Singer Mae Wheeler (pictured), known to generations of St. Louis music fans as "Lady Jazz," died this evening at her home in Maryland Heights after a long illness. She was 77.
Wheeler, known for her charity fundraising efforts as well as for a musical career that spanned six decades, had been battling colon cancer since 2006, and was diagnosed two years ago with leukemia. Her doctors had sent her home from the hospital last month, saying that further treatment would be ineffective. In recent weeks, Wheeler was surrounded by and cared for by family and friends, including a granddaughter who established a Facebook account for her so friends and fans could send their best wishes. During that time, she gave a final interview to Terry Perkins of the St. Louis Beacon, which you can read here.
Born on May 15, 1934 in Memphis, TN, Wheeler moved with her family to the St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights when she was five. She graduated in 1951 from Douglass School in Webster Groves, and according to published reports, later attended Forest Park Community College for about a year, majoring in music and communications, before meeting her husband Jimmie Lee, who was in the landscaping business.
The couple had five children, but when Jimmy Lee died of kidney disease in 1964, Wheeler was left as the family's sole breadwinner. She worked as a restaurant cook, took in laundry, and cleaned houses to make ends meet, but never gave up on her desire to sing. Wheeler eventually broke in to the music business at the tail end of St. Louis' Gaslight Square era, crediting fellow singer Jeanne Trevor for helping her to get her first gigs at places such as Vanity Fair, the Black Horse, the Dark Side and the Red Carpet.
Wheeler often referred to herself not as a jazz singer, but as a "song stylist" who interpreted a wide variety of material, from jazz and blues to pop, rock, Broadway and more. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Wheeler was a regular performer at Hannegan's on Laclede's Landing and also worked at other spots such the Moose Lounge in north St. Louis and an early incarnation of Kennedy's, also on the Landing. In later years, she performed frequently at the now-defunct Brandt's in University City, as well as at other restaurants, lounges and clubs around town.
Over the course of her career, Wheeler worked with hundreds of St. Louis musicians and singers, and also appeared with nationally known entertainers including Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Sonny Stitt, Mitch Miller and Arthur Prysock. As best as can be determined, she released two recordings, Live in 2000, and Just Friends in 2002. Both seem currently to be out of print.
Wheeler also became known as an event producer and philanthropist, putting on the first version of what would come to be called "The Divas Show" in 1996 at Westport Playhouse. Subsequent editions of the concert would follow annually for the next dozen years, showcasing many St. Louis female vocalists and raising money for Wheeler's favorite charity, a scholarship fund for high school graduates with C averages who wanted to attend college. One of the best known recipients of one of Wheeler's $1,000 scholarships is drummer Kim Thompson, who put the money toward her education at Manhattan School of Music and has gone on to become a successful professional musician, performing with pop singer Beyonce and many others.
“Maybe now, she’ll reach back,” Wheeler said of Thompson in a 2010 interview with Kenya Vaughn of the St. Louis American. “In doing all of this I just want people to know that we need to help one another. Plus, I want these children to know to always reach for the sky and don’t ever stop trying to be a winner.”
Wheeler moved from her longtime home in Richmond Heights to Maryland Heights in 2007, as her old neighborhood was bought out for a redevelopment project. Her final production "Unforgettable Legends" took place on Halloween night 2010 at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Mae Wheeler is survived by a brother, Darde Smith; three sisters, Delores Laster, Samella Miller and Ernestine Stith; two daughters, MarYam Aaten and Mary Wheeler, and three sons, Steve Wheeler, Kenneth Wheeler and Khamaron Wheeler, as well as 15 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. As of this writing, there's been no announcement made yet about funeral arrangements or a memorial service.
For more about Mae Wheeler's life and career, see the embedded video below, which is a segment aired on local PBS affiliate KETC's program Living St. Louis earlier this year when Wheeler won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis. You also may enjoy the video below that, which features an brief informal conversation between Wheeler and a fan at Brandt's back in 2006.
A personal note: Although I didn't know Mae Wheeler well, I had a chance to perform with her (and for her) a few times in recent years at various benefits and all-star shows, and to cover her as a journalist. I liked her as a person, and admired her philanthropic efforts and fighting spirit. The St. Louis community certainly is diminished by her passing, but our town also benefited greatly from the things she did while she was passing through. Rest in peace, Lady Jazz.
(Photo of Mae Wheeler courtesy of BB's Jazz Blues and Soups.)
(Updated 6/17/11 to correct the information on Mae Wheeler's survivors.)