Unsung Queensland legend Wilma Reading has lived a life most of us could only dream of.
Wilma Reading spent most of her career overseas, and was never a household name here. But this jazz singer from Cairns, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry, has had one of the most fascinating lives of any Australian performer.
Before Aborigines were even allowed to vote in Queensland state elections, Wilma was touring the world and rubbing shoulders with some of the most iconic talents in showbiz. (She took after her aunt, Georgia Lee, who toured with Nat King Cole and was one of the first Australian women to release an album.)
Wilma got her start in 1959 when she was just 17, singing at the Ritz Ballroom and Lennons Hotel in Brisbane. Soon enough, she was appearing on national variety show Bandstand, followed by numerous stints at venues around the world. “I grew up very fast,” she remembers now.
Her first real brush with fame came when she was invited to sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “He sent me to audition with Billy Strayhorn,” Wilma remembers. “Billy had written lots of songs for Duke. I went to his apartment, and he sent me to the piano room, and there was one single sheet of music on the piano. It was Lush Life, probably the most difficult song for a singer to sing. I’d never sung it before — I only knew it from Sarah Vaughan’s record. Billy started playing and I started singing.
“When I got to the end of the page, I was in for a surprise – I’d learned the song the way Sarah Vaughan sang it, with all these lovely butterfly notes at the very end, but on the sheet music it was totally different. I started to panic, but my gut feeling told me to sing what was written on the page. There was deathly silence afterwards. Billy sat at the piano with his hands crossed on his lap. I was standing there, waiting, thinking I’d screwed it up. The silence lasted for three minutes. Really, that’s how long it was.
“Then he turned to me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for singing the song the way I wrote it. You’ve got the job.’ Well, I could have kissed him. I was so elated, I think I floated out of that room.”
Wilma parlayed her stint with Duke into a spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, becoming the first Australian to appear on the show. “When I did the Johnny Carson show in New York, I met a lady from Texas in the elevator,” she remembers. “She said, ‘You’re from Australia? Oh, but you speak English!’ They had no idea the world existed outside the United States.”
Wilma was about to discover more of that world. When funding fell through for a musical Ellington had cast her in, she travelled to London, where she appeared in a West End production of Showboat, made frequent appearances on The Morecambe & Wise Show, and starred in her own BBC specials. She also performed the title song for the Julie Andrews film, The Tamarind Seed, under the direction of legendary James Bond composer John Barry.
“We had to record live to synchronise the music with the film,” she remembers. “We were in a big warehouse with about 75 musicians. I met John Barry and I met [director] Blake Edwards; they were very charming, normal people. We rehearsed once, and then we recorded — but it was six seconds too long.
“Now, six seconds might not sound like much, but it’s a big deal in a movie. We had to synchronise it exactly. John Barry was scratching his head and saying, ‘What do we do?’ I’ve always had good timing, so I counted the seconds and I thought, well, that’s easy. We just have to drop two bars here. But I wasn’t sure if I should tell John Barry that, or keep it to myself.
“Ten minutes went by, so I put my hand up and said, ‘Mr Barry, I’ve worked it out, and if we cut these two bars, it’ll be in time’. Well, my agent was there, and he could have killed me. Everybody was looking at me, as if to say, ‘Who are you, you upstart, to tell John Barry what to do?’
“He stood there and he crossed his arms and he scratched his chin, and eventually he said, ‘Well, why don’t we try that?’ So the orchestra started up again, we tried it without those two bars, and it came out perfectly, to the second. And I just remember thinking, ‘Thank you, Lord!’
“Mr Barry was so gracious. He shook my hand and gave me a hug. It was the first and the last time I ever saw him. That happened a lot in my life — it’s like ships in the night, you know? You just pass on.”
Wilma even met her hero, Ella Fitzgerald, at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. It was Fitzgerald’s birthday, and Reading was invited backstage to celebrate with cake, champagne, and a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. “Just touching her aura as she went through life,” Wilma marvels, “that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Eventually, Wilma’s starcrossed career began to wind down. When her husband died, she decided it was time to come home to Cairns. She began teaching music at TAFE, and limited her singing to funerals at the local church. It was at his father-in-law’s funeral that Australian jazz stalwart Andrew Butt heard Wilma sing – and invited her to reignite her career.
“Andrew asked me if I’d like to come back and do something for the Brisbane International Jazz Festival. I’m still in pretty good shape for my age, so I figured, ‘Why not?’ I’ve gone back into training now, and I’m getting myself ready. Hopefully I’ll be OK!”
Wilma Reading performs with the Andrew Butt Trio + at the Queensland Multicultural Centre on Saturday 6 June as part of the Brisbane International Jazz Festival. For more info, visit bijf.com.au.