What: Nightfall concert series featuring Lee Fields & The Expressions
When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 3; Drew Sterchi & Blues Tribe open at 7
Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M.L. King Blvd., Market and Cherry streets
Blues Tribe is a recently formed blues outfit led by Drew Sterchi, a successful businessman and longtime veteran of the local music scene. For more information, visit Sterchi's website at www.drewsterchi.com.
To get a feel for just exactly how authentically funky Lee Fields is, just listen to the first 12 seconds of "I Don't Know Where I'm Going," a track buried in the middle of his 2002 album, "Problems."
After a few measures of hollow kick drums delivered with distinctly lo-fi production, the North Carolina-born singer comes out screaming with a feral yowl that would have made James Brown do a double take.
Despite being only a decade old, the recording sounds like it was pulled out of Motown archive from 1972. Fields, 63, says that despite its vintage trappings, his music has a modern appeal because he doesn't approach it like a throwback.
"What you do is sing it like it's brand new," he says. "I don't try and sing like I'm mimicking myself. I try to sing it like it's right now."
He and his backing band The Expressions will kick off the 25th Nightfall concert season at Miller Plaza on Friday evening, May 3.
Fields got his start as a musician when a friend dared him to sing during a high school talent contest. With no more performing experience than singing along to his transistor radio on his paper route, he took the stage and began belting out a James Brown song. The crowd responded in a way few 14-year-old boys could resist.
"The girls went crazy," he recalls.
The performance was good enough to encourage local clubs to offer him gigs. After he realized the pay as a musician was much better than for a paperboy, a career swap was all but inevitable.
With a vocal style that closely mirrored that of Brown's, Fields earned the nickname "Little J.B." At first, he says, he was proud of the comparison, but eventually he concluded that it was more important to become his own man.
Through a series of singles he released for small funk labels in the early '70s, Fields generated a sizable following. However, the advent of disco clubs and DJs led him to leave the stage to work in real estate during the '80s.
The itch to perform remained, however, and with his wife's encouragement, he made a comeback in 1990 with a style that sounded like his '80s hiatus never even happened. Fields signed with Jackson, Miss.-based Ace Records and eventually became a popular performer in European and domestic clubs.
Even after 40 years on the stage, Fields says he continues to perform because there's a need for musicians to bring joy into a world that increasingly focuses on the negative.
"I love to see people in a happy state of mind," he explains. "It's so easy to look out and find sadness, so to look out and find joyful people is one of the highest motivating factors that keeps me going."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.