AS I write, shrill shrieks and grunts James Brown would be envious of are busting out of the speakers from my 45rpm copy of ‘I’m A Man’. Indeed the artist’s old nickname ‘Little JB’ comes from his physical and vocal resemblance to Brown. However this is unmistakably Lee Fields, a very different talent.
During his prolific 43-year career Lee Fields has toured with such titans of soul and r’n’b as Kool and The Gang, Hip Huggers, OV Wright, Darrell Banks, and Little Royal. From his very first recording in 1969 to his latest album Faithful Man, recorded with his band The Expressions, the raw, soul drenched emotion shines through every note.
Lee took some time out for an interview this week and I began by asking who influenced his sound. He cites Mahalia Jackson, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and of course James Brown, but it was surprising to hear also him mention country stars.
“I listened to a lot of country and western when I was growing up because of the area I grew up in, North Carolina,” Lee tells me. “The only time you can get soul music is on the weekends, so I was listening to a variety of music especially country. You know like Hank Williams, and Earl Scruggs, Porter Wagner.”
Listening back, especially to the deep soul ballads you can hear some of that country influence. I put that down to the parallels between blues and country, namely the principal instrument at the time, the guitar and the universal theme in both genres - heartache and troubles.
“I still appreciate country music today,” says Lee. “It’s very close to the blues. They just sing it a different way but they still sing about the same things heartaches and pain.”
Lee was re-introduced to a whole new generation of fans with the release of his 2009 album My World, a serious tour-de-soul that pulls no punches.
A devout soul fan myself, I am often wary of new soul, or r’n’b, as “the kids” call it today. More often than not it turns out to be a watered down version of a Motown or Stax sound. Once the needle hits the groove on My World’s opening track ‘Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do )’, you know this is the real deal.
Lee’s band The Expressions begin with understated bass and drums before Lee’s trademark soul shriek cuts through like an ice pick. You can hear a lot of different influences on this record. The sound, although wonderfully authentic, has come a long way from its country and blues roots.
“I listen to everything today man, it could be hip-hop, funk, Sharon Jones, Rhianna, J Cole, anything man - I love it all.”
Lee is very aware and proud of the reach his music is achieving today. A young American skateboarder created a YouTube sensation recording a routine and using Lee’s ‘Faithful Man’ as the backing track - more than 50,000 hits prove Lee’s appeal to all ages.
“Yeah, that skateboarder using my tune was a cool idea,” he says. “I’m glad that he did that. The guy got over 50,000 hits? Aw man. As a matter of fact most of the time at the shows we have a lot of young people, it’s all ages there you know? And that’s a beautiful thing.
“I think there’s a lot of young people that are starting to do soul music which is really great and it makes me feel good that my music is spreading to so many different places and influencing so many young folks. I was always hoping we could inspire someone to keep the music alive.”
Being a vinyl nerd, I had to ask him about some of his early records, one of which, ‘We Fought For Survival’, a funky number from 1969 can fetch more than $1,500. That is for one 45rpm record. That is for just two songs, younger readers!
Does Lee feel any bitterness in knowing that originally the record did not sell well and now prices have hit the roof with no royalties going his way? His response is philosophical, humble and charming.
“It makes me feel good these songs are so sought after all these years, but when I was making these songs I always believed that they would never die. They were just like children to me and inside I just believed they would never die.
“It’s difficult to get royalties from these songs. They’re so rare the piece itself becomes like a piece of art. What we did is we released the record on a reissued CD so a lot of people that couldn’t get it can now get it which is a beautiful thing.”
Lee tells me he is very much looking forward to the Galway gig after his previous mini Irish tour with “much love from the Irish audience”. I asked him what we can expect from his debut in Galway?
“I’m gonna give every last piece of soul from the confines of my body.” Can’t say fairer than that now can you?
Lee Fields & The Expressions play the Róisín Dubh on Tuesday July 23 at 8pm. Tickets are available through www.galwayartsfestival.com and www.roisindubh.net and the Festival Box Office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street.