Here's what it takes to turn a man into a soul man.
In 1967, the era of James Brown and Otis Redding, Lee Fields was a teenager coming to Brooklyn from Wilson, N.C., following the path of the soul greats. He arrived on the thinnest of promises from a contact he had met down South who had told Fields to look him up when he got to New York. He'd make him a star.
Fields took a cab to the address. Short in stature, he stepped onto the sidewalk with just $2 in his pocket.
"That just goes to show you how naive I was!" the singer shouts over the phone from his home in New Jersey. Now 62, Fields is leading a resurgence of the kind of soul reminiscent of the glorious late-1960s period. He sings of women and heart-rending love, women and the fact that he's still got it, women and, well, more women, with the same kind of wisdom and charisma that Redding exuded. Yet in 1967, he was a kid and a potential hard-luck story.
"But New York was always just like I pictured it," Fields adds ironically. The line is from Stevie Wonder's tragic hit Living for the City, in which a young black man full of hope and promise comes to the city, only to be conned and thrown into a life of misery. The difference for Fields is that he had his voice.
The contact who promised Fields stardom was moving out of his apartment and couldn't help the singer after all. But that weekend, Fields was taken to some night spots around Brooklyn. He got up and sang, and the reception was so good, the crowd started throwing money on the floor. He wound up making $100.
"So now I've got $102 in my pocket!" Fields recalls. "But me and [a friend]went out, and we partied that night. Back in those days, everything was so cheap. We partied all night and I still had some change!"
One gig led to another, though, he recorded some singles and over time even hooked up for a short period with Kool & the Gang. The band's manager, Gene Redd, thought Fields would make a good front man. "But their first record had started to take off … and as they grew, they didn't really actually need me," Fields says.
Redd and another promoter were interested in pushing Fields as a solo singer, "but that never panned out. Kool & the Gang got bigger and bigger. I just fell through the cracks." (A number of Fields's ultra-rare recordings from around that time, such as the driving Take Me Back, have found their way onto YouTube.) Leap ahead to the 1990s, past a stagnant period in the 1980s when DJs replaced bands and Fields found little work. By then, he was living a middle-class life, raising a family in New Jersey and dabbling small-time in real estate. "But the star was still in my eye, I still had that dream," he says.
You can hear it in his new material. When Fields sings about testing his fidelity in the soul-baring, gut-wrenching Faithful Man – from his acclaimed new album of the same name – he really is that family man depicted in the song. (Except for one thing: In the song, the singer seems to be falling for temptation. In real life, he has always been faithful. "My virtues have never been compromised," he's careful to add.) That's the realness that has brought Fields a whole new audience of soul and indie-music fans.
His return to the stage came after buying himself a heap of new digital recording equipment in the 1990s. "But what I did was, I formed a band, and as soon as I bought all of that equipment, the guys got jealous. So I got all of this equipment and don't know how to use it.
"And the wife was getting fed up. She would come downstairs and see about $20,000 worth of equipment sitting there, and I'm reading a book trying to get it started!"
Finally, he began recording and gigging again, often performing solo with a digital tape machine playing the backing track. "For a while, I was just a one-man show," he says. Meet Me Tonight, a synthesizer-drenched funeral march for the brokenhearted that he recorded and sold himself, became a hit in the South.
But it wasn't until he hooked up with Brooklyn's Truth & Soul Records, and producers Jeff Dynamite and Leon Michels that the songwriting and production began to match Fields' voice. (The duo are also the team behind Aloe Blacc's stellar 2010 album Good Things, which won over discerning soul fans more into Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings than Alicia Keys.) "These guys! I wouldn't be surprised, in their careers, if they didn't become the next Motown, man," Fields enthuses. "There are so many young acts coming over today to the label, and these guys have their hands right on the pulse of the people. I'm very sure in the future this is going to be something looked on as a true soul movement based upon these two producers."
Fields is obviously happy with how everything turned out. "I wouldn't change a thing," he says.
Not even some parts of the long journey that led him finally to Faithful Man? "It was very exciting. I didn't get rich. But the experiences I've had in my life, money can't buy."
Lee Fields and the Expressions play The Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. W., Toronto, on Saturday with opening act Maylee Todd.