SOUNDTRACKING: Lee Fields Is A Man Full Of Soul On His Way To Fortune Sound Club
by Daniel Colussi | Upon reaching Lee Fields over the phone he’s quick to inform me of his and his band’s intention to “come in full force and reach down within ourselves and give our all and all” at their Vancouver debut. From anyone else it’d be hyperbole, but coming from Lee Fields – a man with a huge reserve of soul power contained within him – it can only be the real deal. It’s a promise that comes from a 61 year man whose career highs and lows span five decades, who’s life in rural North Carolina was transformed by a mad trip to New York and a twenty dollar bill. His passion for performing and life in general was infectious, his monologues regularly ending with deep belly laughs. Suffice it to say, he left me very excited to see him and his band play the Fortune Sound Club on September 1st. For an initiation into the church of Lee Fields, read on…
You started out quite young, as a teenager right? Oh man, when I came to New York I just turned seventeen years old. I had twenty dollars in my pocket. I was so naive, so naive! A man came and saw my show and said, “Lee you can make it. Come to New York. Here’s my number, come.” So I went to New York without even calling the guy. When I get there I find out the guy is getting married the next day, so he’s moving out of his apartment. He talked to his landlady and she said I could stay there for $25 a week. But I didn’t have a job, I didn’t know where I’d get that money from. So I went to this guy’s wedding, his name was Fred, and I met this other guy who’s name was Lonnie. He took me to a club after the reception, and I talked to the musicians and they let me sit in. I told them I’d do a James Brown song. They let me on stage, they gave me the microphone and…hey listen, man, let me tell you something before I tell you what happened on that stage…when I got to the Port Authority in New York City I didn’t know how to catch the train. I had twenty dollars in my pocket. It cost me eighteen dollars for a taxi, I don’t know if the guy ripped me off or what. But I was straight from the country. So when they gave me the microphone that night I only had two dollars in my pocket. And I promised my landlady twenty five dollars a week. So when they gave me that microphone I said I’m going to do this with all I got! And all of a sudden people started throwing money on the floor! I was doing my thing and laughing and dancing. And by the end of that song I had one hundred dollars! I paid my landlady seventy five dollars, three weeks in advance. So I had twenty seven dollars and back in those days, ’67, that was serious cash. We partied that night and enjoyed ourselves. And from that point I got gig after gig, and that’s how it started.
Have you ever played Vancouver before? This will be my first time playing Vancouver and I’m very excited about that. I’ve heard its a beautiful city and I know some people from your city and they’re just wonderful people. And so you get a place where wonderful people are and beautiful sights and then the band coming in — it should be just the right setting to give it our all and all! We’re not going to spare anything. Because when I say that, I don’t say that in terms of anticipating what will happen or how the crowd is going to respond. When I walk out there on stage I give my all and all, because my philosophy is that the artist – by obligation alone – should give all that they have. That’s my philosophy and I live by that. Because it’s a privilege to be on the stage. Some people think it’s all about them, but it’s not! It’s about the public, man, it’s about the people. I’m very serious about this. I’m a very serious guy! (He laughs) I laugh, but I’m really serious. I cannot wait to get to the microphone! I can feel the energy flowing already, man!
So do you like touring? Is it tough on you? Is a drag to do that? I enjoy touring because I look at it as a privilege, and honour, for people to come out and support you and buy your music. So far in all the places I’ve been I’ve receive much love because they can tell that myself and The Expressions are very sincere. Because there’s no limits. When we hit the stage, when they say whatever the time span is, we give it our all and all. And that’s the way it should be because I’m a lover of people. Because the zone that I be it…I can’t even find words to describe it. I can almost touch it, I can feel the texture of people, the spiritual connection. It’s all about the soul, man. Listen, it’s kind of hard to describe because you can find a lot of soul singers that talk about soul singing. But trying to describe I guess none of us can say exactly or put it in exact words because we’re talking about the intangible. So you coming out?
Yes, I’ll be at the show. Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about! (deep laughs).
Contrasting with playing live, what about making albums? How does that experience compare with playing shows? The difference is, when you’re in the studio it’s all about the connection of trying to make the song have some sort of life of its own. Because people can tell when you’re coming for real, so stand in the real zone the whole time. But you don’t have a path to follow because you’re creating. It’s like an untouchable a map, each word has to be said a certain way so that it can be understood as what you’re trying to convey at that moment. Whatever the song is, the story of the song has to be told so that you can get as much passion out of that song as possible. But live shows, it’s all about making a connection with the audience because you have a pattern now. You already know the melody of the song, the structure, so you have more or less of a map. But you don’t have a map of how to try to merge with the people. So you’re still on uncharted grounds but you go and dig as deep as possible within and say the words as the spontaneous energy tells you to say it. Listen man, I’ll tell you something, I just got moved just then! (laughs). It’s about being real, man, it’s about being real. So when you come live, man, the people can tell; they can sense that. They know when you’re getting into that real zone. So our intention is to get in that real zone and stay there for the entire show.
I understand that you tried different vocal approaches to these songs, until you felt like you got the right spirit. What it is, when you’re recording you don’t have a pattern. There’s no map, so you have to go within and let the soul dictate to how you say different things or what the melody or song structure will be. When I start to record I have no idea the structure. I live every song that I sing. When I’m singing that song I am the character in that song. Whatever I’m saying in that song at that moment is real. When I sing that song I become the character in that song. Like in Faithful Man, when I sing it I am the faithful man and so this fantasy female – this is actually happening to me. When I sing I Wish You Were Here I think of my lost loved one and I am experience that hurt and pain. So although a song might not be an experience in my life, it is a real experience in my life. I become like an actor. A good actor gets into the part so deep that he actually becomes that person. And people can sense that, they’ve told me many a time in many a places. It takes me a few minutes when I get off stage to get out of character.
This sound exhausting. It is very exhausting but you know what it’s worth it. For someone to say, “Lee I really enjoyed that show,” it’s worth it. People’s time is precious and they come and see you. I tell all the young guys this, all the up and coming artists, give them you’re all and all. They deserve that.
Did you ever think that you’d be performing this long? Well, no I didn’t think I’d be doing it this long, to be frank with you. I though that at one point I’d be telling people what I used to do. But you know what? It’s amazing when one is dedicated, you’d be surprised. When one is really focused on what they’re trying to achieve for their destiny, one would be surprised to know that they can keep the sharpness. Because time robs us, all of us. Father time takes everything, your talent, your youth, everything. But when you have faith and believe, you’d be surprised how just believing can sustain you. I wondered sometimes how’d I’d be able to continue. I don’t think it’s because of my efforts, I think it’s because I have faith and believe in God. I’m not trying to tell people how to live their lives, but that’s what I truly believe.
Lee Fields And The Expressions play Fortune Sound Club Saturday September 1st. Tickets at Zulu and Red Cat.
Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine and a contributing writer to Ion Magazine. A veteran employee of Zulu Records and tuneage aficionado, he DJs on an infrequent basis (about four times a year) and is a musician around town who plays in several ensembles.