Shirley Witherspoon, a voice with conviction

Shirley Witherspoon
Wed, 1941-04-30

This date celebrates the birth of Shirley Witherspoon in 1941. She was an African American singer.

From Minneapolis, MN Shirley Witherspoon was 28 when she played her first gig with Duke Ellington's band. This was at the presidential inauguration ball for Richard Nixon in 1969. In her mind, though, she still had a lot to learn. "I was a fool; I didn't know what I had [then]," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1989. With one daughter, Teal, and seven grandchildren living in Minneapolis, Witherspoon grew up in north Minneapolis with eight other siblings who all sang. Her cousin was blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon.

After graduating from North High School, Witherspoon got her start singing in local jazz clubs such as the Blue Note. That led to gigs where Duke Ellington spotted her. After her one-year stint with Ellington, she moved to California and withdrew from music. Moving back to Minneapolis in 1979, she sang with local bands (the Wolverines), in solo shows and in theatrical productions. She was similar in style to Etta James and Ruth Brown. Witherspoon was authentic musically and as a person. After living in Baltimore for several years, she returned to Minneapolis in 1989 and had a successful run in the theater.

She starred in tributes to Billie Holliday and her own revues at the Cricket and Mixed Blood theaters of Minneapolis. Witherspoon had her own problems with alcohol and drugs and when her daughter struggled with drugs, she fought for the adoptive rights of grandparents and discussed the issue on CBS' 60 Minutes in 1992. Her recordings include 1994's Where Do I Sign? and 1999's Magic & Love. Witherspoon’s last performances were in Theatre Latte Da's 2001 production of The Death of Bessie Smith. Witherspoon died on June 12, 2003 of heart and kidney failure.

Star Tribune
Associated Press
425 Portland Av. S.,
Minneapolis, MN 55488

To Become a Musician or Singer

Person / name: 

Witherspoon, Shirley