Lee Fields, master of soul, conjures the spirit ahead of his Saturday show at the Granada
Elmer “Lee” Fields grew up in North Carolina, singing along to the country, soul and pop music that came through on his transistor radio. He knew he had talent, and at just 17 years old he boarded a bus for New York City, never looking back. His nearly 50-year career in soul includes collaborations with artists as varied as Kool & the Gang, O.V. Right and even French DJ Martin Solveig.
He’s coming to the Granada in Lawrence Saturday ($20 at the door) with his excellent band, the Expressions. The show promises big, brassy horns — and enough spirit to last you into Sunday, and beyond. I talked to him last week by phone.
When did you start singing?
I was a paperboy, and I had my transistor radio with me at all times. Delivering papers could be kind of boring, you know. I would listen to music and I would sing along with it, along with my favorite songs, just like all teenagers do today. But at that time, you listened to the transistor and that was it.
What did you grow up listening to?
I listened to a lot of country and western because in the area that I grew up in, the radio stations would only play soul music on the weekends. We had about two hours of soul, for people like Sam Cooke, James Brown and Otis. Most of the time we listened to country and western because that’s what the radio stations were. And then we also listened to pop, everybody from Wilson Pickett to the Four Seasons to Dolly Parton. All white and all black. I’m happy that it happened that way. It gave me a great appreciation for all music.
And then you moved to New York when you were pretty young, about 17.
My mother had a fit! Yes, she had a fit. You know, when you brought that up, the first thing I saw was my mother’s face, and I remember seeing her crying as I was in the Trailways bus. I was sitting at the window, and she had given me her last $20. I had a ticket, and that last $20 and extra change. She begged me not to go.
What did you do once you got there?
Well, the first thing I did when I got there was look at the buildings. Like Stevie Wonder said, “It looks just like I pictured it.” [laughs]
I had this friend that gave me a card, who met me after a show. He said, “You’re good, you’re good.” He was from North Carolina but he said, “You’ll make it in New York.” That’s what he told me. He said, “If you are ever in New York, you can stay with me and I’ll take you to the clubs.” Now, I had an address of where to go, but I didn’t know how to ride the subways.
So I asked people how you get to Brooklyn. Can you imagine asking someone in New York, “How do I get to Brooklyn?” People were looking at me like I was from another planet. I was so naive. I didn’t even call him! He didn’t say to call him first — I took him literally, you know? I should have called him. So I took a taxi, and I got to Brooklyn, and I thought it would just be a few dollars. But it was $18, and I didn’t have but the $20 that my mother gave me.
I got my $2 in change. Now here I am, walking up the steps not even knowing if the gentleman was home, and I didn’t have a return ticket. I rang the doorbell a couple of times with no answer, and then I heard some movement. He answered the door. His eyes were so wide — he couldn’t even say anything! He said, “Why didn’t you call me and tell me you was coming! I’m getting married tomorrow. I’m getting ready to move out of here. I can ask the landlady if you can stay here.”
He asked her if I could stay, and she said yes, but I had to get a job. Anyway, here I am in New York now. My dreams are crumbling. I thought I was gonna get there and he would be like, “Hey, let’s roll.” But I started to get into deep thoughts about what I was going to do, I ain’t got no job, and the landlady seemed nice but she was strict.
So the next day I went to the reception and I met a guy named Lonnie, about my age, or maybe a couple of years older than me. He asked me what I did, and I told him I was a singer. He said he would take me out to some clubs after the reception. So Lonnie took me out to some clubs that night, and they let me sing a couple of songs. People started throwing money on the floor, and more money, and more money. It counted up to where I had enough to pay my rent for, like, three weeks in advance. And then I had about $20 left. And $20 in 1967 was a lot of money. We had fun.
Everything has worked out ever since. I learned at that point, take little thought of tomorrow.
What keeps you motivated, to stay out there and keep singing?
The spirit. Being a soul singer, I sing the songs of the spirit, and I believe the spirit is of God. It transcends all.
Do you think that spirit is what keeps soul music sounding fresh?
My approach is, if you go with the spirit, the spirit speaks to us all. Not just particular people, but everyone. When we go with the spirit, we go in the path we go where everything will last forever. These bodies are only given to us for a short vacation.
What I try to do onstage is touch people in a spiritual way, to go to a place I call euphoria. Euphoria to me is a place where you feel so good for a moment, just for a moment. The greatest part of the whole experience is getting to that place, starting from the beginning. You just feel better and better and better, until you get to this place where you feel super great. By that time, the show is ending, and you want more of it. I want more of it! My energy at that time though is so depleted, it will be almost impossible to take it any higher. But it was worth it.