Singer Mae Wheeler, who earned the nickname "Lady Jazz" entertaining several generations of St. Louisans, died Wednesday evening at her home in Maryland Heights after a long illness. She was 77.
Known for her efforts raising money for college scholarships as well as for a musical career that stretched back to the Gaslight Square era of the 1960s, Wheeler had been fighting colon cancer since 2006, and also 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.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Wheeler moved with her family to Richmond Heights when she was five years old. She graduated in 1951 from Douglass School in Webster Groves, married and had five children. After her husband Jimmy Lee Wheeler died of kidney disease in 1964, Wheeler worked as a restaurant cook, took in laundry and cleaned houses to make ends meet. She eventually broke into the music business with an assist from singer Jeanne Trevor, whom Wheeler credited for helping her 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 1980s, she was a regular performer at Hannegan's on Laclede's Landing, and in later years, she performed frequently at the recently closed Brandt's in University City, as well as at other restaurants, lounges and clubs around town.
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. She released two CDs, Live (2000) and Just Friends (2002).
She 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 St. Louis female vocalists and raising money for Wheeler's 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 has worked with pop singer Beyonce and many others. Wheeler's final production, "Unforgettable Legends," took place on Halloween night 2010 at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Wheeler received many honors for her work, including an award earlier this year for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts from the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis. She is survived by two daughters, MarYam Aaten and Mary Wheeler, and three sons, Steve Wheeler, Kenneth Wheeler and Khamaron Wheeler, as well as sixteen grandchildren and at least eighteen great grandchildren.
Update: Wheeler's funeral will be held at the Greater Grace Chapel at 3690 Pershall Road on June 26th. Viewing and visitations will be held from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the service will begin at 5 p.m. A repass will follow.