On a recent Sunday evening, vocalist Patti Littlefield took a drive up NM 14 to Madrid to catch the Alpha Cats’ last set at the Mine Shaft, that venerable kick-ass tavern featuring the longest bar in New Mexico.
Hip to Littlefield’s talents, the Cats—one of the best damn bands in New Mexico—invited her onstage to sing a tune, and after a short confabulation, they settled on a song. Those in the audience who knew Littlefield only as the jazzy redheaded chanteuse getting saucy and sexy with the great American songbook got a surprise when the band launched into R&B master Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?”
Littlefield belted the song out of the park, setting the bottles behind the bar to rattling and the audience to whooping and hollering. When she finished, the temperature in the place had risen several degrees, and people were fanning themselves.
The lady can sing, and this Thursday at the Outpost, she’ll be heading Woof!, an unusual quartet that includes Lewis Winn (guitar), Mark Weaver (tuba) and Cal Haines (drums).
“I’ve always been a singer,” says Littlefield, who got her professional start at age 6 singing at a wedding in Oklahoma, where she grew up.
She toured the folk music coffeehouses on the Oklahoma circuit, “such as it was,” she says. “At the same time, I was into acting. That’s what my plan was.” By 16, she was a member of Actors’ Equity, and before long, she was on a bus and truck tour out of New York in the rock musical Your Own Thing. “We called it Your Own Turkey,” she says.
The music director of that show, Ken Hirsch, was the writing partner of the great Doc Pomus, for whom Littlefield was soon doing demos. “He’s the one who kept saying, ‘You gotta go into country.’ ”
Littlefield also recorded with Luther Vandross, hung with The Platters and got cast in a Barbra Streisand movie while in New York. “But I didn’t do it,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Stints in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco—doing puppet theater, busking, singing backup—preceded Littlefield’s settling in New Mexico, where she started focusing seriously on singing jazz in 1990.
“I remember being in my backyard hanging laundry learning Billie Holiday tunes,” says Littlefield. “Didn’t have a clue how to do it. Didn’t know anybody. I just really took to it.”
She started going to all the jams in town to meet people. “It took me half a year to get up the courage to sing,” she says.
Littlefield hooked up with some bands—including a memorable incarnation as blues belter Suga Jones—and she’s been on the scene ever since. Her most recent collaboration, with Weaver in the vocal/tuba duo Resonance (a CD is in the works), showcases her fearlessness.
Folk, rock, jazz, blues, show tunes—Littlefield fears no genre and is captive to none, and her show with Woof! will pull from several. She won’t reveal what they’ll be playing, but she does say that the eclectic evening will include tunes from Kurt Weill, Harry Nilsson, the Neville Brothers and Annie Ross.
“I feel kind of protective about it because it’s such a unique, beautiful experience,” she says. (For those of you who saw Littlefield last week at the Women’s Voices concert, the only tune she’ll reprise Thursday is Ross’ “Twisted.”)
“We’re trying to do different kinds of things, and it definitely has a jazz flavor to it,” she says. “Familiar tunes that I like that I’m trying to redo with my own flavor, and these guys all add to the mix, they add their flavors. ... It’s a fabulous lineup. I’m so excited about it.”
Woof! with Patti Littlefield, and the Diego Arencon Quartet appear at the Outpost Performance Space on Thursday, July 31, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12/$7 members and students, available in advance, by phone or in person, at the Outpost (210 Yale SE, 268-0044).