Born Weslia Edwards c. 1948 in Santa Maria, CA, to Vernon and Eleanor Edwards; first and second marriages ended; married to Michael Greensill (a jazz pianst/arranger). Education: Bachelor's degree in music, San Francisco State University, 1972. Addresses: Record company--High Note Records, 106 West 71st St., New York, NY 10023.
Singer Weslia Whitfield had just begun her career in music when she suffered a life-threatening injury in 1977. A random gunshot by two young men on a San Francisco street left her paralyzed from the waist down, but Whitfield continued to pursue her lifelong dream of being a professional singer. She resumed her public engagements just a few months after her injury, began a recording career that produced more than one dozen albums, and eventually became a headlining cabaret artist. Even after a string of outstanding reviews, Whitfield remained modest about her achievements. "I'm not a jazz singer," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in November of 1995, "[a]nd I don't consider myself a cabaret singer. I don't claim to be anything. I just show up at the gig." This unassuming attitude belied not only her triumph over a disabling accident but the years of hard work that went into a challenging career path--one that Whitfield had pursued since childhood.
Weslia Edwards was born around 1948 in the Southern California city of Santa Maria, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. Her father, Vernon Edwards, worked as a welder while her mother, Eleanor, maintained the family home. Drawn to music from an early age, her earliest memory was seeing singer Molly Bee on television at her grandparents' home. From that moment on, she planned to have a career as a singer. With her parents' encouragement, she began to take piano lessons and at the age of 14 began to study voice as well.
Edwards traveled north to San Francisco State University in the late 1960s to study classical music. She completed her bachelor's degree with a major in music in 1972 and began performing in the San Francisco Opera chorus. Despite the prestige of appearing with the opera company, she was drawn to other types of music as well. As she told Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, "I'd sneak off after a performance to sing in piano bars. I'd sing things like 'I Only Have Eyes for You' that I learned watching Perry Como and Lawrence Welk. In opera, the voice was the only thing of importance. The lyric and the story didn't count, and that was boring to me. I'm very interested in the song and story that it has to tell." In 1975 she left the San Francisco Opera and began to work as a singing waitress on the Baywind Boat in nearby Burlingame, California. She also ended her first marriage around this time, although she kept the surname Whitfield.
By 1977 Whitfield was appearing in various San Francisco cabaret venues and planned to spend the summer in Alaska, where she had an offer to perform. On April 12, 1977, after a rehearsal session in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, she was walking back to her car when she was hit by a .22-caliber bullet. It appeared to be a random attack, as Whitfield recalled seeing only two boys on the street at the time she was shot. In the following two years, she endured arduous physical therapy; yet only three months passed before she was back on stage. "There was no way I wasn't going to sing," she told People in 1997. "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."
Although the attack left her paralyzed from the waist down and unable to walk, Whitfield managed to come to terms with the random act that had changed her forever. "They were kids who were out alone with guns," she reflected to People. "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."
While she fought to regain her health, Whitfield also struggled to make ends meet by taking a number of day jobs to support herself. In the 1980s she worked as a paralegal and computer programmer while gradually rebuilding her singing career. By 1987 she was successful enough to concentrate solely on singing and started up her own record label, Myoho, to release her albums, including Until the Real Thing Comes Along. After a five-year marriage ended in divorce in the mid-1980s, Whitfield married for a third time in 1986 to jazz pianist Michael Greensill, who had performed with her back in 1981; after their marriage he became her permanent accompanist.
In 1988 Whitfield signed a recording contract with the Landmark label, which released Nobody Else But Me later that year. She followed it with Lucky to Be Me in 1989 and Live in San Francisco in 1991. In April of 1993 Whitfield finally made her New York debut, something she had been planning at the time of her injury. She also began to open for singer Michael Feinstein on his national tours. Although she enjoyed the attention, Whitfield decided to keep her home base in San Francisco. "A lot of people said, 'You can't have a career as long as you insist on living in San Francisco,'" she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. "I said, 'OK, I'll have a life instead.'"
With a string of rave reviews from critics, Whitfield did not have to worry about finding concert dates to fill her schedule. After a December 1996 appearance, the San Francisco Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin wrote that Whitfield and her accompanists "presented a flawlessly constructed and deeply pleasurable performance of familiar and obscure songs.... Every number was framed in a smart arrangement and given its own particular shape, weight, and feeling. Like the best cabaret artists, Whitfield knows how to 'talk' a lyric and personalize the story it tells with subtle dramatic and comic touches." Los Angeles Times reviewer Don Heckman echoed the sentiment; after attending a Whitfield date in March of 1997, he wrote, "That Whitfield is a lyricist's best friend was apparent in every note she sang.... 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 that what she is--a nonpareil musical artist." Such reviews mirrored Whitfield's own attitude toward her performances. "I'm trying to do what Rosemary Clooney says," she told Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. "To tell the truth. I want to present the song; you have to trust the song to tell its own story."
Whitfield's recorded output in the 1990s was impressive. After Landmark merged with the High Note label, Whitfield released Teach Me Tonight, My Shining Hour, and High Standards in 1997 alone. In his review of Teach Me Tonight, Michael Colby of the 52nd Street website noted, "If you're looking for the great American songbook done with humor, taste, fine musicianship and swing, you really ought to introduce your ears to Weslia Whitfield. I think they'll thank you." With a Song in My Heart was released in 1999 and Let's Get Lost: The Songs of Jimmy McHugh appeared the following year. In 2002 Whitfield added to her reputation as a leading interpreter of American songs with the release of The Best Thing for You Would Be Me: The Irving Berlin Songbook.
by Timothy Borden
Weslia Whitfield's Career
Performed as cabaret singer in San Francisco Bay Area, beginning 1970s; suffered paralyzing accident, 1977; released first record, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, 1987; released The Best Thing for You Would Be Me: The Irving Berlin Songbook, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Until the Real Thing Comes Along , Myoho, 1987.
- Nobody Else But Me , Landmark, 1988.
- Lucky to Be Me , Landmark, 1989.
- Live in San Francisco , Landmark, 1991.
- Beautiful Love , Cabaret, 1992.
- Nice Work... , Landmark, 1994.
- Seeker of Wisdom and Truth , Cabaret, 1995.
- High Standards , High Note, 1997.
- My Shining Hour , High Note, 1997.
- Teach Me Tonight , High Note, 1997.
- With a Song in My Heart , High Note, 1999.
- Let's Get Lost: The Songs of Jimmy McHugh , High Note, 2000.
- The Best Thing for You Would Be Me: The Irving Berlin Songbook , High Note, 2002.
- Los Altos Town Crier, May 14, 1997.
- Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1997; May 7, 1999.
- People, June 30, 1997.
- San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 1995; December 6, 1996; November 13, 1997.
- "Weslia Whitfield: Teach Me Tonight," 52nd Street Jazz, http://www.52ndstreet.com/reviews/vocals/whitfieldteachme.vocals.html (July 22, 2002).