Wilma Reading Is A Hidden Gem That Still Sparkles

Wilma Reading performs at Doo Bop Jazz Bar, Brisbane Jazz Club and Wangaratta Jazz Festival.
Senior Writer.
A seasoned all-rounder music writer and storyteller with a specialised interest in the history of rock.

Far North Queensland is home to some hidden gems and none more special than singer Wilma Reading.

Born and raised in Cairns, Wilma has led a life worthy of a Hollywood film: boasting a 50-plus year career, she's starred in musicals, partied with The Rat Pack in Las Vegas and was the first Aboriginal that bandleader Duke Ellington ever met, yet remains relatively unknown in her home country.

It was on a trip to Brisbane in 1959 as part of a state softball team that Wilma was discovered on a night out with friends. “We went to a movie one Saturday night and we were walking back to the hotel,” Wilma recalls.

“We could hear this music coming from an arcade and I said 'wow, let's go have a look'. It was actually Piccadilly Arcade, so went and visited a little coffee shop called Primitif. It was packed out and there happened to be a little trio playing there and one of my friends asked if I would sing a song for their birthday.

“So I went up to the piano and did three songs, and after ten minutes or so a gentleman came to our table, said he liked my singing and asked would I like a job with his band?”

From there Wilma has travelled the world with her wonderful voice and enjoyed a lifetime of music, performing in New York, Singapore, London, Tokyo, India and all over Asia as well as having appeared on music television shows 'Bandstand' and 'Countdown'.

“The only problem is I was gone for so long because I built up my career overseas and would just come home to see my mum and dad and brothers and sisters,” Wilma says.

“For me to get established in Australia I'd be leaving too much behind because it takes a while to get yourself established.”

Brisbane jazz fans will be able to experience Wilma in all her live glory when she performs with The Andrew Butt Trio at Doo-Bop Jazz Bar in August.

“Andrew and I became friends and when he came to Cairns he asked if I'd like to sing something with his trio and of course I said yes,” Wilma says of how she and Andrew came to work together some years ago.

“I was retired and teaching singing at TAFE, then when I retired from that he asked if I'd seriously consider singing with his trio. So we did the Stonnington Jazz Festival in 2016 and we came back [to Brisbane] for the Primitif anniversary.”

Her appearance at the Primitif anniversary turned out to be Wilma coming full circle, returning to the place where decades before a moment of spontaneous singing altered the course of her life forever.

“The lady who was the manager or owner of that restaurant when I first started [with Peter Hackworth], she is still alive and has Eat Street, I think it is, here in Brisbane,” Wilma says.

“I was so excited to see her because she said 'I remember you' and I said 'good lord, you're still working here', and she said 'Wilma, I work all my life'.”

Wilma Reading performs with The Andrew Butt Trio at Doo-Bop Jazz Bar (Brisbane) 21 August and at Wangaratta Jazz Festival 2-4 November.

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