Lee Fields, a man who cut his first record at age 17, is a relentless worker. His latest album, My World, caps a career of over 40 years in music, an industry where he survived without ever making it big or getting the acclaim you’d think talent would earn. But all that is behind him because, according to Lee, “My World is truly the work of my life. I think it’s the greatest project I’ve ever been a part of.” And while every musician says the same about their latest album, Lee has no reason to lie. He’s an honest man who’s carved an honest living his entire life, gigging from huge theatres to shabby venues while quietly making records here and overseas. And his latest work, another tightly knit effort from Truth & Soul, might indeed be his best. Lee still hustles at 57-years-old, still records because he “never learned to be tired” and plans to keep doing do. Here’s our interview with the tireless Lee Fields, a talk where we comb through his long career, touch on his latest LP, and look at his largely understated legacy.
You’ve been singing and gigging since you were a teenager. How much longer do you envision yourself doing this for?
I don’t know. I’m really having such a wonderful time. I think music is like a sculpture. If you sculpt, then you stop when you run out of things to sculpt. I don’t think I’ve sculpted everything I wanted to yet. I’m real serious about that.
You’ve said recently that this is the most creative stage of your career. Why do you think you’ve finally hit your stride after 40 years?
Throughout my musical career, I’ve done a lot of traveling and been to a lot of places. I’ve worked with a lot of people as well. I’ve always kept writing too. I’ve never stopped doing what I do. So just through my life experience alone, I feel like I can convey lots of emotion and conviction—even if it’s not a song I wrote. The whole purpose of being an artist is to make your work as evoking as possible when it comes to passion. At this stage, man, I think it really shows through my work.
Some of your past experiences involve playing with Kool & The Gang and Sammy Gordon. How were those experiences and how did they affect your own outlook on things?
Well, Kool & The Gang was a short stay. I was with them for only about 6 months. Everything worked out pretty well. It was a wonderful experience because after that, I got to see them evolve to new levels of artistry. I’d watch them on TV and just be so proud because it made me believe that success could happen. I mean, when I was singing with them, they were just starting out. So I got to watch them rise to national and international levels of popularity, which was amazing to see.
And with Sammy, he was such a great guitarist. He always kept everything real tight. It taught me that if I was going to play, than I should be tight. If you don’t feel like you’re tight, don’t accept the gig. Money is precious. So don’t be going on stage and slacking because you’re wasting people’s money. It’s like going to a restaurant and someone just throwing you a plate of food and just telling you to “eat it”. There’s a serious responsibility entertaining. That’s what Sammy showed me.
We want to know about the first record you made, “Bewildered”. Talk about that a bit. How was working with Kip Anderson?
It was in ’69 and was 17 at the time. I remember rolling with Kip, who was well known in the South at the time. Kip was a joy to work with. He’s a blues guy, a pianist. He was the one who hooked up “Bewildered” when I was just a kid. It was an honor to watch him and see the way he did things. Making “Bewildered” is another wonderful highlight of my life.
On another famous record you made, “The Bull Is Coming” b/w “The Funky Screw”, you’re credited alongside The Devil’s Personal Band. What do you remember about making that record and who are the Devil’s Personal Band?
I cut that one with Sammy Gordon. I also came up with the name Devil’s Personal Band. They were mostly the same group of guys I worked with around that time; they weren’t a mysterious group or nothing. It was just a name I came up with because the ‘70s were all about language, which was changing rapidly. Like “pot” for example was something you cooked in, but in the ‘70s it became something you smoked [laughs]! Then people started using the word “bad” meaning good. If I told someone their car was “bad” when I was young, I’d get whooped on [laughs]. So all the lingo and sayings were about things being “hot” or “fire”. So I thought: What can be hotter than the Devil’s Personal Band? Seeing the way people responded to the record means that everything worked, I think.
What do you remember about the time your now famous LP, Let’s Talk It Over, was released?
We put out Let’s Talk It Over and it generated a small bit of interest. But music is always changing, and it was the mid-‘70s, so the Otis Reddings of the world were being replaced by self-contained groups like Earth Wind & Fire or Ohio Players. Plus, Southern Blues was getting less and less attention.
So when I released my LP, the sound that I liked, the sound of that album, was already beginning to be replaced. All the record companies passed it along for a while. London [Records] had it and sat on it. I finally released it on my own and put it out there. I did it because I believe in that sound. I do think the record didn’t get the attention it needed.
What do you think it is about that record that made it unsuccessful in its time but a collector’s item decades later?
It’s one of those records that hit your heart. So it took a while for that one to get out and once it did, it took a few years for people to even look for it. I mean, the distributors at the time were even changing. Everything was merging into bigger and bigger entities. So, if you’re an independent label, you really had to push your records because you really didn’t get a fair shake.
Plus, I figured I didn’t get into the business to get rich. If it happens, of course that would be great and I’d be really grateful. But I felt like could make records that aren’t as good in terms of sound quality; especially compared to the other big time studios. But quality is a very opinionated word. Bad is good to someone else.
Well, that gritty sound on those early records is something that a lot of us love.
That’s what I’m talking about! I was influenced by James and Otis and Rufus and people like that. At the time, I loved Stax Records—I still do. Stax wasn’t like Motown. There was something about that bass that jumped out at you. It just made people drop their quarters in the jukebox [laughs].
So what did you do in the ‘80s? I know you dabbled in Disco and released some records overseas in the UK.
Disco had risen in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so I studied it because my gigs were slow and I had more time. I looked at people like Donna Summers and studied the way they were singing and how their records sounded. It paid off because I had three charting records in Europe during the ‘80s. They were almost like electronic dance tracks. It’s amazing that by studying the music, I could bring my blues and funk specialties to that type of music. I was just singing in my style to a different rhythm. The ‘80s were a learning process. In the ‘80s I cut a few things because if you weren’t doing disco, you were considered done.
And by the late ‘90s, these records we’ve discussed had become highly collectible. How did you hook up with Leon Michels and begin making My World?
I got a call from Philip Lehman telling me these cats were fans of my old records and that they wanted to cut a record with me. Apparently the band and everything else was already formed by the time I got there. This was in ‘95.
You and Sharon Jones even ended up working on the song together, “Stranded In Your Love”, in 2005. How was that? Would you work with Ms. Jones again?
Well, I’m looking forward to working with Sharon on another record, no doubt. I think we had great chemistry in the studio. We sang the song, and for a moment it was like reality was actually happening. Sharon would say: “What you want now?” with such attitude! I was just laid out man! I felt like it was the real situation happening. We had a good time doing it too! We did the song together at the Apollo a while back and everything went great. I’m glad people really like that one.
What was the recording process for My World like? Do you write your own lyrics?
Not all of them. As a matter of fact, I wrote a few songs on this new album, but it was truly a joint effort. What happens is, we’ll be in the studio, and if they have a hot track that doesn’t have lyrics already, I’ll hop on and sing to it. And sometimes Leon will add some words here and there, everybody throws in a couple more words and sounds. And that’s how we literally did it.
What took so long for the record to actually come out? It seemed like it was in the works for a long time.
That’s a good question man! [laughs] I was wondering myself for a while! Leon just kept telling me to come over and cut some tracks. I really never knew the timeframe they had in mind. So I’d go over to Leon’s studio, cut some songs, and go home and think: ‘Damn those were some good songs.’ But I never knew exactly what he was going to do with them. I’d record some stuff and not hear again for months [laughs].
Leon would call me on a random night and say: “Come over, I just got back in town!” In my head, I would think: ‘Here we go again!’ But I loved what The Expressions and those guys were doing so much, that I was always anxious to work with them. So every time they’d call, I would run right over. I believed in the record the whole time, but I have to admit that, at some points, I was disheartened because it was taking so long.
So what was it like when you found out the record had been finalized?
A couple months ago, Leon said that they had finished the album, and I said, ‘What album?’ [laughs]. Leon said, “Your album!” so I ran and told my wife that I got a new album out! And the amazing thing is, when I finally put the CD on in my car and listened to it, it was a true delight. The way they engineered the tracks really captured the sound I love—that gritty sound we mentioned earlier. It sounded like it was made a long time ago, but it’s still fresh and new. The Expressions really captured the music from my era. All those guys, Menehan [Street Band], The Expressions, Budos [Band], all the guys from Daptone are big fans of funk. These guys study that stuff. So, really, this is not a reproduction of that music, it’s a recreation. Regardless of the sales, I feel like this is the greatest project that I’ve been apart of.
The version of “Honey Dove” on the new album is slightly different than the version on Problems, a past LP of yours where it originally appeared. Why was it reworked for the new album?
We felt like we wanted to put another spin on it to possibly gain more listeners. The band just added new things here and there. So far, I’ve found that people love this song. At the CD release party in France, it was one of the most requested songs by far.
And whose decision was it to cover “My World Is Empty Without You” on the new album?
Man, I think it was Leon and Jeff [Silverman]. Those guys are like walking geniuses [laughs]. I think they both have very bright futures. They’ll just come up to me and say: “Hey Lee, we got a great idea.” And whatever they say, I’m down. And 99% of the time they’re on point.
Well, we do love the new album and think everything turned out great. How do you feel about the title “Little J.B.” and all the comparisons to James Brown after all these years?
In the beginning, when people used to call me that, I took it as a compliment. It’s a wonderful thing if remind somebody of somebody else that’s so great. I mean, I’m heavily influenced by James, no doubt. Who isn’t? I even had to play up the James Brown image before because that’s what people wanted, and I had to keep my bills paid. But after a while, I started to yearn for my own identity. I wanted to keep all the elements of myself that happen to be similar to James because it’s me and I’m just being honest. So I had to seek out ways to be different on purpose. For years I wore an afro because James had his in a perm. But I wasn’t gonna reinvent myself just to be totally different either. Whatever I did, regardless of what I wore, I still gave people that James Brown image.
What would you like people to say about you now?
Hopefully now people will just say “oh, he reminds me of James” not “he’s trying to be James”. All those years, I was trying to get Lee out. It took a while, but I think people can tell I’m being sincere in what I do. I hope, and I think, more people in the world today recognize me for me, way more than ever before.
By David Ma and Nate LeBlanc