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Lee Fields: Soul Survivor

Soul singer Lee Fields may be an R&B veteran, but don't call him a relic. Since the 1970s, the North Carolina native has amassed a prolific catalog of albums — 15 and counting — and part of the secret to his success has been flexibility. To younger fans, especially those lauding his latest album, My World, Fields is retro-soul royalty, with a voice that recalls the heyday of Otis Redding and James Brown. For his older fans, Fields has been a stalwart of Southern soul/blues music: a thriving regional scene that's little known in the mainstream but supported by a deep network of radio stations and clubs.

By moving between the worlds of Southern R&B and retro-soul, Fields has flourished as an artist while maintaining ties to the musical traditions that have grounded him for 40 years.

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She's a Love Maker

When Fields first started singing in the late 1960s, he was such a fan and follower of James Brown that people began calling him "Little J.B." -- given how closely he modeled his singing and performances after the Godfather. Fields recorded throughout the 1970s, but his debut album didn’t come out until 1979. With the inclusion of songs such as "She’s a Love Maker," which sounded like an entire generation removed from the disco sounds of the era, Fields was more or less dishing out "retro-soul" long before there was a term to describe it.

Meet Me Tonight

Fields barely recorded in the 1980s, then resurfaced in the early 1990s in the deep South as part of that region’s flourishing blues and R&B scene. Fields quickly made a name for himself, working with Ace Records, and later with the small DBA imprint. Fields' slow jams still echoed the influences of the '60s that he grew up on, but musically, he kept current with contemporary styles. Gone were the analog sounds of live bands; in came synthesizers and drum machines.

Steam Train

In the late 1990s, the now-defunct retro-soul label Desco Records was trying to find vocalists who could ideally complement their throwback sound. Sharon Jones ended up as one of the key re-discoveries; Lee Fields was the other. In 1999, Fields, backed by musicians who would eventually form into the Dap-Kings, recorded Let's Get a Groove On. The long-awaited realization of Little J.B.'s dreams makes an authentic-sounding, late '60s soul/funk album.

I'm a Good Man

The reappearance of Fields outside the Southern soul circuit put him on many people's radar, including fans outside of the U.S. One of Fields' most frequent collaborators has been French house DJ/producer Martin Solveig; since 2002, they have recorded at least four songs together, melding Solveig’s pounding club beats with Fields' gritty cries and hollers.

Love Comes and Goes

For the last five years, Fields has also been recording with The Expressions, a band assembled at Brooklyn's Truth and Soul (an off-shoot of Desco). Initially, "Love Comes and Goes" was only available on 7-inch vinyl, but now it's a highlight on Fields' long-awaited debut album for Truth and Soul, My World. Fields' voice -- aching with fragility, but also with conviction -- lends the perfect gravitas to a sublime ballad. With a sound stirring in a Memphis-flavored soul stew, the song brings Fields full-circle, back to his Southern roots, some 40 years after his career began.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.