Wesla Whitfield, the San Francisco Bay Area jazz and cabaret singer who devoted her musical life to the Great American Songbook, died on Friday, February 9, at her home in St. Helena, CA. The cause of death was an infection brought on by bladder cancer. She was 70. Whitfield’s husband and musical partner, pianist Mike Greensill, said she died peacefully at 8 PM. After being diagnosed with cancer in December 2017, and enduring other recent health problems, Whitfield told fans in a recent email that she was ready to pass, was comfortable at home in hospice and declining any major medical interventions by choice.
She was born Weslia Edwards on Sept. 15, 1947, in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County), the youngest of three sisters. to a nonmusical family (her father was an oil field welder, her mother a bookkeeper and homemaker). However, Whitfield listed ardently to Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como and Barbara Whiting on radio and committed their songs to memory, knowing she always wanted to sing. She began taking piano lessons at age 7, then classical voice lessons at around 14. After graduating from Santa Maria High School, Whitfield attended Pasadena City College and San Francisco State, where she earned her degree in music in 1971. Whitfield spent three years in the San Francisco Opera Chorus, while patronizing local piano bars, where her musical intrests truly lay.
In 1977 she was shot in the spine in a Random incident on a San Franciso street, and was paralyzed from the waist down. She stopped singing for a while and worked as a computer programmer, but quickly resumed her musical career. Whitfield met pianist Greensill in 1980 when he came to a gig of hers at the Reflections Room in the Hyatt Hotel on Union Square. The pair Whitfield married in 1986 (Greensill was her third husband) and toured together throughout the country, appearing at such major events as the JVC Jazz Festival as well as at premiere venues such as Carnegie Hall, San Francisco’s Plush Room, where she had a 25-year run, Davies Hall and at the White House. Her concerts would begin with Greensill carrying her onstage and placing her in a chair. The duo also record more than 20 albums together.
Whitfield was a dedicated and passionate advocate of the Great American Songbook, despite her disability, carved out a remarkably rich career for herself, with fans who included Tony Bennett. In 1998, she premiered a new show, Life Upon the Wicked Stage that combined songs with autobiographical material and slides. “It amazes me,” she said at the time, “how anyone who knows anything about my life can see me as an object of pity. I’m living this fabulous life doing exactly what I set out to do at age 3.” Greensill, in a statement said, “She died content that she was loved and appreciated.”