About Lee Fields
A journeyman soul shouter who enjoyed his greatest success after more than three decades in show business, Lee Fields initially specialized in the taut, gritty funk that James Brown made famous. However, Fields' breakthrough came when he developed a more distinctive and personal style and found a new following in the retro-soul movement. He first made his name among die-hard funk fans with a series of hard-hitting singles recorded for various small labels during the '70s. Everything about Fields -- his look, his vocals, the grooves on his records -- was so indebted to James Brown that he earned the nickname "Little J.B." Fields never hit it big, but his rough-and-tumble singles became popular collectors' items. After a lengthy hiatus, he returned in the '90s as a soul-blues belter playing to female-heavy audiences on the Southern circuit. Thanks to sample-obsessed hip-hoppers and British rare-groove aficionados, interest in lesser-known vintage funk reached a peak in the late '90s, and Fields was fortunate enough to have remained active when new recordings in the style became a viable proposition. Fields emerged as the leading light of the so-called deep funk movement with 1999's Let's Get a Groove On, the first in a series of recordings that often equaled, and sometimes outdid, his early work. Their success allowed him to expand his creative palette with more soul-oriented albums like 2009's My World and 2014's Emma Jean.
Lee Fields was born Elmer Fields in Wilson, North Carolina, in 1951. Growing up, Fields had a strong interest in music, and in his teens, he developed ambitions of becoming a professional singer. In 1967, he packed his bags and hopped a bus for New York City; his mother, unable to stop her son from following his dream, gave him her last twenty dollars to help him along. A passionate fan of James Brown, Fields was able to mimic the soul icon's moves and vocal style so closely that he began playing club shows, with his fans calling him "Little J.B."
Fields released his first single on the Bedford label in 1969, "Bewildered" b/w "Tell Her I Love Her." After the 1973 one-off "Gonna Make Love" on London, Fields caught on at Norfolk Sound; 1973 also saw the release of one of his most enduringly popular 45s, "Let's Talk It Over" b/w "She's a Love Maker" (it wasn't a big seller at the time, but later found an audience with collectors of vintage soul). Another prized item was 1975's "Everybody Gonna Give Their Thing Away to Somebody (Sometime)" b/w "East Coast Rapper," issued on SoundPlus. Fields spent most of the latter half of the '70s cutting sides for Angle 3, including perhaps his most sought-after single of all, "The Bull Is Coming" b/w "Funky Screw" (credited to Lee Fields & the Devil's Personal Band, which only heightened its surface appeal). His last single with Angle 3 came in 1981, by which time he'd finally released a full-length album, Let's Talk It Over; naturally, it also went on to become a rare and pricey collector's item.
Fields was quiet for most of the '80s (he supported himself by buying and maintaining rental properties), but he mounted a comeback in the early '90s, signing with the modern-day incarnation of the Mississippi-based Ace label. Debuting in 1992 with Enough Is Enough, Fields plied his trade on the Southern soul and blues circuit, wearing the glitzy costumes of old and crooning love songs and come-ons to largely female audiences who'd never lost their taste for his style of music. Fields also played keyboards on his Ace albums, which included 1995's Coming to Tear the Roof Down and 1996's Dreaming Big Time; he switched to Avanti in 1998 for It's Hard to Go Back After Loving You.
By that time, Fields had already hooked up with the New York-based Desco Records, a trailblazing label releasing new material designed to appeal to old-school funk collectors. Fields guested on one track on the debut album by the label's house band the Soul Providers, 1997's Gimmie the Paw. He subsequently began performing live with the Soul Providers at Desco's showcase gigs in New York, and released several limited-edition 45-rpm singles. In 1999, he became the first Desco artist to release a full-length album, the smoking Let's Get a Groove On. Its strict adherence to organic, classic-style James Brown funk -- with no synthesizers or drum machines -- won admiring reviews and helped put Desco on the map with a hip underground audience that previously never would have paid attention to new Fields material.
Desco subsequently broke apart into two labels, Daptone and Soul Fire, and when the dust settled, Fields recorded for both of them. He issued two 7" singles on Daptone over 2001-2002 ("Give Me a Chance" and "Shot Down") and then released his next full album, Problems, on Soul Fire in late 2002. Problems again won high praise from the funk community. By the time of the powerful My World, released seven years later (for the Truth & Soul label), Fields had yet to lose a step. Treacherous followed in 2011, with Faithful Man arriving in 2012, while the singer toured globally almost nonstop, garnering universal critical acclaim.
After a short break in 2013, Fields headed back into the recording studio with the Expressions. A new single, "Magnolia" (a cover of J.J. Cale's classic tune), appeared on Record Store Day in 2014, followed by the 11-song full-length Emma Jean in early June. Fields & the Expressions continued to tour globally and opted to record with Big Crown Records, a Brooklyn-based independent started in 2016 by former Truth & Soul honcho Leon Michels. Special Night was designated a "throwback" album by its creator, chock-full of ballads and quiet storm jams. Preceded by the title track in October 2016, the album was released in November. A companion album featuring instrumental versions of the Special Night tracks followed in March 2017. April 2019 saw the release of It Rains Love, an emotionally powerful set of songs rooted in deep soul and featuring two spiritually oriented numbers, "God Is Real" and "Love Is the Answer." ~ Steve Huey & Mark Deming