“At this time in my life I thought I would be telling everybody what I used to do,” says Lee Fields. “But now, I’m actually living a dream.”
Instead of sitting at a bar recounting his glory days, the veteran soul singer is living them. The North Carolina native, who plays Jordan Hall as part of the First Night festivities on Monday, has been making music since the late ’60s with waxing and waning levels of recognition. The sexagenarian has been enjoying a raised profile since the ’90s thanks in part to the folks at Truth & Soul Records — who have also been associated with fellow soul survivor and former Fields backup singer Sharon Jones. He is currently riding high on strong reviews of his latest album, “Faithful Man,” a fine blend of sweaty shouters, tender crooners, and cool groovers that evoke the holy trinity: Stax, Motown, and Philly soul.
We caught up with Fields — a man of immense spirit — earlier this week by phone from Virginia, where he was visiting family for the holidays.
Lee Fields & THE EXPRESSIONS
Q. You’ve performed in several different styles over the course of your career, from a gritty, hard funk to a softer, smoother sound. On “Faithful Man,” you do all of that and more, including a tender cover of “Moonlight Mile” by the Rolling Stones. Why did you decide to explore those different paths this time?
A. In order for me to put myself in a position where people can understand what I’m really all about, I was talking to [Truth & Soul label heads and producers] Leon [Michels] and Jeff [Silverman] about how we wanted to touch all facets of the human psyche. And in order to do that, you have to sing songs a certain way.
Q. I heard your parents ran a speakeasy on the weekends to make extra money; did you hear a lot of music during those events?
A. Oh yeah. They had a nice stereo up in there and my dad used to play Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Turner, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sam Cooke. I was listening to all that stuff. During the week it was nice and quiet, and he worked on the farm and did what he could because he didn’t have a permanent job, but on Friday, that’s when it got started. Thank God it’s Friday! (Laughs.)
Q. Do you think that atmosphere, people listening to music and enjoying themselves, also sparked your interest in performing?
A. I think it made me examine people and what made them do certain things at an early age. On Fridays and Saturdays I’d see these ladies in the house dancing and having a good time . . . but then on Sundays when we’d go to church, I’d see some of these same women but they wouldn’t be dancing, they’d be reaching for the sky and the preacher would say something and they’d fall on the floor. Between those two worlds I [figured] there must be some kind of power out there. So, I listened carefully to the music that they danced to and then I listened carefully to the music they’d fall out to, and I guess that’s what made me the kind of singer that I am, because I’m deeply rooted into that spiritual power.
Q. Artists like yourself, Sharon Jones, and Bettye LaVette have enjoyed a surge in popularity in the last few years and artists who cultivate a classic sound have also done well. Why do you think we gravitate toward this kind of soul music?
A. This is passion in its true form. This is man, instrument, and ears.
Q. Are there younger artists you’re enjoying these days?
A. I love a lot of stuff they’re doing today. I like Joss Stone. Bruno Mars, I think he’s a deep songwriter. I like the Black Keys. I like Maroon 5. I love Alabama Shakes, that’s my group, child!
Q. What’s the key to a good New Year’s Eve gig?
A. When I go out onstage, my purpose is to take the audience somewhere, but I don’t go out trying to take them somewhere. I go out there and I try to be one of them. And then instead of trying to satisfy the audience, I go out there and I try to be amusing to myself. People know when you’re feeling good, and feeling good is a contagious thing. So when I get happy the audience gets happy, “What’s he so happy for?” (Laughs.) “I got this from you!”
Q. Is success sweeter at this stage of your career?
A. I’ll put it like this: “Now” is always the time. “Now” when it was “then,” it was good. But “now” is always the time. And I would advise any young person who is getting into the music business, or whatever their aspirations are, to be patient and be diversified. And never stop reaching for your dream.