For soul singer Lee Fields, falling in love with music was a clandestine affair.
As a child growing up in North Carolina, Fields' parents would host parties every Friday and Saturday night as a way of earning a little extra cash — and though Fields' mother thought he and his brothers were tucked into bed, they were, of course, listening in on the activity below.
"When Mama was in the room, we had our eyes closed, but as soon as she walked out, man, we went straight to the door," Fields, 72, tells PEOPLE. "The dances that they were doing back in the day… let me tell you something. They ain't got nothing on them today, I'll put it like that!"
Through his innocent spying, Fields' musical knowledge — then limited to the gospel he heard in church — quickly expanded to include Jimmy Reed, Little Richard, James Brown, B.B. King and even Ernest Tubb.
It's a knowledge and a love that never left Fields, who on Friday will release his new album Sentimental Fool, his first in three years and his debut as a Daptone Records artist.
The soulful, tender album's 12 tracks take the listener back in time; "Just Give Me Your Time" features sweet doo-wop harmonies and gentle percussion, while the title track is a timeless and, well, sentimental walk down memory lane.
Gustavo Olivares Lee Fields
Fields says the tracklist "came from my soul," and likens his recording process to singing like his life depended on it.
"Imagine yourself hanging off of a cliff and trying to recover from that accidental slip so that you won't fall to your demise. That's the way I felt," he explains. "So every word of the song is like, 'Oh man, I've got to pull myself up, and I've got to be careful because I might hit an unsolid piece of material that causes me to slip and fall."
The neo-soul legend, who lives with his wife in Plainfield, New Jersey, says making Sentimental Fool was different than his usual process, as he let Daptone co-founder Gabriel "Bosco Mann" Roth take the reins.
"There's a time to speak and there's a time to be quiet. With Gabe, it was my time to be quiet and just listen," Fields says. "He wanted me to just put my true emotions into it. He wanted me just to be me, and that was easy to do."
Says Roth in a statement: "This may seem an ambitious feat, but listen to this record and see if you don't feel every drop of feeling that he poured into it. When I hear Lee sing these songs, something lifts inside me and I find myself inspired to do better, just as I was the day I met him all those years ago."
It's the latest achievement in a career that's triumphed over its fair share of setbacks and derailments.
For one, Fields never wanted to be a musician — becoming a businessman was his childhood dream. But as he rode around town working as a paper boy at age 12, he'd often sing along to songs on the radio, and quickly built himself a reputation.
While attending a talent show with a friend, he accepted a dare to take the stage.
"I took him up on his dare. I went on stage and I started singing and the crowd started going crazy," Fields recalls. "Oh man, they were going wild. And the band that was playing for the talent show hired me to be their singer. I said, 'I want to be a businessman.' And so business-wise, what they offered me for one night was more than I was making the whole week taking papers. I've been singing ever since."
Soon, Fields was singing with the band two to three nights a week, and moved to New York City in 1967 with his mother's last $20 in his pocket.
The singer says he was "totally uninformed" upon arriving in New York, and accidentally spent nearly all of his money on a taxi to Brooklyn. The next day, he went to the wedding reception of the friend he was staying with, and met a friend who helped him find some gigs singing at local clubs.
"I've always felt like whatever the situation was, something could open up for me," he says.
Rosie Cohe; Lee Fields
Fields put out his first single in 1969, and had a hit in 1973 with "Let's Talk It Over." But as disco music became more and more prominent, Fields struggled to book the venues he used to. Eventually, knowing he had to provide for his wife Christine and their four children, he began working in real estate in New Jersey.
"At that time, in the early '80s, I thought my career had ended," he says. "DJs were taking over the club. There were no bands. I was doing some gigs here and there, but it wasn't enough to really be sufficient to support a family. I had to figure out ways to take care of my family."
Though Fields says he and his family "had a happy existence," music never left his mind, and by the time the 1990s rolled around, he began experimenting with a synthesizer he bought and put in his basement.
Soon, he was recording again, and the cassette tapes he handed out at small gigs were taking off, especially on the back of the song "Meet Me Tonight," which he released in 1993. It wasn't long before the clubs were packed again.
Fields' career continued to grow — in the early 2000s, French DJ Martin Solveig gave him a call, saying he'd heard Fields' voice and wanted him on a track. They recorded a song together in 2006 called "Jealousy," which charted in several countries. A second song, "I Want You," came two years later.
"It put me back on the road," he says of his resurgence. "Now here I am in super elite dance clubs over in Europe. I don't know anything about no dance music. I'm going along with it, man. I never did miss a beat."
For Fields, the key to his longevity is embracing anything and everything that comes his way — and being himself. Over the years, his songs have been sampled by everyone from J. Cole and Travis Scott to A$AP Rocky.
"That woulda, coulda stuff man, I'm not about that," he says. "Whatever happens man, did you do the best you can? That's the kind of person I am. As long as you did the best you can, be proud. Everybody's not going to be Michael Jackson. Everybody will be themselves. There's no way of getting out of being yourself."
Though Sentimental Fool is steeped in the vintage sounds of the '60s and '70s, it's still modern, and is a record Fields doesn't think he could have made at any other point in his career.
"Everything that's done is done in its proper time," he says. "A lot of people died at 20. A lot of people live five or six days after they were born. So if you have lived a decent life, hey, that is what to be proud of. All the rest of the stuff is like icing on the cake."
Up next, he'll take the album on the road for a series of dates in the U.S. and Europe that'll begin in October and stretch through February. Fields says he still loves performing, and is most looking forward to getting to meet his fans, many of which often relay to him stories of how his music was the soundtrack to special moments in their lives.
After a career of always being on the precipice of major fame, does Fields feel as though he's gotten his due? "Yeah," he says. "I feel like I've gotten my due because I really wasn't looking for anything other than just as a business. And I survived in the business. I'm happy. And I'm still in the game. I'm still having a good time."
Sentimental Fool is out now.