In a prequel for the 2015 Brisbane International Jazz Festival, singing star Wilma Reading joins the Andrew Butt Trio + in a one-off performance of formidable jazz at Bernie’s Jazz and Piano Café on Friday April 10. Wilma’s numerous International career highlights include performing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, touring with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, starring on London’s West End and featuring at New York’s Copacabana Night Club. Andrew is a multi-award winning saxophonist who has been prominent in Queensland music, taking out the 2013/14 jazz category at the Queensland Music Awards and having two works highly commended in 2015. Described by ABC jazz as a stalwart of the Australian jazz scene, Andrew has performed as a sideman for many leading jazz artists including James Morrison, Rhonda Burchmore and Emma Pask as well as leading his own group at major jazz clubs and festivals.
For this special night of jazz, Wilma and Andrew will be joined by Cairns legends Tommy See Poy on piano, Harry Rivers on Drums and Bernard Lee Long on bass.
Wilma Reading is a woman who lives in her hometown in North Queensland and occasionally sings at events and for local charities. You would never guess that she was once an international show business vocalist who has performed in venues as famous as the Copacabana nightclub in New York and on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Reading Wilma’s credit list reads like the itinerary of a pop artist on a world tour. In her 40-year career she has lived and worked in countries across the globe from the US to England and even Russia. To speak with Wilma about each of her achievements would take hours, if not days. She’ll be answering a question about her performance at the London Palladium when she’ll suddenly exclaim “Oh yes, that was another great thing,” and go on to talk about the time she was asked to help compose and sing the title song for the Julie Andrew’s film, The Tamarind Seed.
Since retiring from her international stardom to Cairns, where she grew up, Wilma has been sought after by music enthusiasts throughout Australia who are itching to perform with her. However, in her quiet and private withdrawal from the performing industry she has proved a very hard woman to find. She now talks only about her career and very cautiously leaves out details of her personal life. She is unwilling to reveal even her age. “People put you in a box when they ask how old you are,” she says, but she obliges to tell about her rise to success from her teenager years.
“I came from a musical family on both my mother and my father’s side,” she begins. Wilma requires no prompting as the story of her discovery spills from her memory. “Two of my aunts and an uncle performed in a trio and toured Australia in the theatre circuit so we grew up as children listening to them rehearsing and listening to all this great music. When we were little we’d all sit around on the floor and listen to them rehearse and they’d encourage us to sing along with them. We were pretty well attuned to swing and jazz in those days.”
When she was 17, Wilma travelled to Brisbane from Cairns with the Queensland softball team. “One of the girls had a birthday so we went to a film one night and after the film we wanted to have a coffee and walk around Brisbane centre. We came across this little coffee shop and we could hear music playing so we walked in. They had a jazz trio playing in the corner.” Wilma’s time spent abroad becomes more apparent as her story becomes interspersed with hints of an American accent. “The birthday girl asked me if I could sing for her so I approached the piano player and he said okay so I sang three songs. I went back to the table and this man came up and introduced himself and asked if I’d be interested in singing with his orchestra.” Wilma said they all laughed, thinking it was a joke, before she admitted to the man that she was underage and he’d have to contact her parents.
Two weeks later Wilma’s parents received a letter offering Wilma a job singing with his 17-piece swing band at the Ritz Ballroom in Brisbane. “Mum and dad had a
meeting with me and asked if I’d be interested in making singing my career. So I said yeah okay, but I didn’t think I was good enough for someone to offer me a job.”
Wilma’s parents gave her a six month trial. “If I could make a living within the six- month period then I could stay with singing as a career, otherwise I’d have to come home.”
After making the move to Brisbane, Wilma had three nights a week singing jazz and ballads with the band at the Ritz Ballroom and was already hustling around for more work. She soon found a second job at the Lennon’s Hotel, singing show tunes in the dining room. “Sometimes I was working seven nights a week,” she says. “I could make a living out of singing and I stayed with it.” And it’s a good thing she did.
From Brisbane, Wilma thought she would try her luck in Sydney where she was chosen for the Nine Network’s national variety television show, Bandstand, while also continuing to perform in nightclubs and working with Channel 7 and the ABC. She then moved to Melbourne where she performed at the famous nightclub, The Embers.
Wilma’s international career began when she was asked to go to Singapore to sing at the Goodwood Hotel. From here, Wilma followed her work across the world. “I found by moving from country to country I had to adapt to certain ways of working on stage,” she says. “We were always on the road. The higher I climbed up the ladder, I was being invited to sing in different places.”
Wilma recalls the first big kick of her career when she was invited to sing with the celebrated American composer and jazz orchestra bandleader, Duke Ellington. “Duke was interested in me as I was the first Australian singer he met.” After meeting with Duke, he sent her to audition with his friend and famous jazz composer, Billy Strayhorn. “He gave me the hardest song that was ever written to audition with – Lush Life. I sang the song and he sat there and I was thinking oh gosh I’ve messed this up. After what seemed like an eternity he turned to me and said “thank you for singing the song the way I wrote it and yes, you’ve got the job”. I was so happy.”
In addition to singing, Wilma has also done her share of acting, starring in the American Film Pacific Inferno with Jim Brown and playing the role of Julie in the musical Showboat at the Adelphi Theatre in London West End, taking over from English jazz pop singer and actress, Cleo Laine.
Transitioning from singing to acting was a career highlight for Wilma, who remembers having to adjust to rehearsing as an actor. “I was used to working alone on stage so I would use the whole stage, whereas when I was in theatre I had to stay in places where they assigned me for the lighting and I found that a little difficult at first. I’m used to looking at people and being able to connect with the public but in theatre when the lights are down you don’t see anybody.”
The ability to communicate with the audience is what Wilma loves most about performing. “I love people, I’m a people person. To see how your songs can swing people into different moods. You might touch an area of someone’s life. Maybe you’ve sung their favourite song or you can excite them with swing or jazz.”
When asked how long she intends to keep performing, Wilma fondly tells the story of when she met American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. “I met Ella at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London when I was living there. By that time she was quite elderly. I said how do you feel about singing and she said “what else am I gonna do, girl?” She just said sing ‘till you drop, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
While Wilma has enjoyed her leisurely life in recent years, she will return to the stage to perform at Bernie’s Jazz & Piano Café with Andrew Butt, a multi-award winning performer based in Brisbane and also originally from Cairns on April 10. This will be a prelude performance to prepare for the 2015 Brisbane International Jazz Festival in June this year. The gig will feature Tommy See Poy on piano, Harry Rivers on Drums, Bernard Lee Long on Bass and Andrew Butt on Tenor & Soprano Saxophones.
Wilma Reading interview & story by Catherine Butt
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