Effervescent and enduring San Francisco cabaret artist
shining under the spotlight “As Time Goes By”
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Wesla Whitfield, San Francisco’s own chanteuse, jazz and cabaret singer, is currently appearing at THE RRAZZ ROOM, at the Hotel Nikko, through June 7th. Presenting an evening of songs about time and the celebration of life, Wesla Whitfield thrives in that fabulous zone where jazz and cabaret meet. Once on the path that led to classical music and opera, Wesla evolved into one of the most gifted and consistent performers associated with the repertoire of popular standards including songs from Broadway and Hollywood, and the great “Hit Parade” numbers known collectively as the Great American Songbook. Working with pianist/arranger Mike Greensill, the two recently released their 19th recording, Message From the Man In The Moon.
About 25 years ago I was on San Francisco’s cabaret circuit which included Fanny’s in the Castro district, Trinity Place in the financial district, the Plush Room, and a neat club bordering the tenderloin, The Roxie Roadhouse. In addition to our solo gigs, there was always an opportunity to team us singers together. And then all of a sudden the clubs started closing and the Cabaret “scene” simply withered. I met with Wesla last week at the Hotel Nikko to talk about her show, “As Time Goes By” and to reminisce about those earlier Club Days.
Wesla: It died and revived several times in my lifetime.
Seán: And all the places that we would have appeared at are no longer there.
Wesla: Not for a long time.
Seán: What’s new with you?
Wesla: I’m OK. I’m old and tired and happy. I start getting Social Security this year. I’m happy to be this age. I have an extensive past and some future left too. It’s an interesting position to be in. I like it a lot.
Seán: Two weeks at the Rrazz Room. Not too many people who’ve played there get that.
Wesla: Well, Paula West does two months and packs them in every night. I’m happy for her, but I’m also jealous. She spent a lot of time paying her dues – a lot of years. And she’s singing so well. It’s just exciting that somebody you know becomes the performer she always wanted to be. It’s very rare.
Seán: You are that enduring performer that I have had an on-going awareness of since college. I majored in Theatre Arts, you were in the Music Department, and all that separated us – and the whole concept of it – was a hallway.
Wesla: I’m teaching at Notre Dame now. They have instilled a new Theatre Arts Program where music and drama are included. I’m going there this fall to get my Masters because if I teach there, I can go to school for free. I had to get two letters of recommendation. I got one from Robert Corrigan, the president of San Francisco State. He sent me this e-mail asking ‘why aren’t you going here?’. I responded that at Notre Dame it’s all integrated and the whole time I was at SF State it was not. You don’t have to go to Carnegie Mellon to make this happen. So, I understand that “hallway” – the two departments were two different worlds.
Seán: And here you are, all this time later, grinding away this material which still needs to be sung.
Wesla: I love it! There’s more in there. Especially now, as books are being published with more of the composers’ works. You don’t have to find somebody who was there at the time the songs were written to tell you about them. Composers such as Arthur Schwartz and “Yip” Harburg and all the Kimble lyrics – all these things are so much easier to find.
Seán: What will you be singing at the Rrazz Room?
Wesla: I’m singing the old stuff. We have new old stuff! We have seven new tunes in the show. There’s a little chunk of stuff from the musical “Fiorello!”. Michael and I are making our Duet debut – he’s never sung in my shows. We’re doing “Little Tin Box”. It’s fun! So far, no one has walked out. And I always do a Cole Porter song. I’m singing one I’ve never done before, “Looking At You”.
Seán: Even I don’t know this one.
Wesla: You will like it. It’s a really swinging tune. Because the title of the show is, “As Time Goes By”, there are songs about time. At first, they made me have a “theme show”. I don’t know why people keep doing that. For years I listened to Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Irene Krall, Betty Carter, Mabel Mercer – and never once did they have a Theme Show. But somehow it has to be. So, almost a year ago, they made me put a theme together. And I wrote it down – and then I couldn’t remember it! So, I waited for it to come up on the web site of the Rrazz Room, WESLA WHITFIELD, “As Time Goes By” . And I’m not quite sure what I had in mind, but it might have been this. It’s a lot of songs about my life so far. I liked the idea of it because we all have lives going by. It’s something everyone can relate to. So, I’m doing lots of songs which tie-in to that. We close with “In My Life”.
Seán: I spoke to Ann Hampton Callaway recently.
Wesla: Yes! Annie!
Seán: We had a great time. She too is pulling out all this Great American Songbook material that is inspiring another whole generation that knows nothing about it.
Wesla: She’s a wonderful songwriter, too. There’s a lot of bad songwriters in the world.
Seán: How do you keep it up?
Wesla: Because I love it. It makes me happy. It gives me great joy. Especially right now – we’re on stage with a bass player and a drummer. We have a little club up in St. Helena where Michael and I work just as duo. That gets to be a heavy burden after a while. It’s made us both better musicians, but it’s like a warm bubble bath to have two other people up there. So, we’re having a good time every night. That’s why I keep doing it – because it’s a good time.
Seán: What took you to St. Helena?
Wesla: The answer to almost every question: Money. I lived in San Francisco almost 40 years. I promised myself I’d live here forever. We had an opportunity to move up there into a very nice deal. It’s a retirement community.
Seán: Gasp! I didn’t hear that!
Wesla: No-no, we’re the children! Everybody there is in there 80s, we’re the kids. We’re about the only ones who aren’t retired. It’s this beautiful park of pre-fab houses. We have the most beautiful house we’ve ever lived in. It’s been there a long time, so that the landscaping is all around. We can’t see any houses from where we are. And it’s quiet, total privacy, with a huge backyard that we’ve fenced in and made into a little jungle. And, Seán, it’s on the WRONG SIDE of St. Helena!
Seán: Omigod. What’s the “wrong side” of St. Helena?
Wesla: Oh, well, all the Working People, the Mexicans who clean everybody else’s houses. We live there. And it’s a lot of fun. At night you can hear music off in the distance, people laughing and having a fabulous time. Over on the “right side” of town people are sitting stuffily going, “Oh. Ah, yes….”
Seán: With their wine and cheese.
Wesla: While we’re over there drinking beer. It’s wonderful. And that’s what brought us there.
Seán: If someone wanted to send you a fan letter, what’s the name of this retirement community?
Wesla: It’s called Vineyard Valley. It’s a very happening place. We have a lot of sway as to what goes on in St. Helena. Everybody in the complex votes, because we all have time. There are some old people there keeping a close eye as to what goes on. They’re very politically aware in Vineyard Valley.
Seán: I’ll bet you stoke the fires under that one.
Wesla: Oh, yes! When we got up there I felt, “Oh, well, good-bye Real World.” But, no. Everybody up there is a screaming Lefty. It’s wonderful. Who’d have thought it? In St. Helena! Screaming Lefties.
Seán: What’s happening after the Rrazz Room?
Wesla: I’ll be at Stanford for the Jazz Festival. I’ll be doing a couple of little things down the peninsula, I’m teaching, and in the fall I’m going to school. So, I’m not going to be around much for about a year.
Seán: Was there ever a point when you said to yourself ‘I am now telling my stories through my songs’, rather than just doing, let’s say, a really lovely tribute to Cole Porter?
Wesla: No. I’ve always done that. If the song didn’t speak to me and something I felt, then I didn’t do it – because I knew I couldn’t get it across. There are lots of songs I haven’t done simply because they don’t move me. It’s always been ‘all about me’. I just disguise it so that people think it’s all about them.
Seán: What songs are you singing now that have stayed on your Top 10, perhaps even as much as 30 years ago?
Wesla: Wow, 30 years ago? Probably not. But what keeps coming up? Certainly anything by Lorenz Hart. No matter how hard you try, you can’t escape “My Funny Valentine” – because every Valentine’s Day you have to do it or you’ll never work again. So, I have to find new ways to keep telling that story. It’s just in there. Lorenz Hart was such a tragic figure. And he would open up his heart and just say, “Here it is! Here I am!” So, 30 years later – 35 really – I can still sing that song.
Visit Wesla Whitfield on-line to hear lots more: Wesla Whitfield
Order these beautiful recordings by Wesla Whitfield for your American Songbook Library:
IN MY LIFE — With arrangements and accompaniment by pianist Mike Greensill, selections include: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Autumn in New York, Tea for Two, and more.
LIVIN’ ON LOVE
— Seletions include: Pure Imagination, This Can’t Be Love, Alfie, Whistling Away The Dark, and more.
The Best Thing for You Would Be Me — An Irving Berlin songbook, selections include: Say It Isn’t So, Cheek To Cheek, Not For All The Rice In China, and more.
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: email@example.com.