In this online exclusive, singer Denise Thimes remembers St. Louis' Lady Jazz, who died in June 2011
When I met Mae in 1989, I didn’t meet her personally, I met her over the phone. She called me and introduced herself, and the purpose of her call I’m sure was to check out this little “young singer” who was on the scene. I think I passed the test that night, because Mae and I must have talked for four hours.
That conversation ranged from maternal advice to professional advice. She asked me, “How’s your love life?” My first thought was, “Now that’s personal,” but I replied, hesitantly, “It’s good.” She said, “Don’t get mixed up with none of these no good men. Relationships are the main thing that get singers like us so mixed up and so messed up!”
She went on to tell me about the music scene in St. Louis, about what club wasn’t paying and what club was. She told me to “always get your money upfront, I don’t care who it is.” Needless to say, the advice kept coming. She talked about the musicians and, with some of them, their lack of musicianship. “You know, I don’t know what’s wrong with these musicians,” she said. “They act like they’re doing you a favor. And when you act like you know what you want, and want to correct them, they get an attitude and want to label you a bitch.”
I hadn’t experienced any of this myself yet, but I said, “OK.” She continued, “You know, I don’t have a problem with them calling me a bitch, but they need to call me Ms. Bitch. They need to put a handle on it—that’s all I ask.” I was rolling with laughter. It was the first time I had heard a singer—or should I say, a diva—say something like that.
Some people may think that was all Mae was made of, but she was not. She had a big heart, and helped anyone who picked up the phone and sought her help. Whenever we lost a fellow musician, Mae was the first to get on the phone and make sure that all of the musicians and vocalists would come to the memorial of our fallen colleague. We sang and played, and we supported that family financially.
A club owner could rest assured that when Mae was performing she would bring in a huge crowd, because she was the ultimate businesswoman and marketing strategist. Mae was one of the few black artists in St. Louis, and definitely the first female artist, to showcase herself at venues that would not ordinarily showcase local acts. Mae showed me that you can’t wait for the spotlight to find you; you have to go and find your own spotlight. And that’s what I learned from Mae Wheeler, a.k.a. Lady Jazz. She will always be remembered for her impeccable phrasing, her sassiness, her tenacity and, most of all, her love for jazz.