Vocalist Patti Littlefield can’t recall the song, but she knows who was singing on her mother’s radio. “The first song I remember hearing was Dinah Washington,” she says. “I remember thinking—as a 3-year-old or whatever, I was very, very young—that I wanted to be a singer, because of her vibrato, the way her voice was.”
Littlefield got her wish. This weekend, with two “Peaches and Queen” concerts, the flame-haired chanteuse will be paying tribute to both Washington, her first inspiration, and to the recently departed Etta James, whose fearlessness also inspired the adventurous Littlefield.
How do you pay tribute to two of the most well-known, popular and recognizable voices of the second half of the 20th century? Certainly not by trying to sound like them.
“I’m not imitating them,” says Littlefield. “I don’t sing like them.”
Instead, she’ll present tunes from their repertoires that speak to her own life experience. In the case of Washington, who was dubbed Queen of the Blues, the songs include many of her hits, such as “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.” With James, who was nicknamed Peaches, Littlefield will primarily feature several lesser-known efforts from her jazz sides, though, yes, of course, she will do “At Last,” James’ signature song.
Second, she’ll try to communicate something of the energy of the ladies themselves and how they make her feel. It’s about invoking rather than imitating. “I get this image in my head of them. Like with Etta, she was a tough old broad—she was a tough old broad when she was 17,” she says, pointing out that James stood aloof from current fashion and made her own path. “She took a song by the tail and wrung it dry. She wrung it out.”
Washington had a “veneer of ladiness,” says Littlefield, yet she always seemed to be “one of the guys. She wasn’t a diva.” She could get down to the basics, too, as demonstrated by “Baby, Did You Hear?”—a song of sheer revenge that knocks Littlefield out and which she will sing.
Washington took flack from critics for moving away from her roots and performing pop tunes. James, who was also deeply rooted in the blues, ventured into pop and jazz and rock. Littlefield notes that in researching this concert, she’s realized that just about whatever song the two ladies sang, whatever the style, however many strings there were in the orchestra, their blues were never absent. At the same time, they were both “beyond genre,” she says.
Littlefield herself has moved comfortably through a variety of genres in her career, touring in theatrical productions, performing as a singer/songwriter in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, singing with Luther Vandross in L.A. and making demos in New York City for legendary songwriter Doc Pomus. The blues and R & B have been a staple for her and her alter ego, Suga Jones, and she’s been singing jazz for years, including some very edgy material with tuba player Mark Weaver in their duo, Resonance, now apparently and unfortunately disbanded. This breadth of experience, along with some bottle-rattling pipes, makes Littlefield an excellent choice for this tribute.
Producers Cal Haines and Victoria Rogers have put together a superior band behind her, too. Jim Ahrend is on piano (“He’s just brilliant with singers,” says Littlefield), Jon Gagan on bass (“He’s awesome”), and Haines on drums (“He’s a master at what he does”).
Fans of the two ladies will recognize the arrangements, which come straight off the recordings. The voice will be Littlefield’s, but the memories will belong to James and Washington.