Wesla Whitfield, one of Northern California’s most acclaimed vocalists, died on Feb. 9 at her St. Helena home, according to multiple reports.
The accomplished jazz singer and cabaret star, who also performed with the San Francisco Opera, was 70.
The cause of death “was complications from bladder cancer,” Whitfield’s husband and frequent stage partner, jazz pianist Mike Greensill, confirmed to the New York Times.
News of her passing brought great sadness to the Bay Area/North Bay music community, which Whitfield was a part of for 40-plus years.
“Shocked and saddened by the passing on of the great Wesla Whitfield,” Bay Area vocalist Jackie Ryan posted on social media. “A great singer, a classy and beautiful lady. One of a kind. May you rest in peace, dear Wesla. Condolences to wonderful, Mike Greensill. You two created something very rare and precious.”
She’ll be remembered for her warm, evocative voice and stellar interpretations on Great American Songbook standards, and for taking such songs as “I Only Have Eyes For You” and “Jeepers Creepers” in intriguing directions.
“Whitfield’s sense of phrasing a lyric or a melody is often unconventional, with a surprising little pause just when you don’t expect it,” a reviewer in Variety reportedly once wrote. “She has a cunning way of reinventing a ballad with torchy finesse, and it’s akin to hearing them for the first time.”
Her fan base included such well-known performers as Tony Bennett.
“This wonderful singer thrills me when I hear her,” Bennett is quoted as saying on Whitfield’s website.
Whitfield was born in Santa Maria and was the youngest of three girls in the family. She began taking piano lessons at age 7, then classical voice lessons at around 14.
Some of her early musical influences included Rosemary Clooney, the Hi-Los, Peggy Lee, Frankie Laine and Dean Martin.
By the mid-’70s, she had begun her professional career and was working as a salaried chorister with the San Francisco Opera, according to the bio on her website.
Yet, she’d soon turn her attention to — and make a name in — jazz music, specifically with her work on the Great American Songbook. She’d charm listeners by putting her own distinct stamp on such classics as “My Foolish Heart” and “Over the Rainbow.”
“Whitfield is, in short, a singer so good that she doesn’t have to shout, she doesn’t have to overdramatize, and she doesn’t have to be anything other than what she is — a nonpareil musical artist,” a reviewer for The Los Angeles Times once wrote.
Whitfield used a wheelchair after being shot by a young boy in a random incident San Francisco in 1977. The shooting left her partially paralyzed. Her concerts would typically begin with Greensill carrying her onstage and placing her gently on a chair.
Whitfield and Greensill, who married in 1986, toured together throughout the country, appearing at such major events as the JVC Jazz Festival as well as at such venues as Carnegie Hall. In the Bay Area, they performed frequently in such clubs as the Plush Room, Rrazz Room and Silos in Napa. They also recorded more than 20 albums together.