Lee Fields has been called "Little JB" because he sings – and looks – a lot like James Brown. And this North Carolina native also shares Southern roots with the South Carolina-born Brown. More importantly, though, he shares Brown's passion for writing songs that everyday people can easily relate to. Whether he pens these with his soulful band, The Expressions, or by himself, listeners never have to read between the lines to get what Fields sings about.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): How many of your own songs do you write?
Lee Fields: Well, on my last album, [Special Night] I cowrote just about all of them. It just depended on the mood. It just depended on what we were trying to do. The last album was very special because of the songs I was trying to deliver. I was trying to deliver songs that have some type of importance.
Songfacts: And what drove you to want songs that were of some importance?
Lee: Everyday life. Like a person living every day. Would it have some sort of significance on the person's everyday life? I was trying to write songs like an everyday thing. Like, working on a job with the man working you hard.
Songfacts: Give me a few examples of some of the songs that speak to that everyday life.
Lee: Okay, one song, "I'm Coming Home." That says:
It's been a long, hard day
I just gotta say
The man tried his best
To work me to death
Now I'm heading home
It'll be so good to be alone with my baby
Ten hours and she's been missed
Ten hours since our last tender kiss
I'm coming home
Songfacts: Did you work with cowriters?
Lee: Well, a bunch of The Expressions, we write together.
Songfacts: Oh, so you write as a band?
Lee: Yeah, we write as a band. I write separate. Sometimes I write with them as a band, depending on what is being said.
Songfacts: Are you, like, the words guy, or do you write the music?
Lee: I'm more of a words person. Sometimes, I throw my hand in with a little arrangement, too. Everybody's diversified. We try to be what the moment calls for.
Now, there's another song called "I Got Work to Do." It's about a gentleman, or it could be a woman. Anybody realizing they've got some issues. In this case, this guy's having issues with alcohol, but it could be any kind of substance abuse, and they realize they gotta go in and get some help.
Songfacts: Now, this is not about you...
Lee: I write about people in general. Trust me. My life is too boring. [laughter]
Songfacts: So, you don't have any extreme redemption stories to write about?
Lee: Well, I've always been a person that believes The Bible is real. I've always been one of them kinda guys. But as far as personal redemptions, my life has been a person more or less moderately placed in the flow of society. So, I never overindulged.
Lee: Maybe when I was a kid. Maybe about 14 or 15. I know my limits. I appreciate people that know their limits, and I appreciate people that wanna know their limits.
When you know your limits, you keep everything moving. Everything stays moving. It's when a person is out of sync with the flow, that's when you get clogs. People that don't know their limits, they become cloggers of information. They become cloggers of everything, because they go to the point of where they know they shouldn't go. See, if a person missed their limit one time, you can excuse them. This is a song about a person that's missing their limits, and it's causing a problem in this household. Or it could be her household.
Songfacts: Your music, people call it retro soul, old-school soul. There are a lot of different terms that are used to describe what you do. Are there songwriters from that era that influenced you as a songwriter?
Lee: Bob Dylan. I love the songs he writes. I like a lot of the Stones songs.
Songfacts: But that's not like the music you make. It's very different, isn't it?
Lee: Well, it's different because of the person that's doing it. The person that's doing it makes it different. If I did a Stones song, it's going to be different from the Stones because I'm not the Stones. I was raised on John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, James Brown. I would say I was influenced too by Frank Sinatra.
Songfacts: Really? How so?
Lee: I was influenced by Frank Sinatra by the control that he had once he hit the stage. It seemed like he was in charge. I also listen to a lot of country and western music because in the North Carolina region, soul music only came on radio on the weekends for a couple of hours. So, I was listening to a lot of things.
Songfacts: Country music speaks to real people and real problems, so I can see where that would seep into what you do.
Lee: Country music and soul music are very close. Both address the same kind of stuff, except the difference is that country music is sung with more of the guitar lead and the accent. And a lot of country music, they want the accent there, too.
Songfacts: The delivery is different, but a lot of the content is the same. Who are your favorite country artists?
Lee: I used to like Freddy Fender for a minute. I liked Waylon Jennings.
Songfacts: Have you ever recorded covers of country songs?
Lee: I cut a couple of songs for a small label, but they never put the stuff out. So, I don't even count that.
Songfacts: I love your music because I love the era that inspired your sound. There was a sincerity and a directness. A lot the music I hear today, people don't want to get to the point. They want to kind of dance around what they want to say. And classic soul music says, "You know what. I'm just going to tell you exactly how it is and I'm just going to get it right out there."
Lee: Soul music tells you what's going on, but all music is supposed to do that. It's supposed to uplift people. Music is supposed to give some sort of soothing.
Songfacts: To some extent, there's a healing power to what you do.
Lee: Yeah. Music is supposed to help people get through the most trying of times. Music is supposed to create an atmosphere where a person can think clearly. Artists today, when they write, they should write with responsibility in their minds because people today are so particular about what they eat, so particular about their bodies. What goes in our minds is affecting our ability to reason in a good or better way. So, what goes in our minds affects our ability to rationalize.
Songfacts: Do you feel that responsibility, that what you sing, what you say can affect a person?
Lee: Yes, and that's why I'm very particular about what I write. I want to write truth. I want to write what people do in life and the truth. I want to write things that I know a little about and the things that I think I know. I want to be as sure as I can be.
Songfacts: They say as a writer, write what you know. Don't write what you don't know because people are going to see through that.
Lee: If you write about things in general about the world today, and people are liking what you do, they're going to be influenced by what you say. Before I speak, let me think deeply on something. I'm just a person that spent his life knowing music. I just want to make sure that if I say something, it will be of good. That would be of good consequences.
May 17, 2017.
Get tour dates and more info at leefieldsandtheexpressions.com.