Jerri Wells enjoys a quiet moment at home. Photo by Sara Piazza
Jerri Wells enjoys a quiet moment at home. Photos by Sara Piazza

For Jerri Wells, life's been good and still is

By Ginger Duarte - August 3, 2006

Jerri Wells never had it easy, but she managed to have it all. Where others have failed, Jerri successfully combined the roles of wife, mother, and professional jazz singer all into one. As if that were not enough, Ms. Wells returned to school after her children left the nest to complete an interrupted college education. It bears mentioning that Jerri accomplished much of this before civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks stepped aboard that bus for the ride that changed the face of black America.

"We were called colored back then," says the beautiful, exotic-looking Jerri. The youngest of 12 siblings, Jerri Wells was born Geraldine Burris in Salisbury, Md., to Clemuel and Felicia Burris. Her mother died when Jerri was just three years old, so Jerri's older sister, Aline, took over the toddler's rearing. Jerri began singing with a church youth group at age six.

"My father was head of the church choir," says Ms. Wells, "He loved to sing. My sisters and I formed a girls' quartet in the family. We kids would give shows at home on the front porch. We lived near the Southern Dairies ice cream store. The employees would come outside during their lunch hour and watch our shows and give us free ice cream. I always produced the shows for all the kids. I've always wanted to sing, so I guess it was in my blood. I started off singing in church and ended up Off Broadway; I didn't quite make it to Broadway."

A studio shot of Jerri Wells in her late thirties while she was performing at a Quebec club, La Porte St. Jean. She says she fell off the piano! Photo from the past - courtesy of Jerri Wells
A studio shot of Jerri Wells in her late thirties while she was performing at a Quebec club, La Porte St. Jean. She says she fell off the piano! Photo from the past - courtesy of Jerri Wells

Getting started

Jerri Wells knew early on that she loved show business. However, first things first. Ever-pragmatic, Geraldine was determined to get a college education. She obtained a scholarship under a program initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and held a part-time job on campus.

"I didn't bother with singing much growing up, and devoted most of my time to speaking in oratorical contests and things like that. I was a Sepia model for a while. It wasn't until I went to college that I began singing in earnest," remembers Jerri.

As fate would have it, Jerri enrolled in [West] Virginia State College where legendary jazz musician Billy Taylor was a student with his own college band. Jerri's sorority produced a show every year and Billy's band provided the music. Jerri was determined to sing with Billy Taylor's band and tried out for the show.

"I auditioned for the show and made it," smiles Jerri, "and that's when I really started singing. I began going around to different schools singing with the band, and the kids would come around asking for autographs. I thought, 'Wow, this is what I want to do!' "

Jerri poses with a photo of herself as a glamorous young singer. Photo by Sara Piazza
"Then and now" - Jerri poses with a photo of herself as a glamorous young singer.

Signing autographs would have to take a hiatus. Jerri dropped out of Virginia State after two years to get married. The young college dropout married the late Thomas Wilson. They became the parents of two sons: Tommy, who lives outside Hartford, Conn., and Greg, who lives in Vineyard Haven.

"We had a beautiful marriage," says Jerri, "I was blessed. And we made a pact right after we got married. He loved to fish; fishing was it for Tom. I said I wanted to sing. - 'Yes, okay, we're going to pursue our hobbies; I want you to be happy, and I want to be happy,' " agreed Tom. "So that's how we started our marriage, and we were married for 51 years."

A lucky break

The Wilsons lived on Staten Island for a while before moving to Harlem, home of the legendary Apollo Theatre located on 125th Street. The Apollo's famous Amateur Night, begun in 1934, launched the careers of such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. All the blues and jazz greats have headlined at the Apollo, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Lionel Hampton, and Ray Charles. Imagine what it must have been like for Geraldine, not yet 20, to live in Harlem during the Apollo heydey of the 1940s. "I went to the Apollo theatre every chance I could get. Stars like Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and Moms Mabley would be appearing."

The leap from audience to contestant in the famed Apollo Amateur Hour seemed short and simple to spunky young Geraldine. In retrospect, it was a quantum leap from the front porch in Salisbury to the stage on 125th St. "I got my break on the Apollo Amateur Hour. I competed, but I didn't exactly win because I forgot the lyrics. I was a little nervous in the wings, but when I stepped out onto the stage, the audience gave me such an ovation that it threw me totally off balance! Midway into the song my mind went blank. I stood there on the stage dumbfounded, thinking that any minute Mr. Puerto Rico would come shoo me off the stage, but the Count Basie band just kept on playing like nothing was wrong. Finally, I managed to come up with enough lyrics to end the song before walking off the stage on my own. My sister cooked for Count Basie, and he told her I would have won if I hadn't forgotten the lyrics! And to think it was such a simple song, "Somebody Loves Me."

Nonetheless, Geraldine got a lucky break. There was a female agent in the audience who recognized the young contestant's talent, despite the limited performance, and signed her to a contract. She took Geraldine backstage and introduced her to Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and Pearl Bailey. "We sat there and talked," says Jerri, "and they treated me like I was a queen. The agent booked me that very weekend. That was my first paying job, and from then on, that was it." Jerri Wells was on her way!

Jerri Wells had the talent, style, and looks to try for the top rung, but she didn't. "I never wanted to become a star. All I wanted to do was sing. My first priorities were my husband and children, so I couldn't take the out-of-town jobs And I have always been terrified of flying. My first big club job experience was singing at the Baby Grand in Harlem where I was on the bill with Nipsy Russell. "I eventually started traveling when my kids got older. Also, I learned to sing in French, Italian, and Yiddish and worked the Borscht circuit during the summer months in the Catskills. I played the Raleigh, the Nevele, and the lounge at the Concord. I worked with Rip Taylor at the Falls View. I sang in French at the Le Porte St. Jean in Quebec. They sent the longest limousine to pick me up at the hotel. When I stepped out onto a red carpet leading into the club, I was almost as dumbfounded as I'd been on Amateur Night at the Apollo. After all, I was still in my twenties, and this was the same club where Josephine Baker and Denise Darcel had performed!"

Jerri appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show and fulfilled a lifelong dream of going to Paris. She sailed to Europe on the S.S. France and sang in the famed Rive Gauche Room on the voyage over.

Breaking the barrier

While Jackie Robinson was making headlines breaking down color barriers in baseball, Jerri was quietly breaking a color barrier of her own at a popular nightclub in New Jersey called The Dugout. Her agent doubled as a performer. He had a show every Wednesday night at the club, which was owned by former Cincinnati Reds baseball player Dutch Mele. According to Jerri, when the agent asked Dutch if he could book Jerri on the Wednesday night show, the club owner replied, "No, I don't want any colored performers in my club." Jerri's agent put her in his show anyway, and the blues/jazz singer received such thunderous applause, Mele subsequently did a complete about-face. Jerri played the Dugout at least two nights a week for the next two and a half years.

When Jerri left Virginia State to get married, she vowed to go back and finish school when her kids grew up. True to her promise, Jerri enrolled in Pace University, majoring in elementary education. She graduated with Honors in 1976 and was awarded a scholarship to Adelphi to pursue her master's degree. But due to an automobile accident, Jerri was unable to complete the degree and had to learn to walk all over again. Undaunted, the remarkable Ms. Wilson went on to teach kindergarten for 10 years and third grade for 12 more years.

Following the death of her husband 10 years ago, Jerri moved to the Vineyard and now lives in Woodside Village. She is a member of the Assembly of God Church and does the occasional performance for seniors at The Anchors in Edgartown and at Windemere.

During the summer, the tempo picks up. The talented singer performed a jazz concert benefit for the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters earlier this summer and played to a packed house at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. She is booked to do her second show for the Martha's Vineyard Museum, formerly the Dukes County Historical Society, on August 9 at the museum's Edgartown campus. The show, "Our Black Musical Heritage," will tell the story of the black musical evolution in America, up from slavery to the present, through both narrative and songs performed by Ms. Wells.  

This fall, Jerri Wells is booked to perform on Saturday, Oct. 7 at the prestigious International Jazz Festival in Hartford, Conn. There will be jazz artists from many countries appearing at a variety of well-known venues there. Earlier this year, Plum-TV aired a special on Ms. Wells's remarkable life.

Jerri stays busy and has lots of friends. Her son, Greg, visits often. Life is good.

"Our Black Musical Heritage" with Jerri Wells, Wed.,
Aug. 9, 5-7:30 pm, Martha's Vineyard Museum, Cooke and School sts., Edgartown. Refreshments. Free. 508-627-4441, ext. 120.

Ginger Duarte is a freelance writer/editor who lives in Vineyard Haven. She is currently editing a book, "Looking for Liza," written by her son, Mark Martin, also a year-round Vineyard resident.