In the opinion of veteran St. Louis gospel vocalist and pianist Zella Jackson Price, the director of the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISONÔÎ Chorus, Robert Ray; and local jazz and blues legend Mae Wheeler have something important in common: they both trust a guest artist to be herself.
Price will be performing on a one-of-a-kind Black History Month program at Powell Hall at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 21, which will offer musical tribute to Wheeler, with the help of fellow local singers Denise Thimes and Skeet Rogers.
At the time of her Playbill interview in December, Price had not yet decided which of two songs she would be singing for the event: either "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or "Amazing Grace": but the most important thing to her was that the choice was hers to make.
"They are letting me choose," she says of Ray and the rest of the SLSO programming brain trust. "I thought, 'Oh, I get to be myself.' You are at your best when you can be you."
Though she says Ray was "instrumental" to her receiving this special opportunity to perform at Powell, and he has a long-established reputation for generosity toward musicians and guest artists: "I just love him," Price says: the invitation to be herself and to sing material with which she has a deep comfort also reminds Price very much of the program honoree.
"I'm a gospel artist, and Mae has never said I needed to do blues," Price says of performing in shows produced by Wheeler, who is quite an amazing impresario in addition to a seasoned and beloved singer. "She lets me be myself. She lets me put my best self forward."
Along with Thimes, and a number of other St. Louis women vocalists, Price has performed with and for Wheeler on her annual "Divas" programs, typically staged as a benefit for a local charity or for Wheeler's own scholarship fund.
"I have done quite a few of her 'Diva' shows. Any time she is producing a show, I know it is going to be worthy," Price says. "She has helped so many charities. I just love what she has done with her talent: she has given so much."
Price says Wheeler has the rare gift for creating a spotlight, only to share it with other performers, and all done with a family spirit that Wheeler herself has said is too often missing in the music scene. "We aren't as concerned about each other as we ought to be," Wheeler told local writer Thomas Crone last year. "This music we're playing isn't just about notes."
Wheeler herself models another, better way of organizing a show. "She is the mother of the production," Price says. "Regardless of how talented she is, she always pushes others up to the front. She is always helping new talent. She is good at exposing new talent. She is a liaison. She is always pushing other talent: especially women."
Price is a decorated veteran gospel star of radio, stage, recording, and screen (in the film Say Amen, Somebody) who was herself honored for a life in music late last year in a celebration of her 70th birthday. Her stage credits include a career-defining date at Carnegie Hall in 1985, accompanied by St. Louis musician and recording artist Michael Johnson.
She and Johnson have worked together for a quarter of a century, and Price's own involvement with professional gospel music goes all the way back to her childhood, when she started to play piano to accompany her mother, Alberta Cooper, who was a gospel star in her own right. So Price speaks with full authority when she says of Mae Wheeler, "She perseveres, she endures."
Wheeler's endurance, her perseverance, is a matter of concern for everyone working on the Black History Month program in her honor. After many decades of performing and producing shows, going all the way back to the halcyon days of Gaslight Square, last year Wheeler was diagnosed with colon cancer at an advanced stage and her health has remained a struggle. "I trust God in keeping me going," she told Crone.
Still, Price expects the best from the beloved honoree. "That flower she wears, those glasses of hers: Mae always makes the affair exciting." Price says. "She always makes the room blossom. It is always a huge occasion when Mae is performing. She is good at bringing not only talent together, but all people together."
Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration includes performances by the Saint Louis Symphony IN UNISONÔÎ Chorus, the University of Missouri-St. Louis Community Chorus, and pianist Stan Ford in Powell Hall at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, February 21.
Chris King is the editor of the St. Louis American.