Wesla Whitfield, Singer Who Reinvigorated Standards, Dies at 70
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK FEB. 10, 2018
Wesla Whitfield performing at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan in 2011. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Wesla Whitfield, a classically trained vocalist whose fresh interpretations of the Great American Songbook were anything but standard, died on Friday at her home in St. Helena, Calif. She was 70.
The cause was complications from bladder cancer, her husband, Mike Greensill, a jazz pianist who performed and recorded with Ms. Whitfield for decades, wrote in an email.
Ms. Whitfield trained as a coloratura soprano and sang with the San Francisco Opera chorus during the 1970s. But she found the experience unfulfilling, and after completing a performance, she would often sneak off to sing in piano bars.
“In opera, the voice was the only thing of importance,” Ms. Whitfield told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. “The lyric and the story didn’t count, and that was boring to me. I’m very interested in the song and the story that it has to tell.”
Ms. Whitfield told those stories with a clear, strong voice that could be languid or sprightly, playful or demure. Among those who praised her singing was Tony Bennett, who called her a “wonderful singer” who “thrills me when I hear her,” The Los Angeles Times reported in 1996.
A 1994 review in Newsday by Gene Seymour compared her to the celebrated swing-era vocalist Lee Wiley: “Her tone has a bracing, enveloping clarity reminiscent of Lee Wiley, who, like Whitfield, could make a song bend or jump in mid-verse without losing control of her timbre.”
Ms. Whitfield’s career took hold at West Coast clubs like the Cinegrill in Los Angeles and the Rrazz Room and the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco. She later became a regular performer at venues like the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan.
Wesla Whitfield – Walkin' After Midnight
Wesla Whitfield – Walkin' After Midnight Video by Mike Greensill
But before that career had really begun, Ms. Whitfield had to surmount the kind of obstacle that few singers ever face. Her life changed forever after a chance encounter that turned violent on a San Francisco street in 1977.
“Two little boys came up to me and spoke, ‘You better come with us,’” Ms. Whitfield told The Associated Press in 1999. “I turned away, but I saw one little boy open his jacket.”
The boy drew a gun and shot Ms. Whitfield. The bullet struck her spine, and she was paralyzed from the waist down. But after a period of depression she returned to singing.
“It has almost nothing to do with my life, and certainly, definitely, nothing to do with my music,” she said in an interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” in 1993.
Ms. Whitfield during a 2005 cabaret performance. Richard Termine for The New York Times
Ms. Whitfield rarely discussed the shooting or her partial paralysis. Although she used a wheelchair, for many years she performed seated on a chair or stool, usually after being carried onstage by Mr. Greensill, because she did not want to distract the audience from her voice.
She met Mr. Greensill in 1981, and he soon became her pianist and arranger. They married in 1986.
Ms. Whitfield’s supple voice and Mr. Greensill’s dashes of improvisation reinvigorated familiar songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and others, whose work they both considered timeless.
“We think of the songs we perform as classic, yes,” Ms. Whitfield told The New York Times in 1996. “But in the same way Schubert’s songs are classic. They’re not nostalgic even though they’re old. They speak to the human condition today.”
In their interpretations of songs like “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the mixture of their different musical backgrounds created an unusual sound that set them apart from similar lounge and cabaret acts.
“Although Ms. Whitfield and Mr. Greensill are not the only married cabaret performers who work together, no cabaret couple in recent memory has expressed their devotion through such intense but subtle musical communication,” Stephen Holden wrote of a four-week engagement they played at the Oak Room in 1993.
They released “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (1987) and other albums on their own label, Myoho Records, before the Grammy-winning producer Orrin Keepnews signed them to his label, Landmark, in the early 1990s. They released some 20 more records together, often with other musicians, on Landmark and other labels, including “Beautiful Love” (1993) and “Teach Me Tonight” (1997).
In the 1990s, Ms. Whitfield and Mr. Greensill performed at Carnegie Hall and at a White House luncheon for Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, and spouses of senators. Their last performance together was at Silo’s in Napa, Calif., in June 2017.
Wesla Whitfield was born Weslia Marie Edwards on Sept. 15, 1947, in Santa Maria, Calif., about 60 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. She was the youngest of three daughters of Vernon Edwards, a welder who worked in oil fields, and the former Eleanor Smith, a homemaker.
She graduated from high school in Santa Maria and attended Pasadena City College before receiving a degree in music from San Francisco State University in 1971. She started singing with the San Francisco Opera that year and stayed with the company for the next four years, before her preference for nightclubs won out. After leaving the opera, she worked for a time as a singing cocktail waitress.
Her first marriage, to Richard Whitfield, ended in divorce, as did a brief second marriage. She kept the surname Whitfield because she liked the alliteration.
The story of Ms. Whitfield’s first name is more involved. Her mother said she was named after a friend whose name was spelled “Weslia,” with a silent i. Ms. Whitfield dropped the confusing i from her name after her mother’s death in 1998 — and later met the friend, who told her that her name had always been spelled “Wesla.”
In addition to her husband, Ms. Whitfield is survived by a sister, Laurella Pickett.
In 1993 Ms. Whitfield was asked whether having to sit impeded her singing. “Not at all,” she replied.
“I’ve always preferred sitting,” she said. “It brings everything to a stop, and then we just focus on the music.”