Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Much like Charles Bradley, gifted soul-singer Lee Fields had spent years in the "minors" before achieving relative notoriety in the late 2000s.  Bradley's shtick is more intriguing because he came out of nowhere and became popular as a senior citizen without a single previous album to his name.  Fields' newfound success is perhaps sweeter though, because he had spent the last 35 years putting out an impressive string of records that did what most records do when they lack a large launching pad that can lift them to the masses—flop!

In those years, his only legitimate claim to fame was a single that hit number 91 on the R&B charts in 1986.  That single brought Fields some attention.  But it wasn't from the average music listener.  It was from underground hip-hop producers who began sampling his songs to make their own art.  

But life, as we know, can be quite funny. In 2012, the 61-year old Lee fields finally received significant attention on his own with Faithful Man, which was the closest thing he had to a hit record. It reached 68 on the R&B charts, received an impressive 7.0 by Pitchfork and was generally received warmly by writers of other prominent music publications.  2014's Emma Jean proves that the success of Faithful Man wasn't a fluke.  There isn't a bad cut on this record, but, like many of his previous albums, the most fantastic quality Emma Jean is its aesthetic.  

Emma Jean is not only influenced by old soul records of the 60s, it actually sounds like one.  It's an odd slice of time that you can't help but marvel at.  Of course, that's not really an achievement to write home about by itself.  To make a record that has the old-time aesthetic of 60s soul music, all you need is the idea.  The sonics can be created with relative ease using studio trickery and all you need is capable instrumentalists to lay down the tracks. But Fields is the perfect artist to front such a concept, because he really can sing! Naturally, he's fairly outstanding.  But, the fact that he is 63 is remarkable.  Why? The James Brown and Wilson Pickett records that everyone fell in love with 50 years ago were the works of singers in their 20s or 30s.  And at 63, Lee Fields sounds like one of their contemporaries—though certainly not an equal.  That alone may make this album a must listen for 2014.  But it helps that it is simply a damn good album, too. 

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Singles Going Steady: "What's Happening?!?!" by The Byrds

"What's Happening?" by The Byrds

In my experience, I've found that relatively few people know that David Crosby was a member of The Byrds.  I can't blame them because, for all intents and purposes, he doesn't appear prominently on any of the band's biggest hits.  He augmented and enhanced their sound, but didn't lead the way like Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn did. But this 1966 song, which was a B-side to the major hit "Mr. Spaceman," is the first song that indicated David Crosby's promise as the wildly hypnotic talent he'd become known for as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young).

Much of the song's success is owed to the superb guitar stylings of Crosby and Roger McGuinn.  David Crosby is a king at playing "what the hell did you just say to me?" chord changes. You know the chord changes I'm talking about? The ones that just make you gulp. They're like the musical equivalent of jamming a shovel into the ground or slamming a door. They're aggressive, but they're also damn beautiful.  For all the credit Crosby receives for his angelic vocals and genius songwriting, he certainly deserves more recognition for his guitar playing.  He isn't a guy that can solo for hours—at least I don't think he can—but it's his ability to both discover striking chord voicings and make even the oddest dissonances work that make him a force to be reckoned with on the instrument.  

Then, of course, there's Roger McGuinn, whose trademark jangly guitar sound has influenced so many other guitarists that his style could be the subject of entire books. While his playing had always hinted at the otherworldly, on "What's Happening?!?!" his solos are straight-up psychedelic.  

The composition itself isn't amazing.  In fact, if you said it's underdeveloped, I wouldn't disagree.  And it's awkward lyrically, too.  The first line definitely gets you interested—"I don't know who you think you are." Good stuff.  But when he sings "I don't know what's going on here," it sounds like he truly doesn't know where the song is going.  So this isn't an example of Crosby's best work.  But it does show a songwriter with amazing potential and, given that it was released in 1966, "What's Happening?!?!" sounds almost revolutionary.  I guess that's up to one's own interpretation.  But one thing is clear and that is that David Crosby became a superstar in his own right just a few years later.  You'd can't help but think that greatness was cooking in his amazing creative mind for his whole life.  For a talent like David Crosby, it's almost inconceivable to think that he just woke up one day and had it all figured out.  This guy was probably giving himself chills all the time with the ideas he was coming up with, and for all perks he received from being a member of a famous band—the women, the bragging rights and the musical stimulation—he had to have felt enormously frustrated that he wasn't being offered the opportunity to fulfill his own creative desires.

So for David Crosby, having "What's Happening?!?!" included on a Byrds album may have been the best moment in his young life so far.  And since he wasn't known as a lead vocalist before, Byrds fans probably heard this song and Crosby's gorgeous singing and thought something like "What's Happening?" too. 

"What's Happening?!?!" by The Byrds

Singles Going Steady: "Jump To It" by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin had so many classic hits in the 1960s that one may not even bother to investigate her career in the decades that followed.  But that would be a mistake, as Lady Soul continued to release quality material that lit up the charts in the 1980s. Jump To It  was released in 1982—the same year Michael Jackson released Thriller, Prince released 1999 and former label mate Marvin Gaye released Midnight Love.  It's not an essential album, but it did hit number one and so did the nearly seven minute title track, which was written by Luther Vandross.

"Jump To It" by Aretha Franklin