Lee Fields is arguably the greatest soul singer alive today. In an age when the shelf life of an artist largely depends on posturing and trends, he has proven to be an unassailable force of nature. His prolific, decade-spanning career continues to reign supreme on the modern soul scene. In addition to twenty albums and over forty singles, he has taken the stage at almost every major festival and relevant venue on the planet, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, Newport Folk, Roskilde, Outside Lands, Rock en Seine, Carnegie Hall, the Olympia in Paris, and the Paradiso in Amsterdam. His body of work continues to garner the attention of pop artists and producers via samples by hip hop heavyweights: J. Cole, Travis Scott, Rick Ross, A$ap Rocky. This October, Lee releases his 21st full-length, Sentimental Fool -- a soulful, bluesy return to his rhythm & blues roots.
From the very first time he saw James Brown perform, on the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964, Lee Fields knew he was going to be a singer. Born Elmer Lee Fields to Emma Jean Fields and John Fields in Wilson, North Carolina in 1950, he was still a teenager in the Summer of 1967 when his mother reluctantly gave him her last twenty dollars to hop a bus north to follow his dreams. He turned up unannounced at the Brooklyn apartment of his friend Fred Williams who had told him to "come up and stay anytime." Williams happened to be getting married the very next day and was in the process of moving out. At the wedding, Lee met Lonnie Smith who took him around to some clubs later that night. When he stepped up to sing a James Brown tune with Little Love and the Lovelights at the 521 Club on Nostrand Ave. and Fulton St., people started throwing money. It was enough for him to buy a nice dinner and cover the first three weeks rent at the apartment that used to be Williams's. Lee was on his way.
He started performing Brown's tunes at clubs all around the city with different bands, including regular weekends with Sammy Gordon and the Hip Huggers (who would later back him in the studio) at the Boston Road Ballroom in the Bronx. In a short time, he was getting hired as a featured singer for parties, dances, and club dates. He was soon dubbed "Little JB" by fans who were blown away by his uncanny ability to cop Brown's voice, moves, and look.
In 1968, he met Ray Patterson who had made a chunk of money running a gypsy cab company on Bedford Ave. and wanted to put some of it behind Lee. He drove Lee down to Charlotte to record at Arthur Smith Studios, which was already famous for cutting Brown's hit, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" a few years earlier. Lee was matched with producer Kip Anderson -- who had enjoyed moderate success in the sixties as a blues and R&B singer and songwriter with records like "A Knife and a Fork" -- to record what would be his first record, "Bewildered," a song made famous by Brown. Unfortunately for Lee, shortly after the release of the record in 1969, the IRS caught up with Patterson, dashing his music industry ambitions after Bedford Records' first and only release.
Around this time, Lee caught the ear of music industry heavies Teddy Powell and Gene Redd Jr. who were keen on cutting a record with him. Powell, the owner of TP Productions and the most prominent black promoter in New York at that time, began featuring Lee on some of his big rhythm and blues revues. Redd for his part, connected Lee with a young band called Kool & the Gang, who he managed and produced. The band had already dropped their first eponymous single, but had yet to taste the success that would lie ahead. Lee joined the act and did about fifteen shows with them as a featured singer. (Incidentally, Lee cites Redd as the inspiration for the impeccably dapper wardrobe he dons to this day.)
It was this same year that Lee would meet the love of his life, Christine. They married and in 1969 moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, where they still reside today. Sadly, Redd had been battling illness and passed away later that same year. In December,. Kool and the Gang released their debut LP, and in 1970 dropped the hit single "Let the Music Take Your Mind," which would launch their inevitable ascent to stardom with Lee watching from the wings.
Despite these setbacks, Lee would go on to perform and record at a high level throughout the seventies. As soul and funk reached its peak in popularity, he released a string of self-penned singles on Sound Plus, Norfolk Sound (with his then manager Maurice Ward), and eventually his own Angle 3 Records ("The Sound of Plainfield.") In 1973, Lee went to A-1 Sound Studios in Manhattan with Sammy Gordon and the Hip Huggers as his band to record what would be two of his most iconic sides, "Let's Talk it Over" and "She's a Lovemaker." The studio owner and engineer on the session was Herb Abramson, who was taken by Lee's talent and offered to sign him to a record deal. As Abramson sat smoking a joint and rambling off his long list of credentials -- that he'd produced the Coasters, The Ravens, Don Covay, Clyde McPhatter, Ruby and the Romantics, Billy Eckstine, Big Joe Turner; that he had been founder and co-owner of not just Jubilee, but ATCO and Atlantic Records itself -- Lee assumed he was bullshitting, and politely passed on the offer. It was only years later that he realized he had missed an opportunity to sign on with a legend. Regardless, with Abramson behind the board the single was dynamite, and, along with "Gonna Make Love" (b/w "Call Her Sugar,") was picked up by London Records for international distribution. Though none of them ever cracked into the Billboard charts, Lee's singles from this period are all red-hot and have become highly sought-after by today's record lovers. He capped off the decade with the 1979 release of his first full-length album, Let's Talk it Over.
Although Lee had really hit his stride on the stage and in the studio, mainstream success had been elusive in the seventies, and by 1980, disco had all but taken over. The raw, bluesy, side of soul music that was Lee's bread and butter had fallen out of popularity. He recorded a handful of singles that he released on his own BDA Records (a prescient acronym for "Better Days Ahead") including his disco twelve-inch "Stop Watch," which charted but didn't make any money.
The eighties proved to be a tough decade for Lee. He felt lost and disheartened, and for the first time began looking at a future that might not be in music. Seeking direction, he began to spend a lot of his time reading. By the end of the decade, he'd begun to dabble in real estate and thought he had finally started to find his bearings. He had designs on opening a fish sandwich eatery and even had his eye on a storefront in which to put it. If not for the sage advice of his ever-grounded wife Christine, that might have been the end of his music career. "What do you know about fish?" she prodded. "Stick with what you know."
Fortunately, the next decade would be kinder to Lee. He took Christine's advice and put his savings into music equipment instead of fish. He bought a mic, speakers, and a small mixing board and in 1991, recorded and produced "Meet Me Tonight" in his home studio. The tune quickly became a hit with the southern blues crowd, a flourishing scene which had evolved out of the Chitlin Circuit. Lee soon found himself crooning "back door" blueses nightly to huge (and mostly female) audiences across the South who'd never lost their love for soul, selling CD's and tapes as fast as he could duplicate them in his garage. In 1992, he signed a five-year contract with Johnny Vincent who had re-activated his legendary Ace Records the decade before, and in 1993 released the LP Enough is Enough. Lee would continue to enjoy success on the southern blues circuit for many years, releasing another three albums with Ace and its Avanti subsidiary.
In 1996, Lee got a call for a session at Desco Records, a New York-based independent label run by two ardent fans of his records, Phillip Lehman and Gabriel Roth. He showed up at Dare Studios in Deer Park, Long Island, and cut "Let a Man Do What He Wana Do"[sic] (b/w "Steam Train") which would be Desco's first forty-five as well as Lee's explosive arrival onto a whole new scene. (Incidentally, it was also a debut for Sharon Jones, who was called in to sing background vocals on the session.) Against the backdrop of the slickly produced acid jazz of the early nineties, an underground movement was taking hold, spurred on by local DJ nights like Keb Darge's Deep Funk in London, as a new young crowd began rediscovering and falling in love with the tougher sounds of the late sixties and early seventies funk forty-fives.
While still riding high on the southern blues circuit, producing and releasing several of his records on his own BDA label, the late nineties found Lee working more and more on this new scene, often headlining the Desco Super Soul Revue, which featured labelmates Sharon Jones, Joseph Henry, Naomi (Davis) Shelton, The Sugarman 3, The Mighty Imperials, and The Soul Providers. (The latter two groups featured a sixteen year old Leon Michels on organ and saxophone respectively.) Desco released the full-length Let's Get a Groove On in 1998, cementing Lee as not just an OG legend, but a torchbearer of the new funk revival. Backed first by Desco house band, The Soul Providers, and later by the Sugarman 3, Lee was now on the road in front of a whole new generation of fans, not just in the states, but in Canada, the UK and Europe as well. Over the next two decades, the Desco roster of musicians would grow to a larger family that would become the backbone of not just Lee's music, but an entire Brooklyn soul renaissance.
In 2000, Lehman and Roth parted ways, shutting Desco's doors and each forming new labels -- Soul Fire and Daptone, respectively. Lee recorded for both in the early aughts, releasing the Problems LP on Soul Fire, and a handful of singles on Daptone including his ballad "Could Have Been."
In 2005, Lee's career took an interesting detour after being called by Martin Solveig to sing on a club track. "Jealousy" became an international hit on the dance scene and for a few strange years he found himself in first class, jetting all over the planet to make appearances as the featured vocalist at bizarre palatial DJ parties from Ibiza to Monaco.
In 2003 Lehman departed Soul Fire and the label was taken over by owner/producer Leon Michels and rebranded first as Truth and Soul and later as Big Crown Records. As the modern soul scene continued to grow and transform over the next two decades, Lee kept his place firmly on top, recording half a dozen albums with Michels as producer -- including 2009's My World, which contained both "Ladies" and "Honey Dove" -- and criss-crossing the globe relentlessly with The Expressions as his band.
In 2022, Lee reunited with Daptone Records and producer Gabriel Roth (AKA Bosco Mann) on the 25th anniversary of their first meeting to record Sentimental Fool, a deep, blues-tinged, wholly-conceived soul album. "I wanted to cut a different kind of record and really give Lee room to sing," explains Mann. "We took our time and got painfully deep into every one of these tunes, stripping them down to pure feeling -- no effort spared, no empty gestures remaining. Lee might be the greatest singer alive and I don't think he's ever sung better than on these sessions." From his first line to his final plaintive lyric, the beauty, power, and raw humanity of Lee's voice is on full display here; the culmination of an astounding career that has seemed to defy gravity, rising to only greater and greater heights.
"With Gabe's efforts I feel like this album depicts me as the full character that I am. I'm all about emotions. This album allowed me to show what I'm capable of doing. Not to say that my vocal ability goes beyond others, but I'm able to figure out the math to get the feeling you're looking for. I'm not trying to outdo any singer, but I can interpret the feeling. I can make someone cry if I want to. It's always the challenge of trying to make something deeper. On this record I go deeper than I've ever gone." -- Lee Fields