Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
You couldn’t help but notice Wesla Whitfield.
The name, of course, was so recognizable it stuck in your head like a song.
And she could belt out a song. Name a standard, and she could nail it, with a voice that was filled with power and finesse.
Whitfield has been a part of San Francisco for so long, like the cable cars, the fog, or the Golden Gate Bridge, you really can’t imagine the city without her.
That being said, it’s hard to believe that soon, in her words, she’ll be leaving the room.
Whitfield grew up in Santa Maria, moving to San Francisco in the mid-seventies, where she made the rounds, auditioning and working as a singing cocktail waitress.
But one night, the unthinkable happened.
It was April 1977. She had just finished an audition, and walked outside in the cool San Francisco night, when two boys approached her. She figured they were eight or ten years old. One of them went up to her and said, “You better come with us.”
She turned away from him.
“Should I shoot her?” the smaller boy asked.
“Go ahead and shoot her,” the other replied.
Suddenly she heard a popping sound and she fell down on the sidewalk, while the boys ran away, never to be seen again. The bullet had struck her spine and she was told by doctors she was paralyzed from the waist down.
She felt defeated. No way would she be hired again to sing. She had to be practical.
She decided to become a computer programmer. But melancholy followed her wherever she went. She realized she could be depressed and practical, or she could sing and be happy. She decided on the latter. It was a risk, but she took it. She told O Magazine that yes, she lost the ability to walk, however, she knew it could’ve been worse. “The only real disability in life is losing your mind,” she told the magazine. “I knew early on that anger would only make things harder for me.”
One night while singing, she met the British pianist Mike Greensill. They started performing together, then fell in love and got married.
For years, Greensill was the house pianist at the public radio show “West Coast Live” and Wesla often would come on and sing. Greensill would carry her on stage, get her situated, then sit at the piano while she nailed a number like “Nice Work if You Can Get It.”
Whitfield never wanted to to dwell on the tragedy that put her in a chair. One time on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, Kathie Lee Gifford kept asking about the shooting, and Whitfield was polite and firm, saying she didn’t want to go on and on about what happened. In her words, it became boring. She also expressed relief the boy who shot her was never found. She wasn’t sure if she could testify in a trial. Also, as she told The Los Angeles Times in 1999, “I’m sure my life has been better than theirs.”
And life was indeed charmed for Whitfield. She and Greensill had an ongoing gig at the Plush Room, a nightclub at San Francisco’s York Hotel. When that closed down, she performed at the new club that opened there, the Rrazz room. She also performed at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. She became, as the San Francisco Chronicle once wrote, one of the greatest interpreters of the American songbook.
But the great interpreter’s career halted last August when Greensill announced Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment was hurting her voice. However, he said to KQED, Sinatra retired several times, so never say never.
Recently Greensill sent an email to friends and family saying Whitfield was in hospice. She was, in her words, getting ready to leave the room. He also shared a recording of Whitfield singing “In My Life.”
Reading those words, my heart just broke. Recently I suffered a loss in my life when my cat died. Every morning for the past few weeks I’ve been waking up sad. But it comforts me to think of them in that welcoming old-fashioned light, Wesla Whitfield singing, Blue skies all around me, nothing but blue skies from now on; the blue sky opening for both of them, as they leave the room behind.