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Music

From blues to dance music: the long, varied journey of Lee Fields

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A photo of Lee Fields & The Expressions performing live.
(Simon Ertler)

Lee Fields & The Expressions returns with a new album, driven attitutde

“Adaptation is the key to longevity. You need to be ready for any situation without losing who you are.”

With those words, Lee Fields isn’t just offering sage advice. The journeyman soul singer is describing his own hard-fought path through more than 50 years in music.

As a teen, Fields released his first single in 1969, earning the nickname “Little JB” from constant comparisons to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.

But little more than a decade later, the family-focused singer was paying his bills by working in real estate.

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Thanks to some encouragement from his wife, he returned to the Southern soul and blues circuit in the ‘90s, and in 1996 signed a career-changing contract with future Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth.

During his time on Roth’s then Desco Records, Fields released a single that featured (future Daptone headliner) Sharon Jones as a backup singer, and took fellow Daptone crooner Charles Bradley on his first tour.

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When he first released music in 1969, Lee Fields earned the nickname “Little JB,” after the Godfather of Soul.
(Christian Hedel)

Since the early 2000s, however, Fields has recorded and toured with his backing band The Expressions - led by former Dap-King Leon Michels. And “It Rains Love,” the sixth official album from Fields and his accompanying ensemble, was released earlier this year on Michels’ own Big Crown Records.

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It’s been a long time coming, but Fields finally feels like he’s hit his creative stride.

“This is my calling,” he said from his home in Plainfield, New Jersey. “But you have to listen to that little voice inside. It will always guide you right. And it told me to persist. And I did. And I’m so glad that I did. Because everything has turned out as I anticipated.”

Whether Fields planned on all of the detours along the way is another story. It turns out, the husky-voiced performer wasn’t afraid to branch out when the opportunity presented itself. He’s scored a few hits in the dance world through a partnership with French house producer Martin Solveig, sang on a track from Dutch beat makers Kraak & Smaak, and even joined forces with Australian hip-hop trio Bliss n Eso – a collaboration that recently led to a rare gig opening for Ed Sheeran.

Rappers have embraced the 68-year-old singer’s music as well. Songs by Fields have been sampled by the likes of Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky, J. Cole and Slum Village.

And while the run of albums Fields continues to make with The Expressions will always remain his top priority, his multiple excursions into unfamiliar styles is not something the veteran performer takes lightly.

“Not only is it flattering and lucrative,” he said, “but I’m very pleased to know we’re doing something that works with a host of different genres. It’s an honor to be part of the fabric of so many kinds of music.”

Yet no matter how many times he expands his musical palette, Fields will always return to the R&B and soul that have driven him from the beginning.

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With only eight months since its release, the seasoned soul man’s current focus remains firmly on “It Rains Love.” Yet the process for another album has already begun.

Fields says that at least three new songs are already in good working shape and there are plenty more to come.

Just don’t think for a second that his success in recent years has led to complacency, or even comfort. It hasn’t. If anything, it’s made the artist and performer push even harder.“I’m not going to lose direction,” said Fields. “But I am going to expand it as much as possible. I’m going to make this next album as colorful as I can. I’m just enjoying this as much as I ever have. Maybe even more. I really am having the time of my life. And I can only hope that people will get something positive from it.”

Lee Fields & The Expressions: 9 p.m. Friday, Dec.6. Music Box, 1337 India St., Little Italy. $25 to $45; musicboxsd.com


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