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DEEP # 5/2012 (December)

  A good way to finish this year is to interview possibly the most dynamic old-school, raw soul artist today, Mr. Lee Fields.  On the southern soul front I briefly talked to Mr. Ellis Blake, who has a long career in gospel behind him and who’s now ready to take his place in the secular soul-blues market, too.

Content and quick links:

Interviews:
Lee Fields
Ellis Blake

New CD reviews:
Lee Fields: Faithful Man
Vick Allen: Soul Music
Soul Unlimited feat. Ellis Blake: Good Lovin' (reissue)


LEE FIELDS

  Towards the end of their 5-week European tour, covering eleven countries and twenty-four cities, Lee Fields & the Expressions visited Helsinki, Finland, on November 14 and at www.tavastiaklubi.fi put up a magnificent 1 ˝ -hour show.  Backed by the 6-piece Expressions – two horns, guitar, bass, drums and keys – Lee sang many songs from his excellent Faithful Man CD.  He also included a few of his older recordings, covered Bobby Hebb’s Sunny as an encore and did a tremendous version of Ohio PlayersHere Today, Gone Tomorrow from 1969.  With occasional funk thrown in, the main focus was on deep ballads, and I couldn’t help but admire the explosive dynamics of their music and the way Lee and the guys built their songs up to the climax.  This certainly was one of the best shows I’ve attended and proved that - in terms of old school gritty and deep soul - Lee is there at the very top today.  I was fortunate enough to have a few words with Lee.  The interview doesn’t cover his career in detail, but we concentrated more or less on seven of his milestone records. 

  Elmer Lee Fields was born on April 28 in 1950.  Lee: “It was in Greene County, not far from the city of Wilson, North Carolina.  I was born out in the country.  I’m a country guy, and although I now live in Plainfield, New Jersey, I’m just as much a country man as I’ve always been.  You can take a guy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of a guy.  Hank Williams, Earls Scruggs and Porter Wagoner were some of the guys we were listening to.  You couldn’t get soul until the weekend.  But I learned that basically both country music and rhythm & blues are the same stuff.  They tell stories about life.”

  Lee follows current music trends, too, and lists Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Usher and the Rolling Stones as some of the acts he likes to listen to today.  “... and I like a lot of the southern soul stuff.  Right now in music there’s a lot of stuff that kind of merges with each other.”

  As a teenager Lee started singing with local bands, and one in particular.  “In North Carolina we had a band called the Dave Bryant Five.  Dave was heavily influenced by the English band called the Dave Clark Five.  We were very popular in that region, around Wilson–Goldsboro–Raleigh area.  I started with them.”  The band was out of Goldsboro, North Carolina, and it was the opening act for the Dave Bryant Playboy’s Club.

BEWILDERED WITH KIP ANDERSON

  “I left home very early.  I was about seventeen, when I got to New York... for a while.”  Lee left home and Darden High in Wilson, NC, and in 1968 met a businessman by the name of Ray Patterson in New York, which led to his first single on Ray’s Bedford Records, Bewildered/Tell Her I Love Her (Bedford 105).  Bewildered was a cover of James Brown’s ’61 hit on King.  “It wasn’t my choice.  At the time I was pushed so close to James that whatever I did everybody said ‘James, James, James...’  It took me years and years, before people started accepting me for myself.  I had to do what Ray Patterson was spending the money on.  He was the guy who paid for the session.  I had no choice in the matter.  If I had had the choice, I would have done my own stuff.  I guess James was so popular at the time that they wanted to probably re-create another one.”  For a long time Lee was known also as “Little J.B.”  Lee’s cover of Bewildered is quite true to James’ treatment of the song, only due to budgetary reasons the background is rather scarce.

  The co-writer of the flip side and the producer of the single was no other than Kip Anderson, a soul hero, best known for such songs as Without a Woman, A Knife and a Fork and I Went off and Cried.  Kip passed away in 2007 at 69.  “Kip was one of the greatest pianists and singers that I can think of.  I think that with the right people at the time Kip could have been a megastar.”

  “Later on I hooked up with Kool & the Gang for a very short period.  I never cut any records with them.  Gene Redd put me in the band... God bless his soul.  He was Kool’s manager.  They really liked my voice, and it was a very, very good experience.  These guys were way ahead of their time.”  The group was formed in 1964 in Jersey City, NJ, and prior to settling for Kool & the Gang they had used such names as the Five Sounds Jr., the Jazz Birds, the Jazziacs, the Soul Town Band and Kool & the Flames. They released their first album on De-Lite in 1969, around the same time Lee was their lead singer - but on the road only, not in the studio.


LET’S TALK IT OVER

  Two years later Lee recorded for Herb Abramson and his Festival label a funky J.B.-style song titled We Fought for Survival, and a year after that a similar jam for the Nashville-based Sound Plus Records called Everybody Gonna Give Their Thing away to Somebody.  On this song the production and writer credits go to Jerry Williams, Jr. and Maurice Ward (Lee is the third writer) although Lee claims that he never met Swamp Dogg.

  Lee’s fourth single was a pleading deep ballad named Let’s Talk It Over, and it was released on Norfolk Sound Records in 1973 and produced by Bobby Wheeler and Maurice Ward.  Arranged by Lee, this simple and touching gem was the first of Lee’s recordings that started making waves and it has gradually evolved into one of his signature songs.  “I wrote that song.  You get Otis, James and Sam in that song.  On the flip side (She’s a Love Maker) it sounds like James.  I was trying to find myself.  I was influenced by so many people, like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, O.V. Wright...  Some people are natural.  They can come up with the sound just like themselves.  But I was in such a dilemma that finding myself wasn’t that easy because of the resemblance, because of the tone quality of my voice... a lot of things.  But I was determined, so what I did I combined all of these artists – Wilson, James, Otis, Sam – and I put them all in one.  Still, as late as on Daptone Records (early 00s) they wanted me to sing like James, but Truth & Soul now allows me to be like Lee.”

  The follow up on Norfolk Sound in 1974 was another plain and soulful ballad called I Don’t Have to Worry No More - written, produced and arranged by Lee.  “From the mid-70s I was trying to find me.  While other guys were still mimicking James, I was trying to find Lee Fields, and it took me a long time to find Lee’s voice.”

FUNKY SCREW

  After a one more single on LaShawn Records - out of Virginia, as well - Lee’s nine next singles until 1981 and one album in 1979 were all released on Angle 3 Records.  “I had different people financing Angle 3 Records, but later BDA was my own label.”  The first Angle 3 single released in 1974 was titled Funky Screw, and it opened more doors for Lee and introduced him in a bigger way into the world of funk.  “After Let’s Talk It Over we needed another side, so I wrote Funky Screw - and The Bull Is Coming (the flip) - and that kept me working in the south and kept me busy.”  The record is credited to Lee Fields & the Devil’s Personal Band, which actually was the band that Lee was working with at the time, led by the guitarist Sammy Gordon.  Lee only cooked up a more selling name for the band only for this one record.

  The follow-up to Funky Screw was Lee’s song named Take Me Back by Lee Fields & the Spontaneous Generation, this time.  This rolling dancer with a full orchestration has become a northern favourite and it bears a resemblance to Tyrone Davis’ hits of the day.  Back to pleading ballads, Take Me Back was followed by You’re My Weakness, another deeply soulful and touching rendition.

  Again on Angle 3, Lee released his first album in 1979, Let’s Talk It Over (A3-4-28-79).  There were plans to release a LP entitled Serenity already in the mid-70s, but it never came to fruition.  With the exception of one instrumental, all eight tracks on Let’s Talk It Over had been released as single sides earlier, and, although at the time the album went unnoticed, today it’s a much sought-after item.  They’re about to re-release it officially on CD with bonus tracks from other Angle 3 singles.  Already fifteen years ago they had released it as a 15-track CD in Japan.

  “In the 80s, when things slowed down, I became very concerned about my future.  I got a family.  I did all jobs and stuff... whatever I could.  I read a lot. I became a very avid reader, and I read about real estate.  I saved up some money, and I bought my first property in ’80.  With my wife we pulled our money together and decided that we’re going to do some real estate, so in the 80s we bought a few more properties, and everything was going good.  But it was hard, because if something broke I had to go there at 7 o’clock in the morning, or in the middle of the night, and fix it.  But I kept my family together.  I’ve been married to the same woman for 43 years.  I have three children of my own and I’ve raised my nephew.  But it wasn’t easy, because the landlord’s always the bad guy.”

STOP WATCH

  During Lee’s hiatus, they however released a couple of singles.  First there was a disco dancer, which some might even call house or techno, named Shake It Lady on Gayle Wind and Specific in 1983 and ’84, respectively.  Then, all of a sudden, Lee was finally rewarded with a charted record towards the end of 1986.  After eighteen years of recording, a fast and funky dancer titled Stop Watch (BDA 999) appeared on Billboard’s “Hot Black Singles”, crept into # 91 and remains Lee’s only chart record so far.  “I was with the guy called Clark Jay.  He had a few hits on the group called Divine Sound, so we teamed up together.  Then Stop Watch charted to my amazement, but I didn’t work on that record that much, though.  Those records come and go.” 

  Stop Watch was produced, arranged and co-written (with Lee) by Clark J. Smith, who had produced and arranged Shake It Lady three years earlier and who was to wear the same producer & arranger hat also on Lee’s follow-up on BDA, It’s Up to You in late 1986 (later also on the Valley label).  BDA is Lee’s own company and the letters stand for “better days ahead.”

MEET ME TONIGHT

  “In the early 90s, I was going to open up a fish place.  My wife looked at me and said ‘what do you know about fish?’  She told me to stick to what I know, so I bought all this electronic equipment.  I had saved up some money.  I wanted music so bad, so I bought a bunch of stuff... and then I knew how to play nothing.  I’m a bass player by nature, but I didn’t know how to hook up this stuff at all.  I had my own band, the Force Field Band, but they abandoned me.  I would sit down with all this stuff in the basement and the wife is getting kind of annoyed, because we spent all this money and that stuff in my basement is just sitting there.”

  “Finally a friend of mine, who knew something about it, came over to show me what to do.  That’s when I recorded Meet Me Tonight at it.  Before that I had recorded other songs and I had made my own tracks to the 40-minute gigs in the neighbourhood without a band.  People liked those songs, and every night I would give them cassettes of the stuff I had recorded in my basement.  After a DJ was playing Meet Me Tonight, people started coming up to me ‘how much is that?’  They offered me some money, so my wife and I made cassettes – by the end of the week maybe we had sixty or seventy, maybe even more.  That’s when I knew, it was time for me to get them pressed up.  We first made 45s, and - the next thing - Meet Me Tonight was all over the jukeboxes.”

  “It was spreading, and it spread out to Mississippi.  Then Johnny Vincent offered me a deal with Ace Records.  I leased the master to him, he gave me a deal and – the next thing I know – I’m working now on these shows with people like Tyrone Davis, B.B. King, Johnnie Taylor and all of these people, so I’m doing that blues circuit.  But I don’t have a band.  Johnnie Taylor has a 14-piece band over there, Tyrone Davis got a big band and I’m coming up with the band of speakers.  The promoters didn’t like that stuff.  But when I started to sing, women went like nuts, and that settled that.  Promoters said ‘here’s your money, man’.”

  “Johnny Vincent was one of the nicest guys in the world.  He was diabetic.  We used to go to restaurants, and I was eating for him.  I put on some eight pounds for Johnny.  He loved that sweet stuff so much that he enjoyed just seeing somebody eat it.  He was a real nice guy.”

  Another of Lee’s signature songs, Meet Me Tonight, was first released on BDA 1141991 in 1991 (as the number indicates).  Produced by James Noble and Lee Fields and written by Lee, his intense delivery of this swaying deep soul ballad is carried vocally in a higher register than normally.  In 1995 Willie Clayton covered the song for his Ichiban CD, and Willie is also credited as one of the three producers on Lee’s ’92 debut album for Ace, Enough is enough, and, again, Lee doesn’t remember seeing Willie in the studio.  “I had plans at Ace.  Willie Clayton came in (in ’93) and he had plans, and everything in our relationship with Johnny just sort of demised from that point.  Johnny focused on Willie more, so I just left.”

  Those days Lee met another artist, whose voice and vocal style was often connected to James Brown, Little Royal - remember the excellent Jealous from 1972.  “I met Little Royal about twenty years ago.  We talked.  He said he’s my cousin, and it is possible.”


Lee Fields at the Tavastia Club dressing room in Helsinki, November 2012 (Photo by Heikki Suosalo)

MY WORLD

  After three more full-length CDs for Johnny Vincent on Ace and Avanti labels – Coming to Tear the Roof Down (’95), Dreaming Big Time (’96) and It’s Hard to Go Back after Loving You (’98) – Lee’s 6th album, Let’s Get a Groove On, turns up on the Desco label in 1998.  Desco was formed in mid-90s in Brooklyn, New York, by Phillipe Lehman and Gabriel Roth, the Bosco “Bass” Man out of the Soul Providers.  Through to 2000 they cut records on a number of artists, including Sugarman Three, Sharon Jones and their “deep funk” hero, Lee Fields.  Lee was backed by the Soul Providers on his album and two single releases, Take It or Leave It (promo) and Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do.

  After the demise of Desco in 2000, Phillipe formed Soul Fire Records together with Jeff Silverman, a former Desco DJ and a drummer and bass player in JD & the Evil’s Dynamite Band.  On Lee Fields & the Explorers they released two singles (I’m the Man in 2000 and Soul Dynamite in 2001 – two “J.B.” scorchers) and one album, Problems, in 2002.  Soul Fire ceased to exist in 2003.

  Of the two original Desco owners, Phillipe formed Soul Fire and Gabriel founded Daptone Records together with Neal Sugarman, a member of the Sugarman 3 and a saxophone player.  Another hard soul man, Charles Bradley, and Sharon Jones are in their roster, and backed by the Dap-Kings they released four singles on Lee Fields between 2001 and ’06 (Give Me a Chance, Shot Down, You Don’t Know What You Mean to a Lover Like Me and Stand Up).

  Meanwhile the prolific Lee released new CDs also on his own BDA label:

         Giving It to You Straight (in 1997; actually the same as the Avanti CD, It’s Hard to Go Back After Loving You, a year later),

-         I Got a Problem (BDA 1215 in ’99),

-         Let Me Hit It (BDA 11760 in ’01),

-         Keep It Real (BDA 16390 in ’01),

-         Forever (BDA 1142 in ’02),

-         The Way We Use To (BDA 5122 in ’04) and

-         The Naked Truth (BDA in ’05). 

That is seven albums in nine years, alongside his releases on Desco, Soul Fire and Daptone!

  In a way Lee’s breakthrough record was My World in 2009, and you can read my review at http://www.soulexpress.net/deep409.htm#leefields.  The CD was released on Truth & Soul Records, which Soul Fire’s co-owner, Jeff Silverman, founded in 2004.  “They kept on calling me to come over and do tracks.  I really didn’t know what they were doing.  I thought they were doing tracks trying to sell the songs, to shop around.  But it resulted in the My World album.”


FAITHFUL MAN

  In 2011 for his BDA label again, Lee cut a CD with Gary Shider, Tim Shider and Nir Graff entitled Treacherous (my less favourable review at http://www.soulexpress.net/deep3_2011.htm#leefields).  “I cut that album, because I had a bunch of songs, and Gary Shider, formerly of Parliament/Funkadelic, and I decided to put that together instead of just letting the songs lay there.  It may not be my best one, but it’s there.  It’s part of my life.” 

  Lee’s latest visit as a guest vocalist was on Robin McKelle’s Soul Flower CD this year.  There are also a lot of video clips on YouTube on Lee’s impressive showmanship, including the above-mentioned Here Today, Gone Tomorrow in Helsinki.

  Lee’s recent CD, Faithful Man, is a gem of a record and for this scribe the best rootsy soul album in 2012 ( http://www.soulexpress.net/deep2_2012.htm#leefields).  “Faithful Man has increased my popularity tremendously.  I’ve been on tour ever since March.  We’re probably doing 180-200 days per year.  We’re in the process of going into the studio the first of spring.  I’m bouncing around ideas – me and Leon and Jeffrey, Toby, everybody... and hopefully by the springtime we’ll be recording.  We’re just so busy touring, but I’M NOT COMPLAINING” (laughing).

  It’s heart-warming to see that after 16 albums and about 40 singles in 43 years Lee is finally receiving the recognition he truly deserves.  “I wish all the people that read this article a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!  Follow your dreams.  Don’t give up on your dreams.”

(www.leefieldsandtheexpressions.com; acknowledgements to Lee Fields, Peter Jacobsen, Jeremy Cantin-Gaucher, Toby Pazner, Lauri Levola, Frederic Adrian, David Ma and Nate LeBlanc).


VICK ALLEN

  Soul Music (www.soul1st.com) is Vick’s second album for the Soul 1st label, and he co-produced all ten tracks and wrote or co-wrote all the songs, too, except the lively and quick-tempo Party All Our Blues Away (by Patrick Hobson).  This time also the programming – again, mostly by Vick – is skilfully carried out, not in a distracting way.

  The slow I’m Thankful (for the Woman on the Side) appeared already on Vick’s previous CD, Truth Be Told, and the mid-tempo I Gotta Have It featuring Tre Williams & the Revelations (with real instruments, of course) is available on their own CD, Concrete Blues.

  The down-tempo My Baby’s Phone is one of the four songs that Vick’s label-mate, Omar Cunningham, co-wrote with Vick for this CD, and in spite of the melancholy undercurrent in the song I think the boys more or less are just putting us on, since – as it turns out - Vick is sad about Omar having stolen his girlfriend.  Omar’s second contribution is the current hit, the smooth and nostalgic title tune.  Crazy over You is a similarly melodic mid-pacer – only ruined by Talkbox – and here Vick sounds remarkably like “Duke” Tillman.

  True to Me and 99.999 are both fast and easily rolling dancers, the former again co-written by Omar and peppered with Thomas “Tiger” Rogers’ sax solo.  Vick’s wife, Sonya, is on background vocals.  Soul Music is a convincing and mostly joyous SS album from a man that they now call “The Velvet Voice of Soul” (www.vickallen.com).


INTRODUCING... ELLIS BLAKE

  Ellis Blake has a masculine, soulful baritone voice, which was trained for about thirty years in gospel school and later close to twenty years in secular field.  When listening to his music and depending on the song, some of the artists that come to my mind are Toussaint McCall, Marion Black, Tony Troutman and Bobby Jonz.

  Ellis comes from Bluff City, Arkansas.  Ellis: “I was born November 7th, 1949.  I was singing in church with my mother as a little boy.  At the age of 12 I started singing with a gospel group called Special Five and at the age of 16 I formed my own gospel group, the Sensational Bright Stars.  We sang together till I was 37 years old.  We toured around Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, Wyoming, Nebraska, Louisiana, Tennessee...”

  After one single on Universal Artists (Take a Little Time to Pray/Too Close) in 1975, the Sensational Bright Stars of Bluff City cut two albums on Jim Stanton’s Champ label in Nashville, Tennessee – Introducing (Champ LP-1910) and God Is So Able (1921), in ’76 and ’78.

  “After that I sang in another gospel group.  Then I just messed around for awhile and I met T.C. Bostic one Christmas, probably about eight years after the gospel group broke up.  They had a band, but it broke up and with T.C. we just started all over again.”

  Their newly formed band was called Soul Unlimited, and the line-up those days was T.C. Bostic (the band leader, keys), Julian Block (bass), Curt Fisher (lead guitar), Steven Gibson (drums) and Ernest Young (rhythm guitar), and, of course, Ellis Blake as the lead and only singer.  They still play, but there have been a couple of changes in the line-up.

  Good Lovin by Soul Unlimited featuring Ellis Blake was their first CD in 1994, and now it’s been re-released by Brimstone Entertainment, Inc. out of Huntsville, Alabama, the current recording home for Betty Padgett and Wilson Meadows, too.  Ellis: “We recorded the CD in Texarkana, Arkansas, and put it out eighteen years ago only in the Texarkana and surrounding areas... and we couldn’t keep them” (laughing).

  Mr. Lee Parker, the owner of Brimstone, discovered the group for a wider market.  Lee: “They have enough material for about at least ten more albums.  We’re now taking this first recording that they did, because it’s new to the world.” 

  Good Lovin (Brimstone, MUI-CD-10039) is produced by T.C. and Ellis and they also wrote all ten songs on the set.  The drawback in terms of the European market, at least, is the amateurishly programmed horns, but Ellis’ singing is a delight to listen to.  The mid-tempo title song was released as the first single already in June, and it has a bit of a Tyrone Davis feel to it.  Actually Tyrone is one of Ellis’ influences.  Another easy dancer called Diamond in the Rough remotely echoes Rock Your Baby.

  One obligatory slow blues aside (I’m Tired of Waiting on Your Love), there are four more down-tempo songs.  I’m for Real is a soulful swayer, but the cream cut is an intense deep ballad titled I’d Rather Have You than Memories.  Lee: “We just pulled that off the album and sent it to radio stations a couple of weeks ago.  It’ll be the next single off the album.”

  A CD with brand new material from Soul Unlimited and Ellis Blake is scheduled for the autumn 2013 release.  Lee: “Now we’re doing radio interviews on this one and a promotional tour starting next year with radio stations across the southeast.”

© Heikki Suosalo





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