War Horses of the Chorus, No. 6: Brett Littlefield

Kirt Thiesmeyer, Jan 20, 2008

No. 6 in an erratic series preserving the history of the Masters of Harmony and highlighting the contributions of illustrious members most in need of preservation.)

Brett Littlefield: The name is redolent with baseball, the pursuit of excellence and a rumbling and pervasive bass sound that has anchored the Barbershop Harmony Society for twenty-five years. Nightlife, Brett’s 1996 International Champion Quartet, including Rob Menaker, John Sasine and Jeff Baker, has occupied the pinnacle of our music world for so long as to admit few rivals. And it is nearly impossible for a mere investigative reporter with few barbershop creds to pierce the hype and glitz, adulation and wild parties. To hear the weekly anguish of Brett’s mighty MOH bass section (which he serves as section leader), one would think one had stumbled upon the rhythmic beat of a crew of ancient Mediterranean galley slaves.

But what of the actual man behind the sound, the guy who puts on his pants one leg at a time like the rest of us, husband, father, teacher, Boy Scout leader and friend to musicians much less accomplished than himself? How to sort the rumors and myths and penetrate to the unvarnished truth?

And will journalistic truth be a casualty of uncritical admiration, on the one hand, or fear of retaliation, on the other? I set off to find out.

This is not, after all, a biography of Gen. Patton – rather, a sober-sided assessment of an MOH icon, from one who has seen him in his underwear.

People imagine this reporting business is just a lark; ferreting out the obscure facts of a life lived in the “shadows” of celebrity. For example, some people think Brett came from a very stern family, half German, half shepherd. But he actually claims descent from Blackfeet Indians, part of the Algonquin Nation living in northwestern Montana hard by the Canadian border, and definitely not warlike. (I’m not making this up.) You probably thought “little field” meant a quiet English garden, when it was more likely 10,000 acres in Big Sky Country.

A California Native American, Brett started barbershopping at age 15 and has never looked back. Many years singing with the Santa Ana Chapter and directing the Irvine chorus brought him to the Masters of Harmony and Dr. Greg Lyne about six gold medals ago. With his lovely and appreciative wife Karen, an SAI chorus champion herself (Harborlites), and children Cody (13) and Sara (10), Brett’s pursuit of the American Dream by snagging his share in the Indian casinos didn’t pan out, so he contents himself with sales and office administration of commercial and industrial fasteners when he isn’t singing or coaching Little League. His new quartet with hopes for international recognition is Masterpiece, with other gold medalists Alan Gordon (Gotcha! 2004), Rob Menaker and Mark Hale (Michigan Jake 2001).

Brett was critical to keeping MOH alive during the interregnum from Jeff Oxley to Mark Hale (1999-2001), directing the chorus as he occasionally does today. He is passionate about his family, singing, and racing quad motorcycles over the dunes at Glamis in the Imperial Desert.

War Horse Interview – conducted at the back of a warehouse in either Orange or Los Angeles County (I was blindfolded), where the wails of OEMs and other fastener people made conversation difficult. Eventually, Brett took me to an inner office where, with the door closed, I took an aggressive approach to discovering his secrets:

Masters of Harmony: Say, Smokey . . .
Brett Littlefield: “♫ Sometimes I feeel like a motherless child. . .”

MOH: You’re singing your signature song?
BL: It helps me get into the rhythm of the day.

MOH: Are you aware you are known as the fiercest of the basses – at least, from our perspective on the other side of the room?
BL: Nonsense. We are all pussycats over there.

MOH: Do you think you could take Doug Price in a fair fight?
BL: He’s the biggest pussycat of all. He probably has the sweetest disposition of anyone in the chorus – apart from myself.

MOH: You are destroying my illusions. What motivates the basses best?
BL: Fear.

MOH: That’s better. How would you compare the leads and basses?
BL: Like apples and orangutans.

MOH: What advice do you give the basses to maintain their fitness and adopt the right attitude toward their work?
BL: Eat a live toad first thing every morning and the rest of your day will seem great.

MOH: Are your instruction methods strictly humane?
BL: “♫ Sometimes I feeel . . .”

MOH: OK, I get that you’re evading the question. Let’s change the subject. I see you work with fasteners. Tell me about the nuts and bolts of your business.
BL: Nuts and bolts.

MOH: Yes.
BL: That’s it.

MOH: That’s what?
BL: Nuts and bolts.

MOH: Are you mocking me?
BL: That would be nuts and dolts.

MOH: Hey, be civil. I’m giving you immortality here. How long have you been singing bass?
BL: Since birth.

MOH: They say you have Native American blood?
BL: Only on my parents’ side.

MOH: I looked up your Indian name -- “Ponokáómitaa.” [Reader, that is an authentic Blackfeet name.] What does it mean?
BL: “Cactus Mountain.” Or maybe “Tired Horse”; we were never sure.

MOH: How do you keep the basses on their toes?
BL: I show them an Indian burial ground.

MOH: Is it true that basses must give special attention to matters of personal hygiene?
BL: “♫ Sometimes I feeel like a motherless child. . .”

MOH: What does your mother say about your singing that song all the time?
BL: She’s sort of neutral about it.

MOH: What do you have to say to your many fans and admirers?
BL: Don’t eat anything bigger than your head.

Brett Littlefield is a long-time member of the Music Committee and a person who, one might say, has Mark Hale’s ear. He is a charter member of VoCA, a new mixed-voice ensemble receiving raves. He was a member of the MOH Quartet of the Year in 1988, 1990 (Cool, Cool Quartet) and 1991 (Nightlife). He won the President’s Award in 1999 and the Director’s Award in 2006. Generous with his time and skills, Brett is easily the most approachable of barbershoppers – unless you are goofing off in the chorus he loves. Even then, he probably wouldn’t actually do anything more violent than clip you upside the head.

Since he already knows too much about fasteners, I elected not to ask him to wear his name badge.

[The foregoing interview is all lies. Quick, is he laughing? I have changed my address to a PO Box number. Had this been a real interview, I would probably be fastened to the warehouse wall.]

Next exciting, unsuspecting and imaginary interviewee – Mark Feiner!

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