Veteran soul singer and North Carolina native Lee Fields grew up surrounded by opposing musical experiences and styles.
Before they moved to Wilson from rural Greene County, where his father was a farmer, his parents would turn their home into a speakeasy on the weekends to make extra cash.
“They’d send us to bed early, but we’d peek and watch them as they danced to the wee-wee hours,” says Fields, 61, who plays Tremont Music Hall on Friday.
On Sundays, the nights of Fats Domino, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Holly gave way to hymns.
“I’d go to church and hear another kind of music. All of a sudden, instead of dancing, the ladies were jumping up and down and falling out on the floor. I was kind of scared of the preacher. What did he say to make that lady fall down?”
Done in by disco
As a teenager in 1968, Fields moved to New York to pursue a singing career. He enjoyed a healthy 12-year run until the rise of disco quashed the earthier soul market. Fields has been on a gradual comeback since the early ’90s after a decade spent renovating and renting apartments near his home of Plainfield, N.J.
“That was shattering for me,” he says of the downturn in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “Club owners were changing to accommodate more deejays and fewer bands.”
By that time he had a wife and three kids. He nearly gave up on music and opened a fish market until his wife pointed out that he knew little about fish. Instead he invested in home-recording equipment, began performing, and giving away cassettes of his songs.
Soon crowds were paying for them. Fields was busy on the blues circuit when he was approached to sing for a young soul label, Desco Records. Its founders, Phillip Lehman and Gabriel Roth, knew Fields as a “legend of the old soul 45s” (according to a 2008 New York Times story). Original pressings of Fields’ early records still draw hefty sums from collectors.
“I told my wife, ‘I got these two kids coming over and they want to do some soul-funk. And they’re white kids. (She said) ‘What do they know about soul and funk?’ ” he recalls.
Turned out Lehman and Roth were on to something. Roth won a Grammy for Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and leads the Dap-Kings. “The next thing I know we’re all over England. I got an album out. Sharon Jones (who went on to front Roth’s Dap-Kings) was my background singer.”
Roth and Lehman parted ways. Fields continued to work with both. In the mid-2000s he was recruited by French DJ/producer Martin Solveig (Madonna’s “MDNA”) to sing on a handful of dance singles that exposed a global audience to his classic R&B vocals.
A new album
His latest album, “Family Man” (for Truth and Soul Records) is a gritty soul throwback and arguably his best work. That’s partly due to how it was made.
“We’re doing it the way records were recorded in the ’70s. Everything was actually played. Most records now use samples and synthesizers. When you hear a horn on our recordings, it’s a true horn,” he says. The other attraction is his youthful presence.
“I become that same rambunctious 17-year-old kid,” says Fields. “I always reach back and grab him. I try to get the same anxieties within me that I had then. I don’t want to sing from 40 years of experience. Then it’s going to sound like I’m 40 years older.”