Two decades ago, you’d be forgiven if you’d never heard of Lee Fields. His career to that point could best be described as a journeyman’s, but as he tells it, that was only because he’d yet to find the band he needed to transmute the emotional, explosive music he felt churning in his soul. Like James Brown, Otis Redding and Al Green before him, Fields had a vision he simply had to make real.
“I waited 40 years for these guys,” he says, casting a thoughtful glance around the intimate space at the Diamond Mine studio in Queens where he recorded Special Night, his fourth album with the Expressions, led by multi-instrumentalist and producer Leon Michels. “I knew if I waited, there was gonna be a band, because I tried a lot of other bands. I didn't know what their appearance would be, but I knew that they would come. And I’m gonna tell you, the wait was well worthwhile. I’m very proud of the songs that we’re making today.”
At 65, Fields is in a life-affirming groove. He started out in the late '60s as a soul-singing teenager—a Brooklyn transplant by way of Wilson, North Carolina, who emulated his heroes with raw, exciting performances and a rare depth of commitment to his craft. Still, local notoriety couldn’t pay the bills, leading to a long, hard road of chitlin circuit tours, self-released albums and barely missed opportunities (he left Kool and the Gang in the early '70s, just before they blew up).
Fast-forward to 1996: Fields meets Desco label head Philip Lehman and bassist-producer Gabriel Roth, the future cofounder of the Daptone label and the Dap-Kings band. Backed by the Soul Providers, Fields records the Soul Tequila album, which also features then-unknown soul belter Sharon Jones on the song “Switchblade.” Fields and Jones strike up a friendship that lasts for the next 20 years, through Jones’s own rise to fame with the Dap-Kings. She passed away in November, after a long battle with cancer.
“Everybody adored Sharon,” Fields says with quiet reverence. “She was so electrified, and she talked with so much sincerity, and she had a radiant smile. Words can’t even explain. I knew there was something special about her when we first met. You can’t really describe what it is, but she had it. She was a powerhouse.”
A similar power courses through Special Night, which finds Fields and the band stretching beyond a vintage soul sound into funkier, harder-driving grooves—especially the topical “Make the World” and the Ohio Players–influenced “How I Like It.” It’s a departure from the stark, muscular simplicity of their 2009 debut, My World, but Fields never strays far from the positive theme of unconditional love, which fuels songs like “I’m Coming Home” and the high-flying “Never Be Another You.”
“I don't consider myself a great singer,” Fields humbly insists, “but I can touch people spiritually. You can’t touch a spirit with hands—you touch it with communication of minds. So when I sing, I become the words that I’m singing, and I try to just connect mentally to everybody in that audience. And that’s what they can expect—feeling good. Hopefully if I touch you with my music, you’ll leave there feeling rejuvenated.”
Lee Fields & the Expressions plays Irving Plaza on Saturday, January 7 at 7pm with Big Crown label mates Lady Wray and Paul & The Tall Trees; $20.