Ed: Mae Wheeler, known as Lady Jazz, died Wednesday at her home in Maryland Heights. Read about her life and accomplishments both in the arts and as a philanthropist -- below, Dean Minderman talks to seven people who knew and worked with Wheeler.
Jay Brandt, who formerly owned the recently closed Brandt's Café and Red Carpet Lounge on Delmar, first met Wheeler when he was a teenager and his parents owned a club in Gaslight Square. He really got to know her in the mid-1990s after presenting a "Gaslight Square Remembered" evening at Brandt's. The event featured music from Wheeler, Jeanne Trevor and Hugh "Peanuts" Whalum, and Brandt says Wheeler closed her set by telling the audience, "Now you come back and see me, because I'm going to be here every week."
Indeed, she wound up performing there regularly for nearly a decade, until Brandt moved away from St. Louis and had to sell the business. "I'm proud that Mae Wheeler considered my little joint her home," he said. "First she was a musician that played my club, and then she became a friend and a mentor. She knew the business better than I did."
AJ Dickerson Sr. knew Wheeler well for more than 30 years, serving as her right-hand man in the production of her various events and fundraisers. He estimates that he collaborated with Wheeler on more than 100 events, held everywhere from small rented rooms to concert halls and ballrooms, and worked variously as co-producer, singer, production manager, talent wrangler, audio and lighting technician, stage manager and more.
"She was an angel," he said. "She has been my mentor, my older sister, my mother, a grandmother to my children, and she has been a partner." Dickerson said he first met Wheeler when attending one of her gigs. Learning that he was a singer, she immediately invited him to join her on stage and sit in. Afterward, "I remember her saying to me, 'Look, you and I, we have to work together.' From there, everything she did, she had me involved," he said.
Wheeler's enduring affection sometimes took the form of tough love, though. Dickerson recalled a heated discussion he had with her about not being paid properly for a gig he'd done with someone else. Wheeler got so vehement while encouraging Dickerson to stand up for himself, "she slapped me in the face and said, 'Wake up boy, you need to wake up.' That's when I knew I was (like) one of her sons. You don't hit somebody like that unless you really care about them."
Bassist and singer Eugene Johnson, who plays with the Ground Floor Band, Marquise Knox and other local groups, was in his early 20s and had played rock, blues, soul and funk, but no jazz, before meeting Wheeler in the early 1970s. Hired for an after-hours gig at a restaurant in the West End, he had to learn a lot of new songs in a hurry. "She gave me my first experience with jazz standards," said Johnson, who, when first asked to play the likes of "I'll Remember April," adapted on the spot by looking over the shoulder of keyboard player Joe McBride. "She just smiled and counted the song off."
Johnson also remembers one of Wheeler's signature marketing techniques. "She had a big old book, and on breaks she'd walk around the audience, and get people to write down their name and phone number in it. Then the next time she'd play that place, she would get on the phone and call everybody, and that's how she'd get her people there."
Singer Wendy Gordon, who studied voice with Wheeler and appeared on many of the Divas shows, recalls her mentor having stacks of the books, which were manufactured to be photo albums. "She told me one time she had over 100 books filled with names," said Gordon. Later, when Gordon helped put the records on computer for Wheeler's not-for-profit organization, Professional and Amateur Artists Recognized (PAAR), the de-duped version of the list totaled more than 5,000 names.
Gordon said Wheeler gave her advice on business as well as music. "She said, 'People don't come to hear you just because you sing,' and she used to have little giveaways to get people to come to her event - selling baskets, having a raffle, bring ten people and you get something free. She always had some kind of gimmick."
As a vocal teacher, Wheeler was "real strict," said Gordon, and not just about singing technique. "One time I came to one of her sets, and I had been drinking. She took me aside and said I didn't need false courage to get up in front of people and sing." Mike DeFillippo, a photographer and former RFT staff member, tended bar at Hannegan's when Wheeler worked there. He said Wheeler was indeed a non-drinker herself while working, but had a sweet tooth, favoring virgin strawberry daquiris and occasionally snacking on fruit from the bar. "You'd go to get some cherries, and there'd be nothing there but stems."
DeFillippo also remembers Wheeler's business skills. "She always tried to connect with the audience," he said "She would really try to make it personal, for two reasons: First, she genuinely enjoyed it, and second, she was a savvy businessperson, and she understood that it's all about the relationships you have with people."
Singer Renee Smith first met Wheeler while performing at the Celebrity Room in East St. Louis. "Mae would walk in the door while I was on stage, and people would start standing up and applauding her. I thought they were applauding me," Smith laughs, "but they were applauding her!"
The two nevertheless became fast friends, and Smith subsequently appeared on Wheeler's first Divas show "and anything else she asked me to. You couldn't say "No" to Mae. She wouldn't take it," Smith added. "She was an icon, and I thought the world of her. And she was a great asset to the music industry in St. Louis."
Singer Marsha Evans, another veteran of that first Divas show who knew Wheeler for more than 25 years, agreed. Evans said she met Wheeler after a set Evans had just finished at a short-lived club in the CWE called Jazz Underground. "She came up to me and said, 'My name is Mae Wheeler. I want to tell you that I taped your show and I took it home to my children, and they love you. My kids are always saying 'Play the tape of that lady.'
"In the next breath, she went on to say, "I'm having a party in my back yard and I want you bring some potato salad," Evans recalled, laughing. While a previous engagement prevented Evans from making that particular affair, her friendship with Wheeler continued until the end.
As Evans prepared to leave after a visit with Wheeler a couple of weeks ago, Wheeler called her over to the bedside for a hug. "She said, "Listen, tell Jimmy [Hinds, Evans' husband] that I love him, and would you please tell all the musicians for me that we need to take care of each other, that we need to look out for each other. We need to pick up the phone and call each other, and tell each other how much we love each other.' As a member of the St. Louis musical fraternity, Mae was our biggest cheerleader, she really was."