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Wed, 04.30.1941

Shirley Witherspoon, Vocalist born

Shirley Witherspoon

This date celebrates the birth of Shirley Witherspoon in 1941. She was a Black singer.

From Minneapolis, MN, Shirley Witherspoon was 28 when she performed her first song 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 on the city's north side with eight other siblings who sang. Her cousin was blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon.

After graduating from North High School, Witherspoon got her to start singing in local jazz clubs such as the Blue Note. That led to stages 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 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 career in the theater.

She starred in tributes to Billie Holliday and her own revues at Minneapolis's Cricket and Mixed Blood theaters. Witherspoon had problems with alcohol and drugs, and when her daughter struggled with drugs, she fought for the adoptive rights of her 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.

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