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'Lady Jazz' Mae Wheeler, St. Louis' favorite diva, recalls a life in music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2011 - Mae Wheeler died Wednesday night, June 15, having been released from the hospital, which said there was no more treatment possible for the cancer she had been fighting for four years. 

The funeral will be from 4:30-7:30 p.m. Sunday June 26 at Greater Grace Church, 3690 Pershall Rd., Ferguson, MO 63135. Visitation will preceed the service from 3 to 4:15 p.m. Repast will follow in church and on church lawn. A Jazz Wake will be held from 3-9 p.m. June 24 at Randle and Sons Funeral Home, 4600 Natural Bridge.

A Jazz Tribute Concert will be at 7 p.m. July 11 at the Sheldon, organized by Bosman Twins, A.j. Dickerson, Dale Benz. A Gospel Tribute Concert will be held Aug. 30, with the time and location still being arranged.

Article printed May 23, 2011: Mae Wheeler reclines regally on her bed, wearing a long, elegant skirt, a colorful blouse and an iconic orchid pinned to her hair -- Billie Holiday style. She gestures with her right hand for me to sit down in the chair closest to the bed.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting for so long for the interview," says Wheeler, "but I wanted to look like the Mae Wheeler you remember from seeing me on stage at the Sheldon and Brandt's."

I had been waiting for about an hour to talk to Wheeler, who had returned to the home of her son, Ken, early last week after being released from the hospital by her doctors. Wheeler was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer about four years ago -- and was told last year that she had leukemia as well.

"We brought mom home Monday," explains Ken Wheeler, after greeting me at the door and asking me to wait while his mother's friends dressed her for the interview. "They told her they were stopping the radiation and other treatments, and that it was time for her to go home. There was nothing else they could do. They weren't even sure she would last more than a day after being released."

But now it's Friday afternoon, and the house is buzzing with activity as Mae Wheeler's sons and daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren and assorted friends gather to be with her and see her one last time.

Songs in the Key of Life

Sunday evening, musicians led by keyboard player Tony Simmons organized a jam session for Mae Wheeler at her son's house. The list of musicians  included Pauline Stark, Randy Bahr, Joyce Hines, Marsha Evans, Wendy Gordon, Janet Battle, Mike Major, Crystal Hayward and others.

''It was something we all wanted to do for Mae,'' Simmons says in a phone call after the jam session. ''Mae even came out in her wheelchair and sang a song. It was a good night.''

Simmons recalls that Wheeler helped him start his own career, going to hear him perform at the Missouri School for the Blind when he was 17.

"Mae was always looking for talented young musicians, so she came over to the school, heard me and Joe Locke, and asked us to play with her. Joe has gone on to play and record in New York, and Mae took me under her wing and really helped me as a musician.''

Simmons says that Wheeler has designated him as the musical director for her funeral -- and is even planning the musical guest list.

"You know Mae; she always has to be in charge,'' he says with a laugh. "She's planning everything, and she'll make sure it happens right!''

As I wait, I talk with various relatives passing in and out, as well as friends waiting to give their regards to Mae. Her daughter Mar-yam pauses between herding youngsters to various activities to make sure I'm comfortable and offers water or tea.

On the other sofa is Raymond Eldridge Jr., who first played bass with Wheeler in the mid-1960s and went on to work with her for many years. He recalls first working with her more than four decades ago.

"My dad was a bass player, and for me Mae was a great person to work with coming up,' he recalls. "She was always doing whatever she could to make sure things were right for herself and everyone in the band. I learned a lot playing with her and just wanted to come and tell her that.''

One of Wheeler's granddaughters walks by, heading out the door on an errand. She looks over and says with a smile, ''Make sure you put in your story that the 'Diva' kept you waiting for an hour before you could talk to her!''

Everyone laughs. Yes, Mae Wheeler is a diva. Over the course of a singing career spanning more than half a century, Mae Wheeler has earned the nickname of "Lady Jazz'' for her smooth, soulful vocal style and her always elegant stage presence. She was a regular presence at Gaslight Square during its heyday as well as during its downward spiral -- and she has performed at almost every club in St. Louis.

But the word "diva'' also has a pejorative meaning as well. That negative connotation implies that certain female musicians -- usually vocalists -- are more concerned about themselves than the musicians they perform with, the venues they play and the audiences who come to see them.

Certainly, Mae Wheeler has gained a reputation over the years for her stubborn determination to be treated with respect by music promoters, bookers, club owners and concert venues -- and to be paid equitably for her performances. It's something she learned when she first began to try and make a name for herself as a singer. And it became especially important after the death of her husband in 1964, which left her a widow at age 29 with four young children to raise.

"I learned very quickly that I had to do whatever I could do in addition to music to support my family,'' says Wheeler. "I took in laundry. I worked as a waitress. But music was my dream. I couldn't give it up. But I also wanted to be paid properly for what I brought to performances. And with four kids, I had no problem making my voice heard for what I thought was right.''

But Wheeler did much more than just stand up for herself. She started producing her own events in the 1990s to showcase other talented performers on the area music scene. These "Divas'' shows drew large crowds to Westport Playhouse and then the Sheldon over the years -- and helped spotlight up-and-coming performers.

"Musical artists are unique people,'' proclaims Wheeler in a soft voice. She pauses as emotion briefly overcomes her. "We musicians have special needs, but many times we're in situations where we're not treated with respect. And that makes it hard to be at your best for an audience. So you have to stand up; you have to be treated properly. And that's what I tried to do with my Diva concerts.''

Wheeler's concerts gradually became tied in with another effort by Wheeler to show support for deserving students be raising money at these events for scholarships. She set up an organization called PAAR -- Professional and Amateur Artists Recognized -- and focused on providing scholarships to deserving students who had C grade averages. She thought those were the students who were being overlooked.

As we talked, Wheeler recalling touring as a teenager with a group called the Gospel Harmoneers, a performance with them at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem -- ending with a vivid memory of a famous performer's funeral.

"I had the chance to tour with them when I was still only 15,'' she says. "My mother let me do it because it was a gospel group and they were good people. I still remember playing the Apollo. And when we were in New York, I remember being on Broadway and seeing the funeral cortege for 'Bojangles' Robinson, the famous dancer who had just passed. There were so many people.'' She pauses, smiles and concludes, ''We all have our time. There's only so much we're given.''

It was clear that Wheeler was tired, but she wanted to make sure she had given me enough time. As I got up to leave, she pointed out the Arts and Education Council Lifetime Achievement Award she had received in February. She told me to go downstairs before I left to look at the various plaques and awards she had received over the years that her sons and daughters had put up on display there.

As we said goodbye, she told me that she was happy to see me and that she was glad she kept singing despite her health.

''Seems like everyone wanted me to retire when I found out I was sick,'' she concluded. "But I just say, I'll know when it's time to retire. It's when we all go out to the cemetery and everyone comes back but me. That's retiring for me.''

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered the local music scene. 

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