IT IS AN ORDINARY SPRING WEEKNIGHT IN NEW York City, but sophisticated ladies and dapper gents are packing into the fabled Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room as if Dorothy Parker had returned from the dead. The lovers and lonely hearts have all come to revel in the crystalline voice of Weslia Whitfield—a singer whose broad smile and breezy manner brighten the dark-paneled formality of a room that has given rise to the careers of such performers as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick Jr. and Andrea Marcovicci. For the next hour and a half, Whitfield, dressed simply in dark pants, a blue silk shirt and silver earrings, will deliver her skilled interpretations of classic American pop songs—the stuff of the Gershwins (the “smutty portion of the evening” she jokes), Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn—without a hint of pompousness or glitz. Whitfield is so beguilingly at ease, in fact, that by the time she has launched into her first number, a ballad called “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” most in the audience have forgotten that she was carried onto the stage in the arms of her accompanist.
Paralyzed from the waist down for the past two decades, Whitfield, 49, has nevertheless managed to become one of the most acclaimed female jazz singers of the 1990s. Last winter saw the release of her ninth CD, “Teach Me Tonight,” and lately she has been performing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the London Palladium to the White House, where Hillary Clinton invited her last year to sing at a luncheon the First Lady held. All the while, Whitfield has maintained regular gigs not only at the Algonquin but also at the Plush Room in San Francisco and the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in L.A., racking up rave reviews wherever she goes. “My idea of the best of all possible musical experiences,” wrote the San Francisco Examiner’s Philip Elwood, “might well be singer Weslia Whitfield.”
Her crowd always seems to include a heavy celebrity quotient. Whitfield’s New York City shows have attracted Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Neil Sedaka and Tony Bennett. Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes tries to make all of Whitfield’s Algonquin appearances along with such high-powered chums as Mike Wallace, federal Judge Kimba Wood and literary superagent Esther Newberg. “I love cabaret music,” Stahl says. “I used to adore Mabel Mercer—it was the phrasing that knocked me out—and Weslia is my favorite right now. She’s so wonderful and funny; she has such droll wit.”
It was indeed Whitfield’s sense of levity and optimism that helped her transcend the sort of tragedy that could easily lay ambition to rest. Born and raised in Santa Maria, Calif., 130 miles north of L.A., Whitfield had known she wanted to be a singer since she was 2½. “My earliest memory is going off to my grandparents’ house in L.A. in 1949 and seeing Molly Bee on television,” Whitfield recalls. “I said to myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ ” Whitfield’s parents, Vernon and Eleanor Edwards, a welder and homemaker respectively, supported their daughter’s musical interests, providing her with piano lessons as a small child and voice training beginning at age 14.
When it came time for college, Whitfield enthusiastically landed at San Francisco State University to study classical music. After a stint in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera, she landed a job as a singing cocktail waitress aboard a local party boat. It was then that she fell in love with the Great American Songbook and at 27, recently divorced from her college sweetheart, decided to set aside her classical training to pursue the not very easy life of a cabaret singer. By the spring of 1977, Whitfield, then 29, was getting singing gigs in small clubs in and around San Francisco. She was looking forward to spending the summer singing in a Juneau, Alaska, saloon and hoped to make her first-ever trip to New York City that fall.
Around 8 o’clock on the night of April 12, however, those plans were horribly shattered. As she was approaching her car after a rehearsal session in the Castro district of San Francisco, Whitfield became the random target of a .22-caliber bullet fired for no apparent reason from a distance. Whitfield, who endured nearly two years of physical and occupational therapy following the incident, was left unable to walk ever again. Her assailants, who, she told police, were two boys around the age of 12, have never been apprehended.
Though the attack left Whitfield, quite understandably, in a state of deep emotional despair, she says she always knew she would not let the shooting ruin her life. “There was no way I wasn’t going to sing,” she says. “In the midst of being depressed, I knew I would figure out how to do things. I was lying in my hospital bed thinking about how I would vacuum the floor.”
Remarkably, Whitfield was singing professionally again just three months after the shooting. Club owners welcomed her without prejudice; pursuing her art wasn’t as hard, she says, as dealing with peoples’ daily reactions to seeing her—offstage—in a wheelchair. “Everybody has a list of things they’re sure I can’t do,” she says. “There’s only one thing I can’t do—I can’t walk. I know a lot of disabled people, and everybody I’ve ever known goes on doing what they were doing. I walked around for 30 years. I know what it’s like to be on that side looking over here. It comes with all these assumptions and stereotypes.”
Whitfield has never let her disability slow her down—if only because she can’t afford to. Until a few years ago she was forced to support her singing career with a succession of full-time day jobs, from being a paralegal at a San Francisco law firm to a computer programmer at Bank of America. (“Had I stayed with it, I could have been a zillionaire by now,” she jokes.) Whitfield juggled full 9-to-5 days with rehearsals and weekend gigs.
The daytime money was more dependable, yet had Whitfield settled for the corporate benefits, she might never have found love with jazz pianist Mike Greensill. After being introduced to him by a bass player chum in 1981, Whitfield hired the burly Englishman to work as her arranger and accompanist. At the time, Greensill, now 50, was living in San Francisco with his second wife. For five years, Whitfield and Greensill remained nothing more than close friends. In fact, during that period, the singer wed her second husband (the relationship was such a disaster she declines to name him), also a pianist, parted company with Greensill and performed with her new mate until the bitter dissolution of their union six months later.
Greensill happily rejoined his former employer in 1982. Passion finally flared shortly thereafter over drinks after a show one evening. “Weslia pulled on my tie for some reason,” Greensill recalls, “our eyes met, we kissed, and that was that.” Greensill eventually left his wife, and the musicians were married in 1986. Whitfield hasn’t dismissed him as an accompanist since.
The two have an agreement that they will never fire each other as husband and wife either. “We made a pact that no matter how bad it gets,” says Greensill, chuckling, “we’ve each had two divorces, this is it, we’re stuck with each other.” But “stuck” they do not seem to be. In the townhouse they share in the Bayview section of San Francisco, they laugh continually, finish each other’s sentences and attribute their solid relationship to the fact that they had already grown so close before they had fallen in love. “There were no secrets when we got together,” Whitfield elaborates. “We understand each other’s weirdness,” adds Greensill. “When you’re in the dressing room before an important gig and there’s all that tension, you really get to know the other person and how they deal with things.”
The couple have relished the artistic gains they have made together too. “We found each other musically,” Greensill explains. “When I met Weslia, I found what I’d wanted to do. I’d always been a jazz musician, but I knew I’d never be a great soloist. Weslia came from the classical side and needed to get hipper, so I gave her the hipness, and she gave me the formality, and it was as though it was meant to be. I know it sounds corny, but we made each other so much better.”
Greensill has also helped Whitfield realize a positive effect of her injury. “Weslia performs seated on a stool, and the weird thing is that it has focused her art,” he says. “It has kept the emphasis on the song rather than on the showbiz. There are so many singers who don’t know what to do with themselves onstage.” Says Whitfield, who never refers to her condition during a show: “I just look people in the eyes; I get to communicate.” And the listener certainly benefits. Notes screenwriter and former music critic Jay Cocks, another Whitfield devotee: “You really get to concentrate on her beautiful voice.”
Whitfield’s success ultimately testifies to the value of persistent hard work and unwavering faith. There were no singular big breaks or defining moments. Whitfield used to carry her for-sale albums from gig to gig in cardboard boxes—now, a decade after her first recording, her CDs are sold at chains like Tower Records and HMV. Whitfield has no complaints. Nor does she even harbor any animosity toward the young men who altered—but did not derail—her destiny those many years ago. “They were kids who were out alone with guns,” she reflects. “That tells you something about what their lives are like. I know—and this isn’t meant to sound Pollyannish—that my experiences have been better than anything that could have come their way. If they are alive, they are in prison. And I’ve had this fabulous life.”