Most of the soul aficionados of the late '60s are now a figment of the past: James Brown, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding have come and gone, but some have withstood the test of time, including Lee Fields. Fields, who will play Paper Tiger tonight (Thursday, March 31) now fronts a band called Lee Fields and the Expressions. He took the time to speak with the Current about San Antonio, their latest album, Emma Jean, and the heavy stuff in life.
So, this is your second stop in San Antonio in a short amount of time. What do you like about the city?
I like the weather. I like the people. I like the people most of all. They make you feel so welcomed. Oh, and the food. I love the food. I can go on and on and on.
You’ve been making music for so long, what’s the secret to longevity?
I try and stay vigilant to art and what people are doing in their lives. I try to sing about love and envy and the ups and downs of lives. I want to always speak to peoples’ struggles, joys and celebrations. I try to sing about those things because music is like a track to our lives. The more I keep my hand on the pulse, the closer I can become to my audience.
What is it about love that really resonates with you and your music?
Love is the adhesive bond between human beings that makes us relate together. Love is what keeps us together. Love is all of the things necessary for man to sustain himself and get along on this planet. I try to sing about love and remind people that love is necessary because so many people today want to talk about the negative things. If we stay focused on love, mankind can survive on this planet for this period of time. Without love, we’re destined for destruction. It’s important because I believe in doing whatever I can do for the betterment of all. I can’t think of anything to do better.
But at the same time, your voice translates pain really well.
Well sorrow and pain are a part of life as well. When a mother gives birth to a child she goes through pain, that goes along with territory of giving life. As we go in life, pain and sorrow come along with the part of being alive. It’s just a necessary human emotion and experience. We got to take the bitter with the sweet. There are parts of our lives that aren’t so sweet, but those moments make us appreciate when it is good for us. The rough times makes us appreciate the good times. I do believe that love is the answer and it saddens me when I hear so much rhetoric today about anger and frustration. It brings up destruction. If we’re going to build this world and make it better, we need love.
You have a point, especially considering the current political climate.
But I feel like each and every one of us must do our part. We must show love. Love will overcome. Since I’m in the music business, I talk about it and I sing about it and it makes me feel good. I’m hoping in San Antonio to try to take everyone to a place of euphoria where everyone is solely happy. The beautiful part about that is it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey of getting there. That sort of translates how life goes as well.
Do you think that since your music talks about general human emotion and experience, there are a lot of younger kids at your shows who necessarily didn’t grow up listening to soul?
That’s interesting and it’s a beautiful thing because if music is done correctly, all people are supposed to enjoy it. And what people are doing now with genres is separating it into certain crowds or niches, whether it is this crowd or that crowd, for their own reasons. But if music is done right, everyone can feel joy from it. What is beautiful about it is because I see all the ages coming together. There’s fathers, daughters, mothers, kids and everyone is coming out. I can’t think of a more beautiful thing. I try to make my music clean and inclusive. With good music, why do you have to be vulgar? It’s really nonsense. I think many artists today owe it to the public to be more responsible. If we want to make a better world, we have to create a positive message.
Your latest album, Emma Jean, is named after your mother. How did that come about?
I could have bought roses that would have sat on her grave. The body that contains my mother is in the ground, but the body is a temporary vessel we all have. We all are not the bodies. The bodies are temporary and the spirit endures. I decided to come up with songs because I believe her spirit still lives. Music, to me, is perfect because it’s something that is non-tangible and can speak to the spirit since it is something you feel. You can’t touch it or feel it. I’m hoping that in whatever dimension she resides, I’m hoping that she hears these songs. Instead I gave her a bouquet of songs.
You did a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia.” How did that song resonate with you?
I was able to identify with the song because it is one of the most profound songs I have heard. That song resonates with me because it’s about a loved one. Whenever I go on the road, it’s always good to come back to my love. I’m sure anyone can identify with that. Anyone who works a 9-5 job can relate to that too, because at the end of the day it feels good to go back home, especially to somebody that loves you. So, that song is written so well that I’m really happy that the record company allowed me to cover it. It reflects a little bit of my upbringing because I was born to country western, growing up in North Carolina. I think rhythm and blues and country western are akin to each other because both genres sing about the lives of people. It talks about the trials and tribulations people go through in the day-to-day as just a regular person.
You mentioned about your upbringing in North Carolina. When were you first introduced to country and R&B?
Well I was a paper boy as a kid, but when I grew up I knew I wanted to be a businessman. I had no dreams of becoming a singer, so when I carried my papers at around 12 or 13-years-old, I had a transmitter radio. In North Carolina where I grew up in, the radios would mostly play country western like Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash.
At the same time though I would also listen to a lot of pop music because the owner played rhythm and blues on the weekends on Saturday for about two hours. So I still enjoy both the genres and it made me appreciate all the genres growing up in a situation like that. So I had no dreams of being a singer until I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Man, these guys came from like outer space. Seeing them in ties with all black and weird hair-dos, those guys looked so cool, man. The crowd going hysterical was amazing. I had never seen anything like that. So, at that point I wanted to buy my first guitar and I saved up my paper route money to put a down payment. Now I wanted to be a Beatle.
Then when I had my first itch to perform was when I saw James Brown. That sealed the deal and this was what I wanted to do. Ever since looking at shows with James Brown, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, I knew what I wanted to be.
Didn’t you also meet with James Brown at one point or another in a radio station?
Well there was a DJ working for James Brown and he brought me in to a club in Augusta. The DJ told me that James Brown was going to be at the radio station on Sunday, and that if I stuck around he could introduce me to him. 'Man, are you serious? Of course I’ll stay on Sunday!' I’ll never forget him riding up to the radio station. He had a nice car and his wife. He got out and he started to talk about how he got back from Japan. While I was hearing him talk, though, I was thinking the world already has James. It already has one James Brown and it doesn’t need another. So, in that moment, I was in a search for who I am and what I could give the world. It was all done in the utmost respect and admiration I had for James, but the world doesn’t need two. I realized I had to find myself.
I feel like you’ve done that with your work alongside the Expressions. What is it like working with them?
Well I waited for this band for about forty years. It’s crazy because I first met them through Desco Records back then. A few members of the Expressions actually were in a band called the Soul Providers. My sax man, Leon Michels, was actually in the band too. When they changed their name to Dap-Kings and Sharon Jones became their singer was when I met the band. Leon was so young but my friendship with them grew so close.
I knew the Expressions would come, but I had to wait because every other musician I worked with didn’t feel like a band. There is this certain vibe with musicians and bands where everything just feels right and there’s just this feeling. That’s how it felt with them and how it still feels like to this day. Our communication is amazing, like we finish each other’s sentences. These guys are my musical sons. It’s such a pleasure performing night after night with them. Even in recording, we’ll stay there writing [for] hours [and] hours. The ideas just flow and flow. This band is truly a blessing.