Thursday 13 December 2018

Obituary: Wesla Whitfield

Cabaret star who continued to perform despite being paralysed in a shooting

PRAISE: Wesla Whitfield
PRAISE: Wesla Whitfield

Wesla Whitfield, the cabaret singer, who has died aged 70, breathed new life into the Great American Songbook with performances at Carnegie Hall and at the White House for Hillary Clinton.

Accompanied on the piano by her husband Mike Greensill, whom she would drolly introduce as the one "in the red shoes", Wesla Whifield enjoyed a 25-year run at the Plush Room, regarded as the capital of San Francisco's small but devoted cabaret scene.

Her clear, precise, supple voice won wide praise, The New York Times singling out her "ruthless insight, intense emotion and highly evolved jazz phrasing... In the realm of cabaret, you can't get much deeper." She did all this and retained her sense of humour despite suffering from partial paralysis - the legacy of a random shooting in 1977.

For many years she declined to use a wheelchair on stage, preferring to begin the performance seated or to be carried to her stool by Greensill. "Nobody wants to be a terrible tragedy," she explained. "I'm doing what I set out to do, somewhat successfully."

In later years she embraced the wheelchair and the freedom it gave her to move about the stage, allowing her to incorporate several costume changes into the evening's entertainment.

She was also unafraid to be mischievous on occasion. As well as Cole Porter, the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart, her repertoire of more than 500 songs included Lydia the Tattooed Lady - as sung by Groucho Marx in At the Circus (1939).

The youngest of three daughters, she was born Weslia Marie Edwards in Santa Maria, California, on September 15, 1947 (she later dropped the silent 'i' in her first name). Her father was an oilfield welder and her mother worked as a book-keeper. The whole family was musical and the three girls performed as a trio, singing what Wesla Whitfield later called "really bad songs from the 1950s".

After graduating from Santa Maria High School, she studied music at Pasadena City College, followed by a degree in music at San Francisco State College. She spent three seasons in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, but found her true calling in the city's piano bars, eventually landing a job as a singing cocktail waitress.

The shooting brought that period of her life to an end. Her assailants were two boys, aged about 12, who accosted her in San Francisco on her way home from a rehearsal. "I heard a little popping sound," she recalled. "I turned and fell down." The boys were never caught.

A spell of depression followed, after which she began performing again in small clubs. In 1981 she met Mike Greensill, an English-born graduate of the Leeds College of Music. His jazz arrangements of Broadway numbers - such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's My Favourite Things - became part of their signature style, marrying her devotion to storytelling with his affinity for swing.

Wesla Whitfield's debut album, Just For a Thrill (1986), featured the tenor saxophonist Al Cohn. She and Greensill formed their own label, Myoho Records, before signing up to Landmark Records in the 1990s.

When performing, she preferred theatres, where she and Greensill would not be drowned out by the noise of cutlery, over clubs. In London the pair appeared at Pizza on the Park, and in New York they were a regular presence at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room.

At the turn of the century Wesla Whitfield developed an autobiographical show, Life Upon the Wicked Stage. It was the first time she had spoken about herself at any length in public, and marked the beginning of the final, more contemplative phase of her career. "I used to be young and stupid," she observed. "Now I'm old and stupid, but at least I know it."

Her first marriage, to Richard Whitfield, ended in divorce, as did a brief second marriage. In 1986 Wesla Whitfield, who died on February 9, married Mike Greensill, who survives her.

© Telegraph

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