Being shot and paralyzed from the waist down couldn’t stop Wesla Whitfield’s singing career. But after almost 50 years, health problems of another sort have forced the veteran cabaret singer to step away from the microphone.
Whitfield’s husband and longtime musical collaborator Mike Greensill announced her decision to retire from the stage in an email sent Wednesday morning, explaining that her voice has been affected by medication that the 69-year-old singer takes to deal with a persistent infection.
“She’s just not happy with her ability to sing up to her standards, so she has decided, reluctantly, that it’s time to hang it all up, concentrate on getting better and not have to worry about the energy needed for performing,” Greensill wrote.
Born in Santa Maria, Whitfield began her singing career after she graduated from San Francisco Stage College. For four years in the mid ’70s, she sang soprano for the San Francisco Opera’s chorus. But after spending too many nights in the city’s sleazy piano bars, she fell in love with the Great American Songbook and gave up on her opera career.
“She always said opera was about the voice, while the songs from the Great American Songbook were about the story,” Greensill says. “She always liked telling the story more than showing off.”
Whitfield then landed a job as a singing cocktail waitress, and performed at different venues until 1977, when she was shot. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said she was leaving her San Francisco rehearsal space when she was accosted by two boys. She walked away from them, and one of them pulled out a gun and shot her in the back.
“I heard a little popping sound,” she told the Times. “I turned and fell down.”
The shooting left her paralyzed from the waist down, confining her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was 29.
Thinking her singing days were over, she went back to school for computer programming. But she was depressed, and what helped was returning to the stage. As she worked to regain her mobility, she began singing at small clubs around town.
It was at one of those small clubs where Greensill saw her. After her set, he offered to arrange songs and accompany her on piano. They started working together, and before long they were married. Both Whitfield and Greensill had been married twice before, but Greensill notes that when he met Whitfield, they had matured. Their marriage has lasted 30 years.
“Also, being a diva’s accompanist is great training for marriage,” Greensill says.
The combination of Whitfield’s voice and Greensill’s arrangements led to better and better gigs. Shows at the White House and Carnegie Hall, symphonic performances with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, and even appearances on TV shows such as Regis and Kelly and CBS Sunday Morning. Before her retirement, the duo recorded and released 22 albums.
Greensill says the announcement was sad for Whitfield, but also a relief. The couple live in the North Bay and own Silo’s, a music club in Napa where they perform often. Whitfield didn’t like singing in front of audiences when her voice wasn’t in shape, and now Greensill says she doesn’t have that pressure on her anymore.
But Greensill also admits that there’s a possibility that Whitfield could get better and return to the stage.
“We all know Sinatra retired three times before he actually stopped singing,” Greensill says.