I’m so happy to be working with the Expressions. I can sing about what I want to sing about. As we mature, we grow, but an artist gotta do what they gotta do to get bread.
AC: It’s interesting that you’ve had two almost separate, parallel careers since the mid-Nineties, doing the Southern soul thing on the one hand and the stuff with the Expressions and the Brooklyn soul guys on the other.
LF: Yeah, it’s two different worlds, man. I love Southern soul as well, but if you’re not singing about the subject matter that they want you to sing about, they’re not gonna play your records. The songs that I cut now aren’t geared toward the Southern soul thing. I’m not knocking it, I just wonder why it has to be the same thing all the time. Let’s get back to writing to where the content of the song is important.
AC: It took 10 years from the time you cut your first single to the time of your debut full-length. Was it just more of a singles game at the time, or were there other obstacles?
LF: When I cut my first record, I wasn’t with a major label. I cut that song [“Bewildered”] in 1969 and it opened the door for me. I was under contract with Ray Patterson for about five years. He was going through financial difficulties with the government at that time – taxes, you know. He had a cab company in Brooklyn. He didn’t have the funds that he did when he first opened [Bedford Records].
His money was mostly going back and forth to court and all that, but I was under contract with him and he would threaten to sue me if I worked with anybody else. Being a young man at the time, I didn’t know what kind of power he had, so that was about five years of my life I sort of lost by dealing with these guys. It made me reluctant from that point on to sign contracts with just anybody.
I had a lot of good opportunities at that time, but I was afraid to engage in another contract because I thought he was gonna sue me.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t change anything because, first of all, I married the right woman. I’ve been with her since 1969, and I love my kids. If I go back in time, my family would be different too. People gotta be careful what they ask for. Things maybe didn’t happen exactly how I wanted them to happen with my music career, but I wouldn’t change a thing because I like the way things turned out.
AC: Were you touring that whole time though?
LF: I was touring around Brooklyn. Gene Redd had a group in 1969 called Kool & the Gang. They were barely known at the time. Gene put me with that group for about six months. At the time, they just had a few local hits, so I was the frontman for them for about six months. I learned a lot.
It wasn’t like I was sitting in a cell waiting for my contract to expire – I was busy. I had my own band for a while and we toured the Carolinas and Virginia. I had a little following down there. I was piecing together things. Everything was about trying to survive, trying to make something happen in the music business. I had just a burning desire to be in the music business.
Matter of fact, I long for some of that desire now at times when my creative juices are not flowing as much as I’d like them to. I think about those time and try to regenerate the energy I had then. It works!
AC: There was a song you cut around that time in the early Seventies called “We Fought for Survival.” Was that autobiographical?
LF: That song was real, but it had some exaggerations in it. It was about growing up in North Carolina. In the song I said there were 12 of us in the house, but it really was four. But it was a real story about how we had to go out and pick cotton to help mama pay the bills.
Not being a real well-educated man, it was very difficult for my dad to find gainful employment in North Carolina. So he went up a couple of states to work for a construction company in Washington D.C. During the winter, he would come home, but during the warmer portions of the year we had to pick cotton and do what we had to do to help mama pay the bills.
It bothered me to hear her cry about bills. I used to see her literally cry over how was she gonna pay her mortgage. She did the best she could, but I made up my mind that when I get grown I’m never gonna cry over a bill and if I did, I’d do it to myself. That’s a hurting thing, watching your mama cry, trying to soothe her.
Mama was the stability, daddy was in Washington, D.C., working. It’s a very disturbing thing to see the one in charge of you breaking down. I don’t blame her, but I made up my mind to never cry in front of my kids and I never did.
AC: Let’s talk a little about your time with the Expressions, Gabe Roth, and that whole crew. Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley were a big part of that scene too. Were you close with them?
LF: Yeah, Sharon and Charles both came through me. I was first and Sharon was my background singer. Charles wound up being one of my best friends and Sharon was like a little sister to me. I encouraged those guys.
When they started promoting Sharon more than me, I didn’t get angry about that. As long as someone made it out of the crew, I was alright. I was glad for her, and I did a few shows with her when she was on the rise. And Charles and I both had songs on the first Sugarman 3 album before anyone knew who Charles was.
At first I was with, well, they weren’t the Dap-Kings at the time, but the, uh... .
AC: The Soul Providers.
LF: Right, the Soul Providers. But it was the same guys that are in the Dap-Kings, Gabe Roth and them. The band was so large I thought it would be more practical to go with the Sugarman 3. It was a much smaller band. We could play smaller venues and travel all over Europe to get known.
So Sharon went with them and they changed their name to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and I went with Sugarman 3. We toured all over Europe, which is how we were able to spread the name. We played small bars, we played everywhere. I didn’t care where we played as long as we played. Thank God everything worked out.
Sharon became the star she became and then my friend Charles Bradley became the renowned Charles Bradley. Everything turned out right, but I miss Sharon and Charles so much. Matter of fact, I was in Austin when Charles passed away. I heard the news on the radio on the way to the airport there. I had seen him that Thursday and I told him I’d be back, but I gotta go down to Texas this week and I’d see him when I got back. He was in the hospital, in bad shape. I hoped I was wrong, but I had a feeling that I would never see him again and he passed away before I got back.
Those are two dear, dear friends. We shared so much in our lives. When I sing “I Wish He Was Here,” it’s hard for me to sing that song. A lot of times the audience cries when I talk about the late Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. When I sing that song, man, it’s a very emotional thing for me. I’m glad I had them as friends.
We have no power as to the time frame we have here on Earth, so love is the answer. That’s what changed me into the kind of writer I am today. When I write about trivial things, it seems like the songs have no meaning. I like to writing about things heartfelt, something that makes me feel like I’m giving something in return other than just chasing a dollar.
People like Sharon and Charles, man, just talking about them is like being transported to a place with pure fresh air around me. They were so genuine and so real. It’s like being totally refreshed just thinking about them. I love those guys. I’m just glad I had them in my life for the time that I did. I wished it could’ve been longer.
AC: Charles had nothing but love. He was a pure dude.
LF: Charles was genuinely loving. Some of us have to go through trials and tribulations to understand what genuine love is. Charles was so attached to his mother. He went on his first European tour with me. Tommy [Brenneck], his producer, manager, guitarist, you know, he was telling Charles, “You’ve got to nail this.” And Charles was becoming frustrated.
He told me, “Lee, I’m going home, man. I can’t take it anymore.”
I said, “Charles are you serious?”Tommy just wanted him to get it right. He was driving him to get it right, so that when he came out onstage he’d nail it. I told Charles, “You’re at a point at which they’re promoting you much more than they’re promoting me. And you’re talking about walking out on this? All these years you dreamed of being a star and now that your dream is coming true and you’re crying like a baby, talking about going home to your mama?”
I said, “You need to wake up and smell the coffee, bro. Tommy is trying to make you the star that you are. He’s trying to bring that out in you. You need to listen to the man and get it right, then go out onstage tomorrow night and kill it! This is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the beginning of your career!”
He was talking about going back to that club in Brooklyn and imitating James Brown.
I said, “Look man, you’re being Charles Bradley and people are loving you for being Charles Bradley. This is your opportunity. It ain’t easy and I hope you never thought it would be. Going back to mommy now ain’t an option.”And you know, he thanked me for that for years and years. It was a great honor and privilege to see him become himself and I’m glad he hung in there and became the star that he rightfully deserved to be.
AC: The big difference between you versus Charles and Sharon is that their music careers started much later in life. You’ve been in in it since day one.
LF: I’ve been in it with just about everybody, from Solomon Burke to Wilson Pickett. I met the game changers. I studied them, watched their actions, their manners, the way they did things.
I had a record, “Let’s Talk it Over,” that was No. 2 or No. 3 in Augusta, so a deejay brought me down there. When I was there I got a chance to meet James Brown in his heyday. The day I met James Brown was the day I realized I had to be me. The world don’t need two Jameses.
It was hard to be myself because of the uncanny resemblance that I have to James Brown, but I found me. The day I met James was the beginning of finding myself. Everybody has to find out what’s unique about them. I found it because I’m surviving. I’m working all the time and that’s a good thing!
AC: What’s the secret to your longevity.
LF: I think the key is to stay on the pulse of what’s happening today, just watching the world as it unfolds. I’m also an avid reader. Writing about things that are actually happening in the world is important. People are still falling in love, losing love. The world, although it has changed drastically, it hasn’t changed. It’s still love, loss, trials and tribulations.
That makes every day just as interesting as the day before because I’m watching these moments unfold, and being part of the moment. Life is just as exciting as it was 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, it’s even more so because my time is running out.
I don’t know what day the Lord is coming to get me, but I know that it’s coming. I’m running out of time, so I’m trying to touch as many people as I can and bring as much joy as I can people.
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Lee Fields, Lee Fields & the Expressions, Aretha Franklin and James Brown, King Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Kool & the Gang, Gabe Roth, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, James Brown