Lee Fields - My World (2009)

Lee Fields
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Lee Fields may well owe his musical life to James Brown.  Early on, Fields was dubbed Little J.B. because of his uncanny ability to channel Brown's growl and grunt trademark sounds.  Even his debut single from 1969, "Bewildered" was cut in the same studio where Brown's calling card - "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" - was birthed.  Over a career that has spanned almost four decades in near obscurity, Fields has always managed to keep a small but devoted fan base by keeping the soul funk movement ablaze.  With a series of singles released on independent labels, Fields' underground hits stamped with the spirit of James Brown stand out today as rare soul music collectible treasures.

The song that broke Fields was "Let's Talk It Over," even though it was not a big seller upon its initial release in 1973.

Lee Fields may well owe his musical life to James Brown.  Early on, Fields was dubbed Little J.B. because of his uncanny ability to channel Brown's growl and grunt trademark sounds.  Even his debut single from 1969, "Bewildered" was cut in the same studio where Brown's calling card - "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" - was birthed.  Over a career that has spanned almost four decades in near obscurity, Fields has always managed to keep a small but devoted fan base by keeping the soul funk movement ablaze.  With a series of singles released on independent labels, Fields' underground hits stamped with the spirit of James Brown stand out today as rare soul music collectible treasures.

The song that broke Fields was "Let's Talk It Over," even though it was not a big seller upon its initial release in 1973.  What was remarkable is that he was able to tour for several years on the strength of his singles without the benefit of a full-length album.  His string of minor singles such as "Everybody Gonna Give Away Their Love To Somebody" and "The Bull Is Coming" continued through the 1970s.  Finally, Let's Talk It Over was released as his first album in 1979.   

When the eighties arrived, disco and new wave pretty much ruled the charts, and Fields found himself taking a recording break.  For his so-called comeback in the nineties, he changed musical gears somewhat, from the tight funk grooves to a prominently Southern Soul/R&B style made famous by vocalists like Tyrone Davis and Denise LaSalle -- not a surprising move since Fields appreciated all various forms of urban music.  His three albums on Mississippi-based Ace Records and Avanti Records included some soul-funk classics, including covers of King Floyd's "Groove Me," Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and one of Fields' biggest hits during the nineties, the contemporary blues flavored "Meet Me Tonight."  Fields also reprised "Let's Talk It Over" on his 1992 project Enough Is Enough

A fresh appreciation for the raw soul-funk of the 60s and 70s brought newfound recognition to Fields just before the millennium,  Let's Get A Groove On, released in 1999 on retro-soul label Desco, signified Fields' return to his first love.  Fields and Sharon Jones (Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings) were two influential artists that made the reemergence of the old-school deep funk era possible.  An up-and-coming vocalist who backed Lee Fields on a 1996 recording session, Jones was on the Desco roster until its demise in 2000.  The former owners of the defunct Desco each branched out with new retro soul companies; one with Jones' current label home Daptone, the other with Soul Fire, which released Fields' funk-filled Problems in 2002.   Soul Fire dissolved a short time later and changed over to Truth & Soul, the label behind Fields' latest My World.    

Though there is the James Brown vocal intensity, studio musician collective The Expressions mostly stays clear of the funk workouts from Problems and Let's Get A Groove On and simply compliments Fields' gut-wrenching voice with rich layers of brass, horns, organ and guitar.  Even with a nod to the soul-funk days of Brown, there are a few modern nuances (a few mild electro loops and touches) that should draw in listeners of a newer breed of classic soul interpreters such as Amy Winehouse, British DJ Mark Ronson, and Anthony Hamilton.   

On this disc that barely clocks around forty minutes, there are several tracks worth checking out.  The hip-hop-induced title track is a heartbreaking tale of cynicism.  "Do You Love Me (Like You Say You Do)" finds Fields' earnest voice questioning a souring love relationship.  The only real uptempo piece - "Money I$ King" - is a statement on the sad condition of money ruling over all.   Finally, my favorite is one of Motown's finest pieces - The Supremes hit "My World Is Empty Without You" - which is set to a sweet samba suitable for lounge music DJ's.  Extra kudos are in order for backing band The Expressions, consisting of members from Dap-Tone & Truth & Soul's musician lineup, who craft a superb old-school soul-funk soundtrack without sounding like copycats.

With all the sweet soul moments on My World, there are a few vocal pitfalls.  While Fields spits passion and energy with every note, his grating voice occasionally overwhelms the material, and there are several occasions of pitch problems in the backing vocals.  

That said, My World is a success: a much needed jolt of raw emotion, as Fields recaptures the aura of the best of classic soul and funk music and the spirit of James Brown.     Recommended.

By Peggy Oliver

 

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