Field Notes: Doris Fields aka “Lady D”

 

Doris A. Fields, aka Lady D, known as “West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul” is an R&B, soul, and blues musician and songwriter living in Beckley. She is the founder and organizer of West Virginia’s Simply Jazz and Blues Festival and previously hosted the weekly Simply Jazz and Blues radio show on Groovy94 in Beckley. In 2008, Fields’ original song “Go Higher” won an online contest sponsored by the Obama Music Arts and Entertainment Group. She performed the song as a headliner at the Obama for Change Inauguration Ball with President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama in attendance.

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On her family and musical background…

Emily Hilliard: Could you tell me your name and when and where you were born?

Doris Fields: My name is Doris Anne Fields and I was born in Charleston, but of course I always say Cabin Creek…Kayford and Cabin Creek. But I was born in Charleston General Hospital. But I’m a coal miner’s daughter so I was born in the coalfields. My father always said… “you were born in the coalfields, not in Charleston.” (laughs) But I was.

EH: Could you tell me about your family and what they did?

DF: Well, like I said my father worked in the coal mines for 50 years. He was a lot older than my mother and so he started working in the coal mines when he was ten years old. His family came from Selma, Alabama and he worked until the late 70s in the coal mines and then he spent another twenty years as the Senate doorkeeper. And my mother, she always worked in state and local government in the assessor’s office, county clerk’s office, those type of jobs. Nobody in my family was musical at all. I was like… odd to them (laughs)!

EH: How did you start singing? Was it in church?

DF: Yeah, I started singing in church, although my earliest memories were when I was about 3 years old. My grandmother, she lived with us, and she used to be there at the house and babysit me all day. And we would watch American Bandstand on Sunday afternoon and I just knew then—that’s what I want to do. And she would always have me dance while the show was on and I would sing along. So I’ve always known that’s what I wanted to do but I never got the chance until I was probably seven years old and I was in the choir at church. I just was in choirs and sang since then.

EH: Do you also play piano?

DF: (laughs) I tried—I taught myself to play and then I took piano in college. I played clarinet from the 5th grade through college as well, but now I leave the instruments to the people who really want to do that.

EH: (laughs) But it’s probably helpful just to have some background.

DF: Yeah, it’s nice just to be able to read the music anyway.

EH: So after choir, how did you continue singing?

DF: I was in a couple of R&B bands later in college and then there was a big gap in there for a few years when I moved to Mississippi and then I moved to Japan and then came back and joined another band. From that time—the late 80s—I’ve been singing on and off with bands and then doing the musical theater and things like that ever since then.

EH: What were those R&B bands like?

DF: The first band I was in was called Daddy’s Delight—an R&B band. Then the same guy who put that band together years later put another band together called Midnight Magic. And so I was a part of that too and that went on for a few years and then everybody just sort of went their separate ways. I started doing musical theater and so that kept me involved in music, but I wasn’t part of a band again until I started my own band…oh, about sixteen years ago now. So that’s where I am now with my band, doing the same things.

EH: So who’s in your band?

DF: Well you just met Robert, he’s my keyboard player. He’s from Jamaica by way of Beckley, West Virginia. And Dan Bailey who is a guitar player, he used to play with, well he still does, with Taylor Made, the country group, and he also is a studio engineer, so he does all my CDs. And Demetrius Cross is my drummer and Phil Copney is my bass player.

On her repertoire…

EH: Tell me about your repertoire. What kind of songs do you sing and where do you get inspiration from?

DF: I guess I mostly do R&B. I do a lot of pop and jazz and blues of course. That’s where I’ve gotten the label of being a blues singer. But I do everything and reggae as well. When I was growing up, I listened to everybody. Like I said, I loved American Bandstand, any show that had music on it, I was in front of the T.V. I was like one of those television babies. That’s where I spent all my time was in front of the T.V. So to me there was no difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Dolly Parton. Anybody that was singing, I just loved it. So I think all those people really kind of inspired me. I remember I really loved Judy Garland when I was small (laughs). I loved the way she held her microphone! I was just obsessed with that and that’s the way I hold my microphone now to this day!

EH: What is that like?

DF: It’s nothing special, but just the way she held the mic and would hold the cord and she would sort of caress the cord, then let it go and that’s… I just do that not thinking because I always practiced it that way. And you know, that was just one of those quirks I guess (laughs).

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Lady D performs as Bessie Smith in the 2017 River Music Show at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston.

On writing songs and inspiration…

DF: I have three and a half CDs of original music and the very first one I did was mostly an R&B feel. We always do some reggae, because like I said, my piano player Bob, he’s from Jamaica, so there’s always some reggae in everything we do. And so I’ve written a few reggae tunes. Some blues—I have a blues sampler. I really haven’t done that much blues but because I do the show, The Lady and the Empress. I wrote this show about Bessie Smith as the Empress of the Blues. That’s how I got the label of being a blues singer. But I don’t really do that much blues in my regular performance, but I’ve written some blues tunes.

I’ve written a lot of music, and actually, I told somebody the other day, I just started writing again a few days ago after a couple years. I haven’t written any songs in about two years and then just got in the mood the other day and have just been writing which is why I brought my pad in here. I was waiting on you and I just thought in case I get an idea, I’ll jot it down (laughs)!

EH: So why do you think you had two years of not writing anything?

DF: Because my brain—as I get older I find that my brain holds less and less, and I used to be able to really multitask well and emotionally be completely present. I could do that really well but now I have to do one thing at a time. And since 2013, I’ve been organizing a jazz and blues festival, and that takes all of my brain. I think that really had me wrapped up the last couple years, and I’m trying to get back to me now. I’ve been so concerned about this festival—finding money for it and finding the artists and things—in other words paying other people instead of me, you know? So now I have to really get back to booking my own stuff and getting back out there. I took care of my mother for about three years before she passed away and she stayed here with me, so that was a 24/7 thing because she was bedridden and I wasn’t able to perform as much as I wanted to. So I was basically stuck here. And then right before she died my car broke down. I haven’t been able to get another car so I’m literally stuck here a lot of times. Now because of finances and everything I have to get back out there. That in itself has sort of gotten my creative juices flowing again as far as my own stuff. So I think in one way it’s bad, but in another way it’s kind of getting me off my butt.

EH: What’s your writing process? Do you get words first or a melody first usually?

DF: Usually it’s words. It just depends. I mean anything can trigger something for me. I used to really get my melody. Bob, my keyboard player, he’s the one I write with, so when I get melodies and things like that, I tell him so he can hear it. And then he says, “this is not gonna work. That’s not gonna work.” So then I figured, I need to get the whole song first before I take it to him (laughs). So now it’s mostly words that are coming first and concepts and ideas because I’m realizing my head is in a completely different place than it was when I was writing a few years ago. And the last couple of original CDs that I did were…I mean, I like the work that I did but I think they were a little idealistic, I guess. So now, just with everything that’s been happening in the world in the last couple years, I’m sort of… angry. Now that’s kind of coming out in things that I’m trying to write. So I’m interested to see where that’s gonna go and what it’s gonna sound like.

EH: So are any of the new songs sort of political or protest in content?

DF: Somewhat, yeah. But a lot of it’s from just my personal point of view. Not so much as you know, a world political view, but… like I’ve told a lot of people…I try to learn from everything that I do and even putting this festival together turned out to be so political. It went from “let’s bring some good jazz and blues music into Southern West Virginia” and it turned out to be so political—everybody’s trying to make more of it than the original intent. That is an underlying thing that I have—of still being kind of upset about trying to do that here. So it’s more of a localized political protest that’s going on in my head (laughs).

Watch a clip of Lady D’s performance at the 2016 River Music Show here

For the full transcript of our interview with Doris Fields, contact the West Virginia Folklife Program. 

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