Lee Fields Is a Forward-Looking Throwback

by Steve Knopper

Chicago Tribune (TNS)

28 February 2017

"A lot of people think soul music is just a way you sing, or a sound -- soul music means coming from the spirit. The soul is a spirit,” says Fields.
 

On the cover of Lee Fields’ album “Let’s Talk It Over,” the soul singer poses in a bell-bottomed, black-and-white leisure suit that is extraordinary even by 1979 standards — the pattern suggests an endless jigsaw puzzle of triangles and rectangles, or H.R. Giger at his most cosmic. “Oh, yeah,” he says with a laugh. “My mother made that suit.”

The suit deserves a Soul Music Hall of Fame exhibit, but Fields can’t recall what happened to it. “First of all, I gained a little weight,” says the frontman for the Expressions, who made 2016’s fantastic throwback album “Special Night.” “I had it hanging up around the house and one day I decided to try it on. I said (to my wife), ‘Baby, look what the cleaners did to this suit, they should be ashamed of themselves.’ She said, ‘That’s not the cleaner.’ She poked at my stomach: ‘That’s what you did, right there.’”

Fields, 66, has been singing professionally since he left his North Carolina home at 17 to make it as a singer in New York. He put out several singles, beginning with “Bewildered” in 1969, and collected them on “Let’s Talk It Over” 10 years later. Although he made plenty of money on tour, he switched to real estate in the early ‘80s, when disco and its various electronic spin-offs made his classic soul-man style briefly obsolete. Ten years ago, he came back, hooking up with producer and saxophonist Leon Michels, the backbone of the Expressions, who framed Fields’ restrained style within the perfect pocket.

Asked to discuss his chemistry with the Expressions, who also include drummer Homer Steinweiss, guitarists Thomas Brenneck and Sean Solomon and bassist Quincy Bright, Fields expands to a discussion of soul music in general. “A lot of people think soul music is just a way you sing, or a sound — soul music means coming from the spirit. The soul is a spirit,” says the deeply religious Fields by phone while returning from visiting family in Virginia to his New Jersey home. “When God took a breath through the nostrils of Adam, he became a living soul. And he was a man, so he was a soul man.”

“Soul music is about love, man. It’s about all human beings being able to live on this earth, which is a spaceship floating through the cosmos,” he continues. “It’s a marvelous ship, so if we love each other, we’ll be able to make this journey. (It) might take 100 generations to get there, but we’ll get there. … If we remain calm and care about one another, chances are we’re going to get to that destination, and love is the fuel for that.”

The band’s 2014 album, “Emma Jean,” was a personal album named for Fields’ mother, a seamstress who died in 1992; last year’s “Special Night” is more universal. The songs are about letting in the Lord and loving his wife, and the Expressions punctuate his smooth choruses with urgent horn-section bleats, organ jams and brief, melodic guitar solos. Its emotional centerpiece is the people-coming-together “Make the World,” which closes with Fields — once known as “Little JB,” after James Brown — shouting “Good gawd!”

That song came to Fields in a dream. “It was more or less like a nightmare, at the beginning,” he recalls. “I dreamed I took a road into the future and I saw the world very much in chaos — it was anarchy and pollution, and the waters and the air were polluted. There was mutation, because everything was in such disarray. And it was so frightening.

“I woke up out of that nightmare. I went back to sleep and I had basically the same dream,” he continues. “But this time, instead of everything being polluted, and anarchy and total disarray, the foliage of the trees was nice and green, and the water was clear and people were getting along with each other. It was so beautiful, man. It was like a heavenly garden. I tried to make sense out of the dream so I came up with the song.”

“Special Night,” the song, is a tribute to Fields’ wife of 47 years, and the album has a running theme of married people being kind and considerate to each other. (And perhaps they interrupt their relationship with the occasional “yeeeoooow!”) “Every night has been a special night with us. It doesn’t have to be a night of roses or a night of special dinners. It has to be a night that you always remember to appreciate your other half,” he says. “I try to write songs to promote togetherness. That was the theme song of the album.”

Fields may no longer have the patterned 1979 leisure suit, but he and the Expressions dress just as immaculately on stage. (Fields, especially in the summer, sweats through his coats, so he brings a “very large wardrobe” on tour.) “The dressing aspect of it is very much part of our thing,” he says. “We try to be as dapper as possible. If you’re going to be out there representing, you’re supposed to be looking like you’re representing.”

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