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The singular Lee Fields is enjoying an uncommon day off in Plainfield, New Jersey, when reached via telephone for an interview. "I got a back yard, I got a barbecue," he says, chuckling. "I try to barbecue like they do in St. Louis, but I can't get it right!" Fields' laughter serves as a verbal exclamation point to most of his statements. His way of speaking, like his way of singing, is an expression of every facet of joy. A true-blue soul singer since the age of fourteen, Fields has been a touring musician for nearly every part of the last four decades.
At seventeen, Fields left behind his quiet life in North Carolina for the bright lights of New York City. Once in New York, Fields found that the $20 he had in his pocket wasn't enough to get him very far. Luckily, producer Fred Williams was able to set Fields up in his former apartment at $25 per week. Fields scored a job singing after Williams' wedding reception the next day and made rent from the money dancers threw on the floor. "And I never stopped rollin', never stopped rollin'," he says.
Currently, Brooklyn's Truth and Soul records fosters Fields' act. His album, Faithful Man, came out last year and is available digitally and on vinyl, through Truth and Soul's website. We talked to Fields about his musical philosophy, his ongoing tour with his band, the Expressions (and its opener, Lady), and his long history as a man of soul.
Ellen Herget: What are your impressions of St. Louis, based on previous stops?
Lee Fields: When you step into St. Louis, you step right into the West. Everyone knows Missouri is the Show-Me State, and I'm in a Show-Me state of mind. I can't hardly wait to get out there. I want to tell everyone who is gonna come out to the show, I'm very anxious to come back to St. Louis...St. Louis is definitely one of my favorite cities.
Tell me about your first experience performing.
I started at about fourteen years old. I started at a talent show, in my hometown of Wilson, North Carolina. I was dared to go onstage. I wasn't really aspiring to be a singer; I was a paperboy. I was making about $26, $27 a week at the time. Let me tell you, $27 a week in Wilson, North Carolina, in about 1964, '63, that was a lot of money. So I had this nice shiny pair of sneakers the girls liked. Man, I was cool. I thought I was, at least. And I wanna tell all you young folks: I didn't have to sell drugs to get it.
At that time, for $27 per week, I considered myself a businessman. But when I had the dare to go on [at the talent show], I had my transistor radio, so I listened to all the songs [on the radio] that week. I did a James Brown song at the high school. From that moment, the girls went crazy, a band came and asked me if I would sing for them and paid me more in one night than I got from a week of selling papers. I said, man, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what I should do!
And you moved to New York a few years later?
I was seventeen when I came to New York. I was, like, very naive. I told my mother I wanted to go: "I met this guy at the club last night, his name was Fred Williams, he told me if I came to New York, I could really make it." I told my mother I was gonna quit school. She broke down and cried. She tried to convince me, she said, "Don't go. I used to live in New York. You don't know that city." But she knew I was so adamant about what I wanted to do, she tried to help me. She gave me her last $20 and a bus ticket. And I'll never forget, when she took me to the bus station, her wiping her eyes as the bus rolled off, you know?
What music were you listening to when you moved to New York City?
You know James Brown was hot; the Isley Brothers was hot. Sly and the Family Stone, the Temptations, all the Motown stuff was hot. We're entering the psychedelic mode, you know? Jimi Hendrix was what people were just beginning to talk about — this was close to Woodstock, later the next year — it was a beautiful time.
All right, back to current plans. Who are you rolling with for this tour?
It's gonna be seven of us, including myself, a six-piece unit. And we might add a few more pieces. Truth and Soul is introducing Lady [as our opening band], and I'm very happy for these young ladies [to be with us]. Nicole Wray and Terri Walker, the two comprise the group. Having them on the road with us just embellishes the experience.
How were you paired with the venue 2720 Cherokee in St. Louis?
Actually, I don't have any connection with bookings and stuff. Only thing they tell me is, "You're here, you're there." I just go to these places and see my extended family.
I don't look at the audience as fans; I look at the audience as my family. Because this is about love. This is about sincere love. We just get together, all of us have a good time, we embark and disembark and just share the love with each other between those things.
That's a really lovely way to look at it.
Most of all, what I'm concentrating on when I get to St. Louis, is the songs. My personal things, that I wanna do, I disregard when I walk on the stage. It's not about me when I walk on the stage; it's about us. I want a bona fide connection to be made. I want people to feel, to really feel the songs and go on a musical excursion with me. I want them to feel like they went somewhere, you know?
So what I do before I go on, is, I'm a praying man. Not a lot of people pray today. But I'm still in the praying business. I pray that the Father will allow this show today [to be] what the people really want to see. I pray with all my heart and soul and let God work, through the musicians, through everybody's hearts, and bring us together as one. That's what I do.
Is the music still emotional for you, night after night?
Sometimes I get so sentimental onstage. I can't help it, but I come to tears sometimes. Because joy and sadness [are] so close and connected. If you think about a loved one that you lost, you think about them in a sad way, for a minute, because you lost them, but joy at the time that you had with them, at the things that were said. All of that is in my mind when I'm onstage, and I'm very emotional then.
That's a beautiful thing to hear. Some people, when they live on the road, they just go through the motions each night.
I can't imagine a person going onstage and just going through motions. The people's time is the most valuable thing that they have. Their cars, their houses and stuff, all of that is gonna be in the past. All of these are uncertain. But your time is the most valuable thing that a person has. And to be in front of those people, absorbing their time, I think every artist's duty is to do their very, very best. And to be real. Because a person took their time to come and see you. You owe it to them to give as much of what they came to see as possible.