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Get on the Good Foot With Lee Fields and the Expressions

"Soul music is the adhesive of the human spirit," says Lee Fields, as we look out across London's West End and watch the sun set.

"Soul music is the adhesive of the human spirit," says Lee Fields, as we look out across London's West End and watch the sun set.

The soul of Marvin, the jazz of Coltrane and the gospel according to Aretha have attained an almost mythic status, such was the artistic vacuum created by the ending of that most fertile of times better known as the Civil Rights era. Artistic and political momentum was lost. But Mr Fields - like his brother in arms, Charles Bradley - has stayed true to the beautiful tradition of the voice, unlike today's kings of bling, who lope from stage left to stage right with an alpha-maleish mime of astonishing artlessness, lost faces to a man dazzling TV audiences who still thirst for a draught of African-American sedition. Only these are new days of broken communities and broken hearts and it's every man for himself.

When once soul music united a black America with socio-political polemic welded to heavenly melody, today it's all so dollar-centric and celebrity driven, but things we're very different not so long ago.

Contemporary mainstream performers of black American music consider soul an archaic mode of musical expression. When a performer like Kanye West goes down well like a TV ball game and not much else, something is very wrong because African-American music has always best expressed the social and spiritual uplift of black America and can be seen as a true gauge of how a people have progressed, when once they soared.

At 64, Lee Fields commands the stage, all five and a half feet of North Carolinian rapture making him one of the last of a golden era. His authenticity may leave a modern audience - reared on musical fakery - somewhat wonderstruck, but for those of us who regard the pinnacle of achievement in black American music as a moment never to be forgotten, he's a sight for sore eyes.

"I'm in the Otis Redding, OV Wright and Wilson Pickett tradition, with a little speck of James [Brown]," he tells me. "Music like this doesn't get much publicity in the US, but we sell out gigs no matter."

When he was 17, Lee left Wilson, North Carolina and headed to New York City, leaving behind his parents and three siblings for the bright lights and big city. "I was an ambitious kid," he says with a trademark smirk.

On arrival in the Big Apple, he plunged into the creative atmosphere of 1967, and it was in the Brooklyn clubs where he cut his teeth. Before his 19th birthday he married his sweetheart and his first single, Bewildered, came out in 1969 on the Bedford label as he decamped to Plainfield, New Jersey, where he and his wife still reside.

When the 1970s arrived, Fields hit a funk stride and sang with Kool & the Gang and Sammy Gordon & the Hip-Huggers among others. But the creative quicksand of the 1980s saw him, like scores of other artists, lose his way as soul became diluted by a change in production values and the fickle taste of the public.

"Things were bad for me in the 1980s, but I didn't give up," he says. "I gained a lot less, but I had to become more creative to provide for my family. The gigs weren't coming in as I had hoped they would."

But a period as fallow as this can only be surmounted through hard work. "In '91, I cut a record called Meet Me Tonight and I've been busy ever since."

Lee was without a contract with a record company throughout the '80s until he signed with Ace Records out of Jackson, Mississippi. "Before that I leased myself out to people and cut records for them," he says of the tough times.

But what's his notion of the secret of a successful career in music? "An artist must put himself in a position where he can work, because trouble comes when he doesn't. If you ain't making no money, you can't enjoy life on any level. If an artist is just sitting around with a record in his hand, dreaming, and there ain't no money coming in, it's no good. To make music worthwhile, there has to be an agreement. One must have something to assure the artist; in other words, you've gotta have a contract."

In the early '90s, Lee was blessedly embraced by the US blues community. "I was opening up for artists like Tyrone Davis, Johnny Taylor and BB King. I played the southern clubs. I was busy, man, all the way up until now."

His long-player output comprises Let's Talk It Over (1979), Problems (2002), My World (2009) and Faithful Man (2012) and it paved the way for Emma Jean, his latest album due out on 2 June on Truth & Soul Records.

His impassioned voice, with its roots in church and drenched in a lot of proverbial chicken grease, possesses undiminished power. "I want to stay busy for as long as I can," he tells me. "I've played in Australia, Europe and South America, and they love it man. It's tiring but it's all part of the game. Even if a man were working a 9-to-5 job, if he wants to get ahead he's got to work harder. So I don't mind. It's exhilarating. This is a happy tired person you're looking at."

Historically, exemplars of blue-eyed soul are manifold - and cannot be faulted for singing the music they love - but if you can listen to the genuine article when it comes to town, why opt for second best?

"I'm making better music now because I'm concentrating on it 100%. And the key? It's to make records from here," he says, and taps his chest over his heart.

Click here for more information on Lee and his new single

Photos by Ole Lauritsen