Remembering Cabaret Star Wesla Whitfield

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 8:56 am
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This is FRESH AIR. Wesla Whitfield, the opera singer turned cabaret singer celebrated for her treatment of songs from the Great American Songbook, died last Friday at age 70. She is survived by her husband, jazz pianist Mike Greensill, who teamed with her acclaimed cabaret performances nationwide, including regular appearances at the famed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. Wesla began in the course of the San Francisco Opera during the 1970s but soon switched to singing in piano bars.

She met her future husband in 1981, and he soon began accompanying her on piano. They were married in 1986. But before they even met back in San Francisco in 1977, she was shot on the street by a young boy. And the bullet left her paralyzed from the waist down. But Wesla Whitfield seldom discussed the attack or her disability and insisted that neither had anything to do with her singing or her love of music. Terry Gross spoke with her in 1988.


WESLA WHITFIELD: (Singing) Ask me how do I feel, ask me now that we're cozy and clinging. Well, sir, all I can say is if I were a bell, I'd be ringing. From the moment we kissed tonight - that's the way I've just got to behave. Boy, if I were a lamp, I'd light. Or if I were a banner, I'd wave. Ask me how do I feel, little me, with my quiet upbringing. Well, sir, all I can say is if I were a gate, I'd be swinging. And if I were a watch, I'd start popping my spring. Or if I were a bell, I'd go ding, dong, ding, dong, ding.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: I always love to hear how singers started loving the songs that they ended up singing. When did you start to like these kinds of songs?

WHITFIELD: When I was about 4, and I got into my mother's piano bench and found all of her old sheet music and started playing them on the piano.

GROSS: This is when you were 4 (laughter)?

WHITFIELD: Well, I started hearing them when I was 4. I started playing them I was 7.


WHITFIELD: I'm not a child prodigy. Don't worry. And they were such beautiful songs. Especially, the lyrics were so wonderful - sentiments that I felt were something I could relate to. And that's what I like best about them.

GROSS: Are there songs that you feel you can't touch because they're owned by another singer?

WHITFIELD: Absolutely. Certainly, "Over The Rainbow" is one of those tunes that you can only do in very limited places because it is Judy Garland's song.

GROSS: I think, you know, it's interesting when you're putting together a set for either a record or for a performance. It's very exciting to sing new songs, songs that you've just learned or songs that are fairly obscure. But I have a feeling that audiences especially like to hear things that are familiar, where they know the lyrics and can sing along in their minds.

WHITFIELD: You have to strike that balance to an extent. I am lucky in that my audience is very willing to hear new old songs. They're willing to hear most any song if it's good. There are a lot of obscure songs that are obscure for a reason.

GROSS: Which is the song on your new record that you think of as the most interesting find or the most obscure song?

WHITFIELD: Well I don't know if it's the most obscure, but the most interesting song for me on this new album is "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." To me, it's the most beautiful song. It's compelling. It was written in 1936 and then brought to life again in 1951. And until I found it in a secondhand music box at a store for ten cents, I hadn't heard it for years until we recorded it. And then a few months later, I was in Los Angeles and heard someone else singing it brightly and happily. That to me is the most favorite.


WHITFIELD: (Singing) Give me a kiss to build a dream on. And my imagination will thrive upon that kiss. Sweetheart, I ask no more than this - a kiss to build a dream on.

GROSS: There's something I've noticed about your singing style. You really don't scat. You really sing...


GROSS: You really stick pretty closely to the melody. And I actually really like that. And I wonder why you stick to the melody and don't scat.

WHITFIELD: Because, again, it's - for me, it's all lyrics. Singers have that one thing that instrumentalist don't have. They have the words. They get to add that. And for me, that's why I'm doing it. That's one of my big weapons for getting my idea over. Certainly, Rosemary Clooney is a jazz singer, and she does not scat.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a jazz singer?

WHITFIELD: I don't know. I think of myself as a singer of the great, American, popular song.


WHITFIELD: (Singing) With all the words at my command, I still can't make you understand. I'll always love you, come what may. My heart is yours. What more can I say? I'd steal for you, lie for you. I'd tear the stars from the skies for you. If that ain't love, it will have to do until the real thing comes along.

GROSS: Your career and your life really changed over ten years ago. You were shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. Would you mind if I asked you a little bit about that?


GROSS: What happened?

WHITFIELD: I was shot. As you said, I was shot. And I became paralyzed and am.

GROSS: You were walking on the street or - what was the incident?

WHITFIELD: Oh, I was just walking from a friend's house back to my car. And there were a couple little kids. And they had a gun. And I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

GROSS: Did it take a while before you started singing again after you were shot?

WHITFIELD: (Laughter) Well, yes, because, as you might expect, I was quite depressed for a few years. And I didn't start singing again. I sang immediately afterwards for about three months, but it was quite boring because I really wasn't there mentally or emotionally. And you must be there. And so I stopped singing and just became totally depressed for about three years, went to therapy, got my head back together and started singing again.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, you know, there's so much emotional depth that goes into singing.


GROSS: And the more you've lived, and the more you've experienced in a lot of ways, the more capable you are of interpreting a song with depth. Did the terrible thing that you went through when you were shot - when you emerged on the other end from a period of years of not singing, did you feel that there was, like, any kind of breakthrough or anything in your own singing of reaching, like, a new level of understanding or of depth? Sometimes, I think that's how we rationalize terrible things.


GROSS: We say, well, but I'll understand a lot more afterwards.

WHITFIELD: (Laughter) I don't know. I don't know how much of that was because I was shot or how much of it was because...

GROSS: You didn't sing.

WHITFIELD: ...Years went by.

GROSS: Yeah.

WHITFIELD: Just years went by. And so I don't know. I've never tried to rationalize having been shot. It seems pointless. You know, it rarely occurs to me anymore. It doesn't define me. I'm not Mrs. physically disabled. I'm me. And it rarely occurs to me that I'm disabled. That sounds so Pollyanna, but it's just true. It's not on my mind much.

GROSS: Has there ever - have you ever had resistance from club owners singing because you'd be singing from a wheelchair?

WHITFIELD: I don't sing from the wheelchair.

GROSS: Oh, you don't sing from a wheelchair.

WHITFIELD: I put myself in - it's like a bar stool....


WHITFIELD: ...Because to sing in the chair is very distracting. And then nobody - here's the song. So I just sit in another chair, and then we can just go on from there.

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WHITFIELD: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Wesla Whitfield speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The cabaret singer died last week at age 70. On Monday's FRESH AIR, we mark the 50th anniversary of the first national broadcast of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on public TV. We have a tribute and listen back to Terry's 1984 interview with Fred Rogers. Also, actor Doug Jones, who plays the sea creature in the Oscar-nominated film "The Shape Of Water." Hope you can join us.


WHITFIELD: (Singing) I know why I've waited. I know why I've been blue. I've prayed each night was someone exactly like you. Why should we spend money on a show or two? No one does those love scenes exactly like you. You make me feel so grand. I want to hand the world to you. You seem to understand each foolish, little scheme I'm scheming, dream I'm dreaming. Now I know why mother taught me to be true. She meant me for someone exactly like you.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.