When painting in my studio I’m rather partial to having music playing in the background, and occasionally find myself enjoying the works of artist that has not been fully ‘recognised’ in the 21st century one such case is a performer that I am rather fond of called Wilma Reading. Finding information about her hasn’t been easy as there is little to no information about her on the Internet so I have taken it upon myself to wade through the handful of sites that did exist about her, an interview she did for ABC1 in 2011 and along with the information provided from the back of some of her LPs to form a structured biography of her life and career. I like many Brits first discovered Wilma Reading through British comedy duo, Morecambe & Wise and their show which ran on BBC1 from 1968 to 1977 and during its peak drew in viewing figures of 20 million (the largest in British television history) Wilma Reading appeared in several episodes as a musical guest but who was she?
On the back of her 1974 Take a closer look…. Wilma Reading album she is described as “part Tahitian- part British.” Originally from Cairns, Australia, Wilma Reading’s grandfather was of English-Irish descent, and helped build the city of Brisbane. Her father attempted a tour of the world on a motorbike but met her mother Heather Pitt in Tahiti and abandoned the trip. The same album tells us that she is a direct descendant of Scottish nobleman, William Pitt a relation of the Prime Minister (1759 – 1806) of the same name. This was elaborated on further in an interview for the TV Times in 1972 in which she said that William Pitt had been kidnapped and thrown aboard a South Sea bound ship and sold into slavery before eventually marring a native princess and having several sons. Adding that she had many relatives on the Polynesian islands, where apparently the name Pitt is fairly common. The eldest of seven children she was also the niece of singer Georgia Lee and aspired to someday becoming a singer. With her sisters she formed a vocal act to emulate the sound of the Maguire Sisters, singing at parties and on Australian radio.
Her solo career started in 1959 when she was heard singing at a friend’s birthday by the leader of a Brisbane jazz band, who invited her to join the band. She later impressed others and was employed as a performer at the Latin Quarter club in Pitt Street, Sydney and recorded for Festival Records. She then worked in Asia performing at the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel moving on to Bangkok at the Manila Hilton before moving on to the Tokyo Hilton. It was during her time in Asia that she met her husband Ray Lehr who became her manager. During one particular performance she impressed an agent representing the ABC Agency in America and went on to work at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. Shortly after she met a representatives of Duke Ellington who was looking out for a “girl singer.” She appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and was the first Australian to appear on the show. A booking at the BBC followed, which saw her appearing with Engelbert Humperdinck on Engelbert with the Young Generation in 1972 and The Harry Secombe Show before being picked up on the before mentioned Morecambe & Wise Show, elevating her to star status in the UK. She was a regular performer between 1973 and 1974 and with her high status, headlined several clubs around England, Scotland, and Wales. She appeared on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, performed with Ken Dodd on his Laughter Show and the London Palladium before taking over from Cleo Laine in the role of Julie in Showboat at the Adelphi Theatre in the West End. She recorded an LP at the EMI studios, Abbey Road and on the back of both her 1974 and 1976 album (in which she collaborated with Norman Newell), we learn that she took part in a five shows a day tour entertaining the Vietnam troops. A residency at New York City’s Copacabana night-club followed before performing with the national orchestras of Belgium, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Germany and toured with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Movies also played a small part in her career she recorded the soundtrack song for the The Tamarind Seed and appeared as Tita alongside Jim Brown in the film, Pacific Inferno in 1979 before returning to Cairns, where she reacquainted herself with her faith and took a teaching position at the TAFE in Queensland teaching music.
There we go, the life and career of Wilma Reading, if you haven’t heard her, I urge you to seek her out and enjoy her performances which can be found on the usual video sharing sites, but with the recent vinyl revival, why not treat yourself to one of her LP’s? Kick off your shoes, loosen your tie, mix yourself a Mai Tai and enjoy.