~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Born in 1942 in picturesque Cairns, northern Australia, as the oldest in a family of seven, Wilma Reading makes her first musical moves at family gatherings as part of a vocal trio together with two of her younger sisters. Although she is growing up in a very musical environment, Wilma isn’t immediately thinking of following into the footsteps of her older talented niece, Georgia Lee. “Aunty” Dulcie Pitt, aka Georgia Lee, is Australia’s first jazz and R&B singer from a native, aboriginal background. She is also one of the first artists to record a full album (“The Blues Down Under,” 1962) down under. Georgia even gets to spend some time overseas, performing around the mid-’50s in and around London. Upon her return in Australia she has the honor to sing with the world famous Nat King Cole. She nevertheless is almost completely neglected and forgotten in Australian music history.
During a softball tournament in Brisbane in 1959, while singing a tune to her teammates in a coffee bar, Wilma is spotted by big band leader Lali Hegi. Lali is mesmerized by the 17-year-old beauty and offers her a job on the spot as a singer with his orchestra. Her father reluctantly agrees and gives his daughter 6 months to make it in the music business in Brisbane. If she fails, she must return to Cairns and look for another, more regular job.
Wilma is no ordinary, average Australian: she is an exotic and voluptuous woman blessed with an extremely powerful voice and a broad vocal range. She turns many a man’s head. In daily life she is extremely modest and shy. Wilma’s grandfather is of English-Irish descent and has helped built up Brisbane. Her father Jack does have an adventurous streak in his younger years. He embarks on a trip around the world by motorbike, taking a pause at Tahiti. There he is enticed by Maisie Pitt, who is said to be a descendant of the noble Scottish family Pitt: legend has it one of the Pitt’s family members is thrown overboard during a mutiny back in the colonial days. He washes ashore the polynesian island in the so-called Strait of Torres, is saved by the locals and marries one of their princesses. It’s a very productive marriage resulting in lots of children. No wonder the name Pitt is still very common in the polynesian archipelago today! Jack and Maisie get married too but do not settle down on Tahiti. The couple relocates to Cairns, the medium-sized city in northeastern Queensland, Australia.
Reading’s first performances in Brisbane do instantly catch on: she gets invited by local radio and regional TV stations and finds a job as a nightclub act, first in Sydney, then in Melbourne. Her musical heroes at the time are Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. She occasionally appears on national TV, but doesn’t score any hit. She is still a bit too timid and her repertoire too safe and predictable.
She eventually begins dreaming of working overseas just like Aunty Dulcie. Wilma eagerly accepts an invitation to perform in hotels in Singapore for a month. A month morphes into a long singing career in Southeast Asia. She has concerts in Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Saigon and Okinawa. She is constantly on the move, always away from home. With her Euro-polynesian looks she easily blends into the South-East Asian club scene, frequented by a mix of locals, Western businessmen and American soldiers. The public believes she is either Filippino, Thai, Japanese or a mix of all. Her theatrical performances, Asian outfits, twinkling eyes and splendid smile make her a very popular act.
In Saigon she meets and falls in love with Ray Lehr, an American with a background in the circus & theater world, then working as a showbizz agent. They wed in Tokyo and Wilma decides to give up her singing career to offer her husband the chance to grow his enterprise. She quickly regrets her decision: she misses the spotlights, the applause and the international traveling. After a year absence, she makes a comeback in 1965 with the help of Lehr, who by then is her full-time manager.
In either Karachi or Manila, the couple is approached by John Wardell, the American talent scout of the organisation of Lou van Rees, a celebrated Dutch impressario. Van Rees has many contacts in the American and British music scene and stages the legendary American jazz concerts in the Concertgebouw in the ’50s-’60s. He probably even knows Georgia Lee, Wilma’s niece, from the time she performed with the Geraldo Orchestra in London. Around that time Van Rees is bringing these kind of famous English swing orchestras over to the Netherlands. Artists from his own roster do perform in the UK in exchange.
From the mid-60s Wilma enjoys a phenomenal rise to fame. She is booked in Las Vegas and Hollywood and is the first and only Australian to tour with the Duke Ellington band. Reading takes on a hip, sexier look matching the free spirit of the days. She is also the first Australian in Johnny Carson’s TV show. Bill Cosby really would love to have her in his sitcom, but she politely turns down his requests. Wilma does already make regular appearances in English comedy shows on BBC TV. Van Rees, the Dutch impressario, does arrange concerts for her in Holland too. On November 11 1971 she is one of the stars at the Unicef Gala in The Hague, which is broadcast all over Western Europe. Not much later she launches her debut album “Wilma Reading on Fire”, for the Dutch CNR label, supported by a Dutch orchestra led by Ferry Wieneke. The album is produced by Richard de Bois, who a few years later will score hits with Maggie McNeal and the Dolly Dots. The songs on “On Fire” are arranged by Wieneke, Dick Bakker, Cees Smal and Herman Schoonderwalt, all musicians who have earned a reputation in jazz and light music.
On the album Reading tries to outdo the very popular and equally exotic Shirley Bassey. She doesn’t fully succeed, the songs, especially the ballads, aren’t strong enough. The more uptempo, groovy songs are the highlights, with her energetic version of Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move”, rightly picked as our smasher of the week.
Wilma joins the musical Showboat in 1973 in London, replacing Cleo Laine. She records two more albums for the English Pye label, full of upbeat Northern soul. She is an excellent interpreter of other people’s tunes. She hardly ever writes or composes songs herself. The 70’s are the peak of her career. Wilma lives the life of a diva, whose fame stretches beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1979 she tours Moscow and Leningrad, allegedly closely followed by an officer from the KGB intelligence service, named Volodya (or Vladimir) Putin. Wilma also keeps performing in the Copacabana nightclub in New York and is a regular guest in Las Vegas. A few times she visits the Netherlands as well: her younger sister Heathermae, a singer herself (see bottom of this blog post), is residing in Holland for a while.
The movies are another, new challenge. Wilma is first contracted as the vocalist for John Barry’s soundtrack to the film “The Tamarind Seed” (1974), with Julie Andrews and Omar Shariff. Later she acts in the film “Pacific Inferno” (1979), a curious war movie, mainly worth mentioning because of the leading role of Jim Brown, one of the first black action film heroes, and the décolleté of Reading, who in true Pam Greer fashion is just frisking around before being tragically shot by Japanese soldiers.
From the mid-1980s onwards, things start to slow down for Wilma: pop music is rapidly changing and Las Vegas is looking for new, younger stars after the retirement of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Reading’s career stagnates, her repertoire and form of entertainment run out of fashion. One of the final career highlights is her participation in the re-unification concert in Berlin in October 1990, where she is flanked by the West Berlin symphony orchestra on her left and the East Berlin symphony on her right.
Perhaps somewhat surprizingly her marriage to Lehr survives all the glamour and glitter and temptations of the showbizz. She rarely talks about her private life. After Lehr’s death in 2002, she moves back from the USA to Cairns, her birthplace. Reading is longing for peace and quiet.
In 2008 she finally records another CD, “Now You See Me.”, her first release in Australia in 40 years. It does not cause a landslide down under. She teaches music and performs sporadically in jazz clubs in Cairns and Brisbane. Once a coveted diva and international superstar, yet hardly known in her own country. Hopefully someday a (auto)biography will be devoted to this Australian diva with indigenous roots.
PS: Wilma’s younger sister Heathermae does spend some time in the Netherlands in the mid-1970s, using Holland as the gateway to Europe. She mainly sings disco, but her singles don’t send shockwaves through the music world.