• Wilma Reading in the 70s (Getty )Source: Getty
Iconic jazz singer Wilma Reading speaks with NITV’s Living Black host Karla Grant about her extraordinary life and career, and her rise to stardom.
Karla Grant

Living Black
4 May 2020 - 9:50 AM  UPDATED 4 May 2020 - 9:50 AM

From small beginnings singing in her hometown of Cairns in far north Queensland, jazz singer Wilma Reading has led an amazing life.

With a career spanning more than fifty years in the music industry, she has performed on the worlds biggest stages with some of the most well-known names in the business.

Her interest in jazz music started when she was a young girl living at home in Cairns. She recalls the warm climate and those days when everyone had big families, played lots of outdoor sports, going to church every Sunday and singing at family gatherings.

"I think it's probably because the records I used to listen to at granny's house with my aunts and uncles singing, they'd bring out the guitars and they'd try to copy all the records that they heard when they were growing up. That's how it started. The aunts were, 'Come on, girls, sing with us. Come along, sing on.' And that's what we did. We didn't have television in those days, we made our own entertainment and all the families were big there, they'd have their feasts, and everybody knew each other. It was great," Wilma recalls fondly.

A trip to Brisbane in 1959 to play softball began a chain of events.

"I made the stateside for softball, women's softball and I was chosen from about three or four of us from Cairns, and they picked up girls along the coast as they came down. So, we joined forces with the Brisbane team. But I dropped the music at that time because my parents were like, 'We can't afford to pay for music lessons if you're not going to practice, otherwise do it properly or else don't do it.'"

It was on that trip that Wilma was discovered during a night out at a club with friends.

"There's a man who came around the table because I sang three songs for this girl's birthday that day, she was from Cairns. So, he came to the table and said, 'Excuse me. I really enjoyed your singing. I'm looking for a new girl singer in my band.' He had a 17-piece swing band at the Ritz Ballroom. I said, 'Well, we don't live here. We all live up in Cairns.' He said, 'Well, I'd like your contact address where I could keep in contact if you ever change your mind and you want to come back to Brisbane and sing with my band.' I said, 'Oh, I'll think about that.' I didn't say anything because we thought he was kidding," Wilma said.

Two weeks later, a letter arrived at the family home addressed to Wilma's father.

"Dad came, he said, 'Come here. What's this stuff about you singing in Brisbane in this coffee shop? You were down there to play softball.' I said, 'Oh, well it was after the movies this night, and we heard this great music and was jazz, like the records that I was listening to, my aunts were listening to.' Then after a while, my mum and dad said, 'Okay, what do you think about this singing business? Do you really want to do that? Because he says, you're good enough to offer you a job so you must be good.' I said, 'Well, I must be better than I think I am.'"

Wilma recalls, "My father made me an offer. 'You can try it out for six months if you want to be a professional singer. If you can't make enough money and a living to be a singer, you come on home.'

"So, within that six months, I had a guarantee of three nights a week at the Ballroom singing dance music, sitting on the stage like they did in the movies."

The rest, as they say, is history. After living in Brisbane and accomplishing everything she could there, Wilma decided it was time to spread her wings. She moved to Sydney where she gained exposure performing on the music variety television show Bandstand and recorded for Festival Records.

With her star on the rise, Wilma decided to make the move to Melbourne to further hone her skills in the industry.

"I came to Melbourne, and I ended up doing a few nights with GTV-9 with Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton. That's how I ended up going overseas because they had an agent in GTV-9, his name was Mr Miller, and he approached me about going to Singapore for Christmas, New Year. Because the girl who they had chosen, she backed out at the last minute," she said.

From there Wilma travelled the world performing in Singapore, India, Tokyo, New York, London and Europe.

In New York, Wilma sang at the famous Copacabana Night Club where she performed with legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington.

"Oh, that was a dream. It was so improbable, I couldn't believe I was actually sitting across the table from him. He had his son with him because Duke was not well at this age. He asked me all sorts of questions 'How did you get from Australia to New York?' So, I told him the pathway that I took, and he was very interested, and he picked up the phone and kept talking to me, he picked up the phone, and he said, 'Yeah, I've got this girl here, she's from Australia. Yeah, Australia.' Because the guy was like, 'from where?' And it turned out to be Billy Strayhorn, he wrote songs, a lot of orchestrals for Duke Ellington and his orchestra. He wrote A-Train," Wilma said.

To get the job with Duke Ellington, Wilma had to audition first for Billy Strayhorn, another legendary jazz composer, pianist and lyricist, who was also Duke's right-hand man. The song was Lush Life, a jazz standard written by Strayhorn. Wilma had never performed that song, but she had heard American jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan's version.

"I got to the end of the song, all the way through I thought; I think I'm doing okay, I'm sort of coasting along here. Until we go to the end page, and the end page was written completely different to the way Sarah Vaughan had sung it. That was a dilemma; I was like, what do I do? Do I sing what's written there or do I just sing like Sarah Vaughan did, or try to? The gut feeling tells you, sing what's on the page."

Wilma recalls, "I finished, and he finished playing and then sat like that for about three minutes, and I'm thinking all these negative thoughts about, oh, I must have mixed something up, he's not speaking to me. Then he turned around to me, and he said, 'Thank you for singing the song the way I wrote it.' I thought, oh, that's really got me through. He said, 'You got the job.' So that's how I got my job with Duke Ellington."

While working in New York, Wilma became the first Australian guest on American late-night talk show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

"I really don't know what they were expecting, but it went very well. I sang one song, and then Johnny invited me to sit with him on the couch, as they say, and have an interview."

After gaining widespread success in the United States, Wilma decided it was time for a change. Her life took a different turn when she made the move to the United Kingdom meeting the producers of the iconic comedy double act of Morecombe and Wise.

They'd heard about this new girl from Australia and offered Wilma an audition which led to a job on their show.

"They liked me so much because I was able to work with them. You become aware of if it's a comedy show you don't get up there and sing a dreary old ballad, you know? Because you have to keep the tempo going for the comedy for them to get the laughs, and I knew that.

"They gave me the whole series the following year, so I was very proud to be there. When you're on television over there so often people get to know you. Then I was doing a lot of the circuit around the RSL clubs.

"I became more and more known over the whole of England back then, and I actually went into Scotland as well," she said.

Wilma enjoyed considerable success in the UK during the 1970s and '80s, performing on variety shows as well as acting on stage at London's famous West End. She was also part of history when she performed at the reunification of East and West Germany in Berlin in 1990.

"It's just an amazing experience to see the people come alive, and the West Berlin people came to the wall, they were giving them money, west money, bottles of champagne and they were toasting each other, even complete strangers. It was so euphoric to see that and be part of it."

Wilma recalls the moment in history with great excitement.

"What they did, they put the two-symphony orchestra's together, the East Berlin musicians wore white tuxedos and bow ties, and the West Germans wore black tuxedos and bow ties. So it was this enormous stage, and they put them both together, conductor is in the middle. I was standing in the front by myself singing, and I had two pianos, two of everything, and in the back was the choir with the East German choirs doing choral backing in the background," she said.

After many years of living abroad, Wilma finally returned home to Australia after the passing of her husband.

She recorded an album, Now You See Me, writing the music and lyrics for 12 tracks on the album about her life. And a highlight has been teaching at TAFE, passing onto budding young music students the singing technique she learnt during her time in New York.

In August 2019, Wilma was recognised for her contribution to Indigenous music by being inducted into the National Indigenous Music Awards Hall of Fame.

"It meant the lifetime of sacrifices that I've made and the recognition now, this age of my life after all I have done, and that I really honoured, and I was really grateful for that. That's people who didn't even know me considered that as well. I'm very aware of that, when you're not around, no one knows you. I'm probably better known in Europe somewhere, I was just so grateful to receive that, and that's what I said, it's a lifetime achievement, I'm really grateful, and I really meant that," she said.

As Wilma reflects on her brilliant career, there's no doubt she has led an incredible life by any measure.

"It's a dream. Things happened to me that were spontaneous. Things sort of fell into place for me out of the blue, like when I got the job in the city when I first went there. Things like that have happened to me several times throughout my lifetime, and I thank God, thank you, Lord, I'm being blessed here, thank you."