For more than four decades, Lee Fields has been making heartfelt, emotive soul jams. He got his start in 1967, recording a cover of the James Brown song “Bewildered,” and then from there, joined the nascent group, Kool and the Gang, for a short stint.
Disenchanted with the changing music industry, Fields spent the bulk of the ’80s in real estate, before returning to the art form in the ’90s with renewed vim and vigor. For years, he traveled the country playing his retro-tinged jams solo, until 2008 when he met the six musicians who would later become his backing band, the Expressions.
We chatted with the 65-year-old from his home in Plainfield, New Jersey, about his regrets about leaving Kool and the Gang, how he got back into making music in the ’90s, and the one time he met James Brown.
Lee Fields and the Expression play at 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3, at Mezzanine. More info here.
SF Weekly: How do you and the Expressions maintain that old-timey, retro sound in your music?
Lee Fields: Because we have real players. When you hear bass guitar, that’s a bass guitar. When you hear drums, those are drums. When you hear piano or organ, those are real instruments.
In other words, I think what is happening today is there is a lack of use of human beings today. And what is happening is most things are being made by artificial intelligence, with robots and computers. Everything that a person can do, they’ve got a machine now that can do it. Matter of fact, most of the time, you call a person’s office and you’re going to talk to a computer. You’re not going to talk to a person. And now they’re thinking of putting cars on the road without drivers. So what’s going to happen to truck drivers?
But the point I’m trying to make now is I’m human friendly. I believe human beings and the love of human beings’ work is the way to go. I have recorded many songs with Martin Solveig, and they were highly received in clubs all over the world. And he was using computers and all of that stuff. So I can do that. I can easily do that. But I’d prefer to have an actual human being playing my music.
So my songs sound authentic, they sound the way it is supposed to sound if you’re using horns, or trumpets, or real drums. I’m not using the software and algorithms that everyone is using on the radio today. It’s easy to do that, but it’s very hard to take human beings playing real instruments, coming up with real melodies other than taking a portion of someone else’s song and putting it in your song and claiming that it’s your own. We are truly authentic.
SFW: Your music is also full of positive messages, that reinforce themes of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. What’s the motive behind that?
LF: Well, I think music has such an influence on us. So back in the mid-’80s, when music changed and I was hearing a lot of music about “get your guns” and “I’m a gangster,” and all of this kind of stuff, I started thinking about this. And then I noticed the jail houses were becoming more and more filled with young men. And I wondered if the music had any kind of effect on that. Which I don’t know.
But I know that when I was a kid, my heroes were like Superman and the Lone Ranger. I wanted a Superman outfit. I wanted to carry a holster just like the Lone Ranger had. I wanted to be just like my heroes. So I kind of wondered, does music have an effect on people like it did me? Did those kids want to grow up and be gangsters because that’s what their heroes were saying they were?
So I try to be careful as to what I put in my music. I try to build my music on strong words, meaningful words, words of hope. I think everything should be allowed to be said, but I think that when we know there are impressionable minds that are listening, maybe we should use choice words and be a little more dense so they have to learn in order to understand what you’re talking about.
SFW: The Expressions formed around 2008 and you Lee Fields and the Expression released their first album together in 2009. How did you and the other six musicians meet?
LF: I met Leon, the leader, when I was singing with a group called the Soul Providers that was on Death Row Records. He was about 16 at the time that was late ’90s. And then Leon and I became good friends, and in 2008 we decided to team up.
Before the Expressions, I had been touring as a solo act for years, but I was still praying that a band would come. I believed that a band would come. I knew that I was going to meet the right fellas. And so it happened in 2008. I waited for these guys like 40 years. That’s a long time.
But I didn’t have any doubt. There were moments of weakness. There were moments where I was kind of wondering there, Lord, but God kept his word. And the Expressions and I are now happily together. And I don’t plan on never leaving those guys.
SFW: You were an early member of Kool and the Gang back in the early ’70s before the band blew up. But you decided to leave just before they made it big. How did you feel about that in hindsight?
LF: They were just a local band in New York, and, at the time, I didn’t realize how really awesome that group was. Then there were some problems that were raised between me and another player. But anyway, long story short, I ventured out and when I saw them blowing up, I hated myself for a long time. I wished I would have just stuck it out. There was a lot of stuff happening back then that groups go through when they’re trying to get their footing, and I wish I would have stuck it out. I used to see them popping on TV, and I’d ask myself why didn’t I stay.
But for anybody that experiences anything like that, I would advise them to just continue to believe and something good is going to happen. You’ve just got to believe.
SFW: You gave up music in the ’70s and got into real estate in the ’80s. Tell me about that.
LF: At the end of the ’70s, everything was different as far as music was concerned, and I thought maybe it’s not for me. I tried so hard to make things happen and music had changed. I was totally baffled as to what was going on, so I started reading the Bible because I was losing my confidence and I was becoming very weak.
I decided to go into real estate, and I had a pretty good life in the ’80s, because I was there with my kids and my wife. I was off the road, and I was there when the boys really needed me.
SFW: And then you returned to music in the ’90s? Why?
LF: Actually, my plan wasn’t to return to music at that time. I was planning on opening up an eatery. I found a place in Newark where there were three apartments on top of a storefront building, and I was going to buy that building and let the three floors out and open up a fish place.
I told my wife about the idea, because I saw that in Plainfield people were making a killing. It looked like this one guy was really really really making a lot of money with his fish place. So that’s what gave me the idea.
And when I told the wife about it, we took a ride over to Newark and took a look at the building. And she didn’t seem that much excited. She looked at me and said, “I want to ask you something. What you know about fish?” I said, “Well, it taste good.” And then she said, “You need to stick to what you do.” I told her how music had changed: “It ain’t how it used to be, baby. It’s not like it was.” But she insisted that I stick with music.
So I took the money that I was going to use for the eatery and bought a lot of sound equipment. I bought a Yamaha, a computer, two deck machines, a mixing board, and a bunch of speakers. I had the whole nine.
In theory, I read about how this could be done, but after I got all the equipment, I didn’t know how to operate it. So I thought my band was going to come over and assist me because they were familiar with that stuff. But when I bought the equipment, amazingly all of the fellas disappeared on me.
So I got all of this equipment sitting in my basement. And at first I could tell that the wife was highly enthusiastic about it. But then after three or four weeks of me sitting down there reading books and not making any music, she was down there getting ready to put some clothes in the washing machine, and she was kind of tapping her foot. And I could tell she was getting a little bit impatient. I don’t know what she was going to say to me that day because I got out of there fast.
We’d spent all of this money on this stuff and I couldn’t work nothing. So finally, thank God, a friend of mine named Lloyd came by and showed me how to hook up everything and use the MIDI controller.
Once I found out how to operate everything, I cut a record called Meet Me Tonight. People started playing it like crazy, asking for performances. So I would come out and perform with just myself and the big speakers, and I’d sing to the tracks for a 40 minute set.
Amazingly, with the demand of the record, I couldn’t press them up fast enough. And the next thing I know, I’m touring all in the South, opening up for people like Johnny Taylor and Carol Davis and BB King with just a digital recording of my tracks. Everyone had a band and I was the only one that didn’t have a band.
SFW: The first song you ever recorded was a James Brown song and you’ve been called Little JB because of both your physical and vocal resemblance to the singer. Did you ever meet him?
LF: Yeah, I met him in 1973 at WRDW radio station in Augusta, Georgia. I missed my flight back to New Jersey to meet him, actually. I saw a red Cadillac Alvarado pulling up, James Brown in a cowboy hat, and he had his little daughter and wife with him at the time. I was like, “Oh, man! I’m finally going to meet James Brown.”
James Brown to me was like a god. He was so inspirational. At the time, people of color were having such a hard time and here was James Brown who was like, “I’m Black and I’m proud and stay in school” and all of that stuff.
So I get introduced to him and I’m just standing there and listening. He’s talking about his tour in Japan and about the things that he was doing, and at that very moment I realized that the world has changed Brown. I realized that he’s another man, just like me. In other words, there are no gods on this earth. Because I had him in high esteem, which I still do, but I realized that I can’t be James Brown. And that’s when I realized that I had to go in search of myself.
SFW: In your early days, you were often performing in the shadows of other great soul musicians, like James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. Now that they’re all dead, do you feel like you’re making it big now because you’re finally not in their shadows?
LF: No. I think if they were around today, I probably could get even more attention. Because I know who Lee Fields is — I don’t have to imitate or emulate anyone now because I know who I am. I know what I’m about. And I think that’s the key to anyone.
SFW: Do you know who Charles Bradley is? You two sound a lot a like musically, and you have similar stories.
LF: He’s a good friend of mine. I took him on tour before his records came out. And Charles wanted to quit back then. Tommy, his producer, was trying to tell him to perfect his act, and we was over in Europe somewhere. And Charles wanted to quit. He was like, “Tommy, I can’t take it. I can’t take it. I can’t it.” I said, “Charles, they are promoting you more than they are promoting me. This is your chance, man. Take it. It’s what you worked all your life for.”
Matter of fact I just spoke with Charles a few days ago to see how he was doing. He’s a bit under the weather right now, so I called to check on him and see how he was doing.