Ask Lee Fields a question about anything, and he will invariably return to God. The bedrock of his fifty-year marriage to his wife Christine? God. The force that ultimately ended his own personal dark night of the soul throughout the ’80s (more on that later)? God, by way of the King James Bible. What comes next? Whatever God has in store for him. Fields is a soul man in the musical sense and the figurative one; he is a spiritual man first and foremost. And for Fields, the very nature of soul — the genre, that is — is a spiritual one.
Granted, soul is not gospel, and Fields is quick to clarify the distinction. “Gospel is about the coming [of Jesus Christ], and when he comes, what’s going to take place. Soul music is about things we do on Earth,” he says. “A true soul song is a joyful noise.”
Unsurprisingly, Fields speaks of his audiences like pastors speak of their congregations. Like a pastor, he speaks in figure eights, repeating key phrases for emphasis and returning to a central point (usually, almost inevitably, God). And like it is to a pastor, deliverance is of the utmost importance.
“We try to take audiences on a musical experience, to the point where we’re in a state of euphoria. Euphoria is only a moment or two, but trust me, it’s worth the trip,” Fields says. “We try to take people, although we’re not actually traveling. We’re traveling mentally on a musical excursion where we get to the point where people are so happy. We try to get to the point of we’re so happy it’s like, ‘Is this real?’ That’s what we try to do.”
Born and raised in rural North Carolina when the civil rights movement was in its infancy, Fields has spoken previously about being harassed when walking alongside the road and riding in the bed of his father’s pickup truck as a child. Watching the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show made him want to be a performer; watching James Brown made him want to be a soul singer. He took to imitating the latter well enough to earn the nickname “Little JB,” and cut a cover of Brown’s “Bewildered” at age seventeen that became a regional hit across the Carolinas and Virginia. He ended up meeting the man himself in Augusta, Georgia, shortly thereafter; the encounter convinced him that perhaps there was only room for one James Brown in the mortal world. But the Ambassador of Soul's influence remains undeniable: Fields's 1979 record Let’s Talk It Over begins with Fields howling, “Everybody get up and boogie!” in such a way that could bear better comparison to no one else.
But a changing industry and circumstances brought on the 1980s, and Fields’s aforementioned dark night of the soul. His sister-in-law was murdered by her husband, who subsequently committed suicide. Fields and his wife took in their son, raising him with their own children. To provide for his expanding family, Fields shifted his focus to real estate, at one point toying with the idea of opening an eatery in Newark. His wife talked him out of it and back into music.
“In the ’80s, I was more or less trying to get up the spiritual energy, because I knew life was going to be hard, but when that happens in your life out of nowhere, [when] tragedies like that happen, it makes a person search for answers,” he says. “I was in search. I was looking for a purpose.”
Fields re-committed himself to music with new fervor in the new century, releasing Problems in 2002, collaborating with French DJ Marin Solveig on nu-disco cut “Jealousy” in 2006 and connecting with his band the Expressions in 2009. He’d known a few of the members since they were teenagers; he refers to them as his “musical sons.” As with all things in Fields's world, there’s a larger, greater purpose at work within the band: “Everybody [in the band] is united. You see, when people become united, they do a lot of things that they thought they could but never had. When you become united, all those things become possible.”
Lee Fields and the Expressions made their proper debut with 2009’s My World, and they’ve stuck together for the subsequent decade, most recently on this year’s It Rains Love. Since then, Fields has found his niche market within revivalist soul, right alongside Curtis Harding, Mayer Hawthorne and his since-passed friends Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones. Again, back to God: “When I think of Charles expiring, of Sharon expiring, I don’t look at that as a forever loss. I feel that we will be [reunited]. ... I think everyone will be [reunited] with loved ones, because I’m a believer.”
When Fields isn’t talking about God, he’s talking about positivity. He abhors bitterness: It can only multiply on itself, he claims, and eats away at everything good “like a cancer,” until it leaves people “totally consumed with destruction.” So his music is relentlessly focused on choosing love, constantly and with intention. “When I talk about love, it uplifts me,” he says.
So Fields talks and sings and insists upon love. It Rains Love is bookended by its overwhelmingly earnest title track and “Love Is the Answer,” in which Lee simply repeats that exact phrase and leaves the Expressions’ brass to its own sweet devices within the remaining space. (At one point in our interview, he simply exclaims, “Love is the answer!” after discussing preserving the environment and the Second Coming.)
And, as always, it comes back to the man upstairs. “Soul is dealing with the soul, the spirit. A lot of people, they call themselves soul singers, but I think it would impossible to be a soul singer if a person wasn’t really in deep thought about the soul itself, the spirit itself,” he says. “And the spirit is of God.”
Lee Fields and the Expressions play at 9 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, at Globe Hall. Tickets are $25.50 to $50 and available at globehall.com.
Hear Lee Fields and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.