The last time Lee Fields performed in North Carolina was two years ago, at a spot called the Lighthouse in Rocky Mount. Must’ve been 89 or so people in there, he recalls. For a man who was born and bred right here in the Tar Heel State, playing North Carolina is always a proud, emotional experience for Fields.
“Honestly, North Carolina is the essence of what I am,” says the Wilson native, 62, on the phone from his home in Plainfield, New Jersey. “I was really shaped and formed and molded in North Carolina. So the toughness, the tenacity that I have, comes from the teachings of my parents, who were North Carolinians. I have to give North Carolina the props as to what I am. When I came to New York, I was already formed. I was already made to what I was gonna be. And it started in North Carolina.”
North Carolina may be his original home, but Fields has led what he believes to be a long, strange musical journey. The once jheri-curled soul man, who started out doing such gigs as performing alongside his brother and impersonating James Brown (who he’s still most compared to vocally, along with Sam Cooke), has been on at least eleven labels since 1968. He has spent more than four decades playing shows and doing tours, opening for such late, great soul legends as Tyrone Davis and Johnnie Taylor, playing either with a full band or just a DAT machine.
In the mid-’90s, the now-defunct, Brooklyn-based Desco Records called on Fields to record old-school R&B for them, giving the man a younger, more eclectic audience. He’s even scored fans overseas, thanks mostly to appearances on club-music hits by French DJ/producer Martin Solveig. “The things in my life have been very bizarre,” he admits. “I mean, I don’t know whether that attributes to the reason why people seek these old records of mine a lot. But I had a very, very bizarre career, which I wouldn’t change anything for all the money in the world. So, to this point, I’m a happy man.”
Yet Fields says he’s doing his best work on the label he’s currently on, Truth and Soul, which has released his older, hard-to-find albums as well as new efforts, like his acclaimed latest, 2012’s “Faithful Man.”
“Truth and Soul is allowing me to be who I am,” he says. “And that’s where I take my hat off to Truth and Soul, because they gave me the freedom … Truth and Soul has allowed me, has given me a forum to allow me to be as creative in the ways that I would like to be creative in. So, when people hear my music now, they know that that’s definitely Lee Fields. They might hear a little James. They might hear a good, little Sam. But in essence, when they tally up everything, they hear an original artist. But it sounds – from what they tell me, the soul is so authentic that it sounds like I’m one of those guys, you know.”
Considering he’s living in an era where fellow veteran soul singers like Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones (who was a background singer for Fields during the Desco years) are finally getting the audiences they deserve with their traditional, throwback soul stylings, there isn’t a better time for Fields to be the honest, authentic artist he’s always wanted to be.
“What I’m looking to do is just make good records,” he says. “I wanna make records people really love. I want my fans all over the world to really gravitate to what I do. I mean, when I come out, they sing word-for-word the lyrics to the songs. So that makes me happy.”
Fields is definitely looking forward to coming back to North Carolina this weekend (along with his backup band, the Expressions) and performing for his people. “I’m hoping to be embraced with love, because I’m coming there to bring love,” he says. “Because my show is all about love. When I say love, I’m talking about spiritual love. I’m talking about the love of each other as human beings. And when they come out to the show, I’m hoping to bring an element that would be the catalyst of making this evening a memorable evening, something that they’ll talk about for a long time.
“I’m hoping that the South now will open their arms and welcome home this Southerner,” he says. “That’s the only thing I’m doing: yearning for an embrace.”