Remembering a Record Man: Joe Fields, Label Executive, Dies at 88

Jul 18, 2017

“Hey Bob Porter, this is Joe Fields. I’ve got a Grant Green album and I need some liner notes.” That phone call was my introduction to one of the genuine good guys in the jazz business.

The year was 1967, and I was living in California, writing the occasional liner note for Prestige Records. Joe was the sales manager of Prestige, but this was a project of his own.

We didn’t meet until a few years later, when he was National Sales Manager of Buddah Records and had formed the Cobblestone label. As Buddah fell apart, Joe acquired the Cobblestone masters and founded Muse Records. From that point forward, he was a jazz guy exclusively.

Fields, who died on July 12, at 88, was an industry character out of the old school. Joe was a salesman and a promotion guy, although I doubt that he ever separated things that way. He was a record man — someone who knew all facets of the business. See the distributor. Take the DJ to lunch. Show up at the record store. He loved his work.

He was born in 1929 in Jersey City, N.J., and raised mostly in Brooklyn. He attended Syracuse University, where he played football (Al Davis, former owner of the Oakland Raiders, was a classmate) before graduating from the University of Bridgeport.

His first job was with Columbia Records, where he received formative training. He worked for London Records, and bounced around other New York labels including MGM, Verve, Sue and Prestige, before landing at Buddha and later founding Muse.

Muse succeeded where many others failed because Joe had a firm grasp of the bottom line. Artists like guitarist Pat Martino, singer Etta Jones, pianist Cedar Walton, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and saxophonist Sonny Stitt were longtime roster acts. In 1983, Joe acquired Savoy Records, which he later sold to Denon of Japan. He also acquired Landmark Records from Orrin Keepnews.

When Joe sold Muse in 1996, he did not have a non-compete clause in his deal. The following year he and his son, Barney, formed HighNote/Savant.

One of the first albums on HighNote was by Houston Person, the tenor saxophonist. Person was a longtime Muse artist — he’d made his debut for that label, Stolen Sweets, in 1976 — and he is still on HighNote today. Asked about his relationship with Joe Fields, Person offered the following:

“Joe was a wonderful guy, and we had great rapport. I learned about producing other artists and he gave me an understanding of how the record business operated. He trusted me, and I had complete freedom to do things my own way. I have never regretted my dealings with Joe.”

Person has a new album ready for release on HighNote. Among the most recent releases on the label are albums by guitarists Kenny Burrell and Russell Malone, trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Eric Alexander, and singer and pianist Freddie Cole.

Fields is survived by his wife, the former Joan Nancy Boyd; daughters Christine Jenne, Suzanne Fields and Laura Tralongo; a granddaughter and a great-grandson; and his son, Barney Fields, who will continue to operate HighNote/Savant.

Bob Porter’s book SOUL JAZZ: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975 was recently published by Xlibris.