In Praise of Lee Fields, Charles Bradley and New Soul Music – posted 5/12/2013
When I was a kid growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I made my personal discovery of soul music. I had a tiny portable record player that spun 33 and 45 rpm records. I remember listening to the Temptations Greatest Hits and the Four Tops Greatest Hits. They were among the first records I ever owned.
I still think they are among the greatest records, ever. Songs like “Ain’t To Proud To Beg”, “Beauty is Only Skin Deep” and “Baby I Need Your Loving” are legitimate classics of soul. I enjoyed the whole line-up of Motown artists, particularly Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas. Probably like a lot of people who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, I feel like the music of that era is the best. Really the era was amazing both for the creativity of the artists and the volume of their output.
It is probably silly to brag on the era. I think I listened more then. I am not sure when I stopped listening as much. Motown connected emotionally and the songs told stories with both life wisdom and passion. Not to mention you could dance to it.
Not that I went to see that many live shows but I do have one story. I went to see James Brown in Boston in the early 1970’s. I believe it was 1972. It was a crazy night. James was running late – not routinely late but way late, like two hours late. The crowd was not happy. After sitting and waiting for two hours, the audience was getting unruly. Periodically someone would come out on stage and explain that James was on his way and would be there soon. There was not a good vibe.
Weird as it is to recall, James had endorsed Nixon for President that year. Nixon was running against the Democratic candidate and a personal favorite politician of mine, Senator George McGovern. The Black Panther Party was outside the concert hall demonstrating against James. I remember hearing the chants: “Soul Brother Number One is an enemy of the people!”.The gist of the Panther demonstration was that James Brown was a sell-out who had turned his back on the people by endorsing Nixon.
The contradictions were intense. Nixon was running for re-election employing his infamous southern strategy – a Kevin Phillips brainchild founded on appealing to blatant white racism. Nevertheless, Nixon had the support of Soul Brother Number One. I don’t know the statistics on the Black vote in 1972 but I expect Nixon had popularity in the Black community roughly equivalent to Mitt Romney’s support in the Black community in 2012 – close to zilch.
When Brown arrived for the show, he walked on stage alone. He felt compelled to respond to the Panthers. He unravelled a composite of photos of members of the military. James pointed to the number of Black faces in the photos. He said they represented the officer corps and he argued Nixon had promoted many Black officers in the military, more than other white politicos. It was something of a weird pitch. Vietnam was going on and popular sentiment had turned against the war, especially in places like Boston.
The crowd did not want to hear it. The booing which had been going at a low level started intensifying. James, sizing the situation up, made the wise, abrupt decision to switch to music. In a matter of seconds, all was forgotten. James must have given the high sign to the band to start playing. The band suddenly launched into a number. James’s dancers got up and did their thing and the bizarre Nixon endorsement/explanation quickly became just another bad memory. James immediately got into stride. James had the crowd right from the moment he went to music.
I would say that the power of the music bailed James out. People just wanted him to shut up about politics.
It has been a long time since I heard any soul music that totally grabbed me like James Brown did. Maybe I have been out of the loop. I don’t know what happened and why there was such a long void. Two years ago I heard Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. When I was in Alaska, I listened to her album “I Learned the Hard Way” a lot. That is a tremendous album.
More recently, I discovered Lee Fields and Charles Bradley, two soul artists who have been around a long time. Both are in their 60’s. Both have produced new albums. The reason I wrote this piece is simply to encourage readers to listen to this music, buy it and support these artists. These guys are excellent soul artists. While it is easy to make comparisons to James Brown, they have their own styles. Both are great! If you go to youtube, try Lee Fields “I Still Got it”. As for Charles Bradley, try “The World (Is Going Up in Flames)”.
I have been listening to two CDs’ of Lee Fields. His newest one, released in 2012, is Faithful Man. I have also heard his 2009 CD My World. Personally I think Faithful Man is his best work. Along with the title cut, I really liked “You’re the Kind of Girl”,”Who Do You Love” and his cut “Ladies” which is on the My World CD.
As for Charles, his most recent CD is Victim of Love and his earlier work is No Time for Dreaming. Both are worthy. Along with “The World (Is Going Up in Flames) which I previously mentioned, I like “Loving You, Baby” and “Strictly Reserved for You”. Maybe it is just me but I think you will want to listen to these songs a lot. There is a reason Charles is known as “the Screaming Eagle of Soul”.
Both acts are touring now. I saw that Charles Bradley and his band the Extraordinaires is playing at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on May 18. Lee Fields and his band the Expressions is playing at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston on June 6 and they are playing at Signal Kitchen in Burlington Vermont on June 7. I would highly recommend both.