Lee Fields is arguably the greatest pure soul singer alive today.
In an age when the shelf life of an artist largely depends on posturing and trends, he has proven to be an unassailable force of nature. His prolific career of more than five decades has yielded more than 20 albums and over 40 singles.
The North Carolina-born Fields arrived in New York in 1967, inspired by James Brown’s legendary performance on The T.A.M.I. Show to make himself a soul star. The decades that followed saw Fields grow a hard-earned reputation as a true king of funk with a steady stream of albums and singles. Though missed opportunities and changing musical tastes over the years might have kept him from reaching the pinnacle of mainstream stardom, Fields never let up, keeping the soul flame alive with independent releases and non-stop touring.
In 2001, Gabriel Roth opened the doors on Daptone Records, with Fields releasing a handful of singles in the early aughts. Now, more than two decades later, Fields has officially joined the Daptone roster, reuniting him with Roth on the 25th anniversary of their first meeting to record Sentimental Fool, a deep, blues-tinged collection expertly showcasing the beauty, power and raw humanity of Fields’ voice.
Lee Fields joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a conversation.
What was playing around the house when you were a kid in North Carolina?
By the mid-’60s, it was a lot of soul music. But when I first moved as a nine-year-old kid, it was a lot of country-western. I love country-western, but by the mid-’60s it was a lot of soul. Otis [Redding] was on the scene, James [Brown], Arthur Conley and Wilson Pickett. It was a whole lot of soul guys that were really kickin’ it out.
But it was the Beatles that made you want to be a singer, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Oh man, when I saw what the Beatles were doing, those guys seemed like they got off of a spaceship. They seemed like a whole other specimen. It was like these guys were superhuman. Their appearance and the way they did things, they were so far from the norm at that time. It was like man, these guys have got to be from somewhere else.
You got out of the music business completely in the ’80s, didn’t you?
The music had changed so much. Rap and dance music took over. I was a soul singer. I didn’t know that I could sing dance music. I probably could. But at the time I was just so affixed to singing soul music that I really didn’t want to change. I had to get out of the music business for a while and take care of my family, and make sure the necessary things that they needed were there. I had to figure my whole life out again. I came to a sudden stop, and I needed to change.
It seems like every 30 years, history repeats itself. In the ’90s, here comes this soul revival. When that happened, did you think it was perfect timing?
I didn’t intend for it to come through me, but [by the early ’90s] I had figured out things. I was back in it, and I was back in it hard. The soul revival came around in the mid-’90s, and I would credit Gabriel Roth and Phillip Lehman for that.
It feels like you and Daptone Records are a perfect fit.
Gabe and I have known each other from the beginning of this whole movement. We’d done a few records together, but really nothing like an album. Things worked out to a point where it was time for us to come together, so we got together and this is the outcome of what we came together for, Sentimental Fool.
Let’s talk about the title track, Sentimental Fool.
I think the title itself has a positive message, because everybody gets a little foolish sometimes. We don’t like to acknowledge it. We don’t like to acknowledge it. We always think that we keep everything in its proper perspective. But everybody gets a little foolish sometimes. A man makes foolish mistakes sometimes and a women makes foolish mistakes sometimes. It’s all part of life. And being an [older] man, I’ve got all this knowledge from all of these years. How could I have done this? What in the world made me do some stuff like this?
This album sounds like a perfect combination of singer and producer. You always sound comfortable, but you really sound like yourself here.
What Gabe wanted me to do on this album was to just be myself and sing the songs as I interpret them. He gave me free rein to be myself. Sometimes, you go into the studio and the producer has something in mind that he wants the artist to capture. The only thing Gabe wanted me to capture was me.