How Lee Fields Went from His Parents' Speakeasy to the Main StageFebruary 01, 2019
The first thing you notice about Lee Fields are his shoes. Strutting into Jimmy’s Corner—an old time dive bar in Manhattan’s Times Square where the walls are plastered with vintage boxing memorabilia and the jukebox is filled with classic soul and jazz songs—the 68-year-old R&B singer is wearing slick tapered boots bedazzled with shining silver stars. The footwear is a fitting flourish for a man who’s been gracing stages with music royalty for the last 50 years, and who was often compared to James Brown during his early career. Fields has worked with Kool and the Gang, B.B. King, and Betty Wright. His own tracks have been sampled by J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, and Travis Scott. Today, he’s known as a leader in the retro soul movement.
Grabbing a Coors Lite and a shot of Jack Daniel’s from the bartender before settling at a table, Fields tells stories like a natural raconteur. He’s happy to recap his formative days growing up in rural North Carolina, before he hopped a bus to New York City at the age of 17 with $20 in his pocket and dreams of pursuing a music career. Despite claiming he’s terrible at telling jokes—because he always reveals the punchline too early—Fields injects humor into his stories. This translates to his music, too. His upcoming album It Rains Love is based around Fields taking the standard tropes of love songs and coming up with what he calls “more eloquent and amusing ways” of conveying those sentiments.
Backed by a jukebox playing Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, I listened to Fields reminisce about hanging out with musicians from James Brown’s band, the speakeasy his parents ran, and why Beethoven’s music pairs perfectly with a few brews.
I didn’t know this when I suggested Jimmy’s Corner for the interview, but you shot some scenes for the video to your song "Just Can’t Win" here, right? Why did you pick this bar?
This bar felt very much at home. It reminded me of places I used to hang out when I first came to New York back in the late 1960s. That was the thing for the musicians: You’d rehearse, everybody goes to the bar for a drink, then you split.
The liquor makes them less cautious of their actions, while the music and the pulsating rhythms get them moving without even knowing they’re moving.”
So was it through the music scene that you became a beer drinker?
Yeah, when I was about 15-years-old down in North Carolina, ‘cause I was always singing with the older guys who’d come off the road. Maceo Parker (saxophone) and Sam Latham (drums) would come off the road with James Brown and come over to a place called The Playboy Club—which wasn’t the real Playboy Club, and I think it got sued for that—and they’d sit in with us. Imagine one night, you’ve got Maceo Parker and Sam Latham and Melvin Parker (drums), then Curtis Pope, who played trumpet for Wilson Picket, would join on stage. We got to learn a lot and I started drinking beer with them there.
Going further back, do you remember the first time you tried a beer?
Yeah, I drank Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Back in the day, there was a commercial saying that. I thought it was good. But, you see, when I was a kid my parents ran a little speakeasy in our house on Fridays and Saturdays. Living in North Carolina at the time, for a person of color, money was very thin, so my dad had to create additional money to hold the family together. On Fridays and Saturdays, I’d peep through the doors when they was in their party. Everybody comes in kinda stiff: “How you doing Emma Jane?” “Hey, JT, what’s up?” They sit down. “How much you want?” “Two fingers." Two fingers means that much [motions two-thirds of a rocks glass] and if you want three fingers you want the glass full. But they'd be drinking corn liquor!
After a couple of drinks you see the people change. The same lady who walked in very sophisticated, the same guy who walked in very stiff, an hour later they'd be all, “Come on baby!” and doing crazy dances. I was six-years-old and learning how music and alcohol affects people. Those were the best days of my life, because I know why music makes people act the way they do. The liquor makes them less cautious of their actions, while the music and the pulsating rhythms get them moving without even knowing they’re moving. That’s when the fun begins.
What sort of music do you remember being played around the house?
My father would play people like Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Turner, the New Orleans sound and Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, people of that caliber. But he also played a lot of gospel music. I was curious why this called gospel and why that called blues. I guess I probably got on my dad's nerves!
He told me, if I ever achieve any sort of notoriety in the music business, that you spell music with a small M and business with a capital B.”
Did you know you wanted to play music yourself from an early age?
The desire didn't come into my life until later, when I was around 12 or 13-years-old when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I thought they were the most innovative, creative group that had ever lived. They caused the whole frame of things to be altered. Groups weren't playing coliseums and stadiums when they came along. That was fascinating, 'cause it took the music to a whole 'nother level. Elvis was big, Frank Sinatra was a superstar, but it was nothing like what The Beatles brought to the table with the hysteria. Still, today, I'm highly fascinated with The Beatles.
Seeing The Beatles on TV inspired you to become a musician?
Yes, prior to then, I wanted to be a businessman. Living in the rural south at the time, it seemed like the majority of people of color had nothing. I said there was something wrong with this picture: Why, when I look at people like me, do they have nothing, and when I look at other people they have things? So I wanted to be a businessman, because the people of color that did have something were educated, teachers, and people who had a career. But when I saw The Beatles... well, actually, the businessman stayed, but the I met Solomon Burke, the singer.
What happened during your meeting with Solomon Burke?
I was opening up a show for him when I was 14 in my hometown. When I saw Solomon driving up, I was really astonished by what he was driving—a station wagon! It was new, but most of the stars that I'd ever seen at that time would always pull up in a Cadillac. He told me to get in the car. He said, “Son, you probably thought I was going to pull up in a Cadillac. But you see this station wagon? This car belongs to one of the three funeral homes we own in Philadelphia.” That's when he told me, if I ever achieve any sort of notoriety in the music business, that you spell music with a small M and business with a capital B. I really dug that guy. That advice stayed with me to this day.
Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” starts playing on the jukebox. There’s a lot of soul on the jukebox here. What sort of music do you like to listen to while having a beer?
I'm a Sam Cooke guy, I like “Bring It On Home To Me” with Sam and Lou Rawls singing together. I like a lot of Tom Petty, “Free Fallin’” and stuff like that, it makes me think. I like Z.Z. Hill, and then I like ZZ Top too. I can drink a beer to all of that. I like Mickey Gilley, I like a lot of country and western music, I like Abba, U2; if I'm in a blues state of mind give me some Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells. I actually like Beethoven with a beer. I bought a set of discs with all the masters on them and I would sit back and listen to the arrangement.
You’re drinking Coors Lite today. Is that your beer of choice?
When I tour, I always try the local beer and I've had some pretty solid local beers, although I’m not big on that bitter beer. Leon [Michels] likes it, he buys that Sixpoint IPA. I like real dark stouts that are creamy, but the reason why I switched to the Coors Lite is I was trying to get into an outfit I got back from the cleaners and I was struggling. I told my wife, “I ain’t never putting anything in that cleaner again, look at this outfit, I can't tighten it, they shrunk my pants.” She said, “They didn't shrink no pants—it's that [points at his stomach]!” I realized I kinda needed to switch to Coors Lites for a minute.
You’ve been in a lot of bars. Do you think you’d be a good bartender?
I think so. If I was a bartender, for my regular customers, I wouldn't look at them as just customers. Of course, they're customers, but I'd look at them as who they are and if they ask me something candid or want an opinion, I'd try to be as honest as I could in the most amiable way. It’s diplomacy. If somebody asks me something personal, I'd try to say it in a way where they get what I'm saying but not tearing them down because it's all in the way you say things to people. When I'm not asking something I would try to be out of their way as much as possible—but if they need me, I'm there. I would try to make people feel they can speak candidly, say whatever they want to say, but I'm not in their way. I think people like bartenders like that—I know I do.