Photo by Sesse Lind
North Carolinian soul legend Lee Fields’s new song begins with a sweet, simple statement: “Every night is a special night when I’m with you.” It’s a love song in two parts, a soul song with a classic redemption narrative. Fields sings that, “I was just a sad and lonely man, living in a lonely world” before his love arrived, before she “came and took my hand… I’m so glad to be your man.” Before he’s reached the end of the first verse, he’s wailing “Thank you! Thank you!” to the woman who’s saved him.
“Special Night,” premiering on Noisey today, is another step towards realization for the 65-year-old Fields. Since releasing his first album in 1969, he’s barely paused, releasing album after album, touring with countless legends: Kool and the Gang. O.V Wright, Darrell Banks, and Little Royal. But throughout his career, he’s been refining his sound, his process, and his soul, taking every past experience with him into his next release and the next moment. He’s surrounded himself with a band, The Expressions, many years younger than him, all buying into his sound. In short, while others of his era burned out or faded away, Fields is still here, his voice now more passionate and ecstatic than ever.
With the release of “Special Night,” Fields is also announcing his fifth studio album with The Expressions, also called Special Night. It's November 4 on Big Crown Records. You can listen to "Special Night" below and pre-order the album here.
We also spoke to Fields about "Special Night," but the conversation quickly turned soul, conscience, the inferno, and the basis of the man's charisma.
Noisey: How are you doing?
Lee Fields: Well, everything's all good, and it's a pleasure talking with you this morning.
Are you excited to be getting new stuff out there again?
Absolutely, man. Music is what I do and I try to do music that has some sort of value to it. You know, I learned a long time ago that if an artist is really true to their art, they try to do things that will be appreciated for a long period of time. So, I'm very selective of the things that I do so that, in the future, I have as few regrets as possible. Because I think artists must be responsible for what they say and what they do. You know, just chasing a dollar… I can think of many songs that I think would have sold a lot more records that I ever sold, but I refused to cut them because it's not totally about money. Money has a great deal to do with it, but it's about how you're going to feel 15 years from now, how your family's going to feel about that stuff. What we say is food for the brain for people. Like, you try to eat the right foods to keep your body healthy; if you eat bad food, chances are the body will become weakened. The same thing about the mind – if you put out things that aren't good for the mind, the mind will become damaged. So I try to make sure that my words and the things that I say, I believe that it's of good quality. And I'd be hoping that there's a financial reward at the end of it, but I don't put the finance first, you know? It's about the quality of words and what I'm feeding people in their mental psyche. But yes, I'm very excited about the new stuff. I'm very proud of what I said and I don't see where I would be having any regrets in the future.
On “Special Night,” once again, you've got a very sweet, soulful love song. Was it a specific experience that got you here?
"Special Night," yeah man, because it builds relationships, you know? To tell your spouse or to tell your girlfriend or whoever that you're really serious about that every night is a special night being with them. It's about positivity, man. It's about saying things that you can build on. So I'm very pleased with the choice of words that I used in that song. I don't see how I could have any regrets about that because that's a positive message. I look at society today and look at how I can see things on a global basis sort of decaying. People are so lost that they're walking out of here doing all kinds of crazy stuff. So I'm trying to sing stuff that's of a positive nature.
If I turn on the radio, I turn on just about any station and hear a lot of negativity. So "Special Night," that's giving a person a positive outlook in their relationship. I'm not saying that it's got to be positive all the time, but there's so much negativity out there. I'm sort of a bit disenfranchised from all of the negative stuff that I'm hearing. It seems like everybody's putting out records, man, just to sell a record. The more shocking it is, the more commercial it is. Everything has to relate to Hades, everything has to relate to the inferno. Oh, it's Hot 97, it's hot this, this is fiery. Everything relates to heat and the inferno. So I'm trying to sing things that bring us back in check with ourselves. It's about us, it's about life, it's about our project. It's about the future for those who aren't even here yet. It's about making this place last. But without being one of those holier than though guys. I think it has to be something to jar the mind of reality. "Do whatever you gotta do as long as you survive." You know, even without principles. I'm not trying to change the music or anything, I'm trying to sing things that we do, in real life, without going to the extreme. Maybe that little iota of what I'm doing could be passed on to someone else and they do a little iota of positiveness and the first thing you know, we're back on track. I'm just dreaming, but I'm just a dreamer.
Is that something that you think soul music has a particular ability to do?
Yeah, that's what it's about. It's about the spirit. My description of soul music is coming from the spirit, coming from the soul. When God created man, God left his breath in the nostrils of man and man became a living soul. So I'm singing about being a living soul, a spirit encased into a body and lasting for whatever time is given to us on this place called Earth. And we won't be perfect, but we always keep in mind what is right and what is wrong, because once we lose vision of what is right and what is wrong, we're lost souls. And once we become lost souls, all kinds of chaos and anarchy set in, you know what I mean? When you have a soul, you have conscience, but when you don't have a conscience, that means that you lost your soul. Your soul has been possessed by this world. So, I still got a conscience [Laughs]. Now you understand where I'm headed.
You've been in the industry for so long now; are these things that you've picked up as you've gone? You have more experience than most of the people you're working around.
You hit it right on the head, it's life lessons. In the beginning, I started out, I did some things that, when I look back on them, I was heading in the wrong direction. But it was the right direction as far as commercial success went. I was on that route, in the beginning. And I realized, what I need to do is sing things that I feel, personally. Don't go by just trying to be a star. Because the person that really sees stardom as the ultimate thing, as the greatest thing in the world, they'll sing anything. They'll do anything. They will do anything in order to become that star. I didn't have the makeup for that, because I kept my conscience. Selling souls, when people use the term "selling souls," what it simply means is when you lose your conscience. Or whatever you're doing, you're just doing it for the money. Because your soul is your conscience. It is your conscience for what is right and what is wrong.
So, a lot of people, when they say "Whatever the record is, I'll do it, as long as the record sells," they have no conscience, man. And this world is such a beautiful place. It's the garden; we were given the opportunity to come here, as human beings, and enjoy this vacation from wherever we came from. The whole concept of being here is not to lose your conscience, of what is right and what is wrong. And especially in a time where we have nuclear arms, where we have things that could put us in a situation where this place can turn into a living hell, agony beyond our wildest beliefs. So, while we have conscience, let's sell records, and come up with records that can sell with good conscience. Because I do believe that art influences people. If every star is a gangster, then the children are going to want to be gangsters. When I was a kid, Superman was a big thing. And I remember when I was five or six, man I had to have a cape. I wanted to be like my hero.
You said that when you were starting out that you were able to keep your conscience, keep your soul. A lot of people around that time didn't do that. What was it about you that meant you could do that?
It was my upbringing. I was brought up to be a God-fearing human being. As a child, my mother--although they were doing some things, back in the day; our house used to turn into a juke joint on Fridays until Sunday because daddy was unemployed, so they were selling corn liquor and barbecue and beer and stuff to make ends meet. They had to deal with that, I was a kid. But they brought us up and we didn't go lacking for food and I'm very proud of my mother and I'm very proud of my father. That was before my mother became a gospel singer. After that period, she turned into a gospel singer and she was a very outgoing church person. But she would always take us to Sunday School, after the parties on Friday and Saturday, we had to go to Sunday School. So from an early age, I was taught that God is real, that this is not a make-believe entity, but it's for real. If you put a child in the right direction when they're in the state where they can be formed, they will always turn back. That's what happened to me. I got wild for a while, I got wild. But at an early age, man, I realized that I'm losing my soul.
So I turned back to basics, man. And it can be about something that is bad. But the moral got to be good. The moral can't just be "Get your guns and let's be a gangster and do anything that you can do as long as you got money in your pocket." That's not good. It's got to be: "If you become a gangster, become a hero gangster, like Robin Hood." So on this album, what I'm out to do is just write songs and hopefully it'll be successful. But if it isn't, I can take it. Nothing is promised. I tried my best to write the best songs in collaboration with Leon [Michels, producer and co-founder of the label] and the others at Big Crown Records. That's what we all about, man. Soul music. We got our soul.
I was going to ask you about that, because those guys at the label and the guys in The Expressions too, they're younger guys. How does it feel for you, having put out your first record in '69, to see a younger group of guys playing the same music, keeping that torch burning for soul?
It feels good because I had faith that a band eventually would come along. I was at it for forty years with the faith that a band will come along, that the right band will come along. They're like my musical sons, man. A lot of time when we travel, very little talking is done. When one says something, before he can finish the statement, everybody already understands. I think we're meant to be. And I'm so appreciative that this prayer that I prayed years ago, it came true. The band came and the band is The Expressions.
Now that you've got the band, you seem to be perfecting all the work you did at a younger age.
Yeah, well at a young age it was always going into a studio with a shoestring budget, so I had to get it done in a few hours. Now things are where I can work on something for as much time as I want. We've got recording equipment where I can roll it as many times as I want to. When I go to the studio, I have a good idea of what I want, but I'm always open to the last take of the song, to change it if someone suggests a better idea, and I pray that God continues to give me the ability to recognize a good idea when I hear one. And keep ego out of me. Ego is a good thing for motivating, but it's a bad thing for decision-making. If a person has such ego that they think that everything that they say is the right way, that person is not a wise person, that person is a maniac. Unless they're one of those people that was just sent by the divine source and put here, and I'm not one of those folks. I'm just a regular dude. That's one of the reasons that I think the songs have got better through the years. I listen more. Two brains or three or four brans are better than one. The more options you have, then you're able to make better choices.
Your live shows are legendary. You have this charisma onstage that draws people in. How have you learned over the years to bring that on record and be able to get that across on a microphone.
I think the key is being true to what you say. If you're singing a song, sing it like you truly mean it. Whatever song I sing, if it's a song about a lost love, at that moment I'm singing that song, in my mind, I really lost somebody. And if it's a song about being happy, at that time I'm singing that song, I'm just as happy as a man can be. And people can really discern what is true and what is not true. They know when you're faking. When I perform, people can tell that, each song I perform, I'm totally in that song. For that moment, man, if I'm singing a song about whatever the situation may be--lost love, of losing a loved one or something--at that moment, I can see my father or mother being hoisted into the ground. I can see that at that moment. And I sing what I see, what I feel. So what amazes people, I think, and what draws them in when I sing, is that I'm living every song at that moment, whatever that song is. Sometimes there's tears, and sometimes if it's a happy song, man, I can't stop laughing. I have to gather myself. Because it was so much fun man, I had a laugh [laughs]. I have to just let it go. It's out of my control. That's what people find charismatic about me. I don't know, they would have to actually tell me, but that's the way I feel when I'm actually on stage.
Alex Robert Ross has been walking around Brooklyn feeling infinitely wiser since this interview took place. Follow him on Twitter.