STILL A PERFORMER: Shirley Simmons strikes a pose for the camera as she looks back on her years singing for the troops in Vietnam.
STILL A PERFORMER: Shirley Simmons strikes a pose for the camera as she looks back on her years singing for the troops in Vietnam.

Shirley Simmons was our very own Vera Lynn

SHE was Australia's Vera Lynn of Vietnam - a pretty young blonde with a golden voice who kept up the morale of troops.

Now 86 and a resident at Uniting Nareen Gardens Bateau Bay, Shirley Simmons has lost none of the spirit, humour and bubbly nature which made her a star of stage, radio and TV.

"I told a school teacher when I was eight years old that I was going to work in a bank and become a famous singer... and it happened," Shirley laughed.

Of course she had no idea that she would one day be crowned Australia's "Miss TV" and sing on the country's hottest TV program, Six O'Clock Rock, introduced by Johnny O'Keefe (with whom she shared a singing teacher).

Nor could she guess she would perform more than 170 shows across seven tours of Vietnam in five years, and be friends with film stars William Holden and John Wayne.

"I was a pretty young blonde, with a pretty voice and very pretty dresses, and that was what they wanted at the time," Shirley said modestly.

However, she will "never forget" her days in Vietnam and is currently recalling them for an autobiography to ensure her story is not lost.

Shirley was 25 when, having been encouraged (by "a very good looking pianist"), she left her bank typewriter behind to give professional singing a go, and she found herself quickly booked up in nightclubs throughout Sydney.

On the sleeve of a 45 record from 1958, which included the songs He's My Guy and After You've Gone, Festival Records introduced their newest star.

"We are confident that her vocal style and natural talent, added to her personal charm - that is slightly out of this world - will take her to the top of the tree in her profession on record as in live appearance."

And it did. But in 1963, while fulfilling a contract in Hong Kong, Shirley was sent to perform for troops in Vietnam, and was overwhelmed by the reception she received.

When a reporter challenged her as she left, saying she should go back, the adventurous and resourceful Shirley did just that.

Convincing the reporter to sell her his tape recorder, she returned to Hong Kong to pre-record with a big band, and set off back to Vietnam on her own to perform for seven months with that tape as her only backing.

It was just the start. Shirley continued to perform stints there until late 1968, with an increasingly professional approach, including bringing out other singers, musicians, go-go dancers and comedians.

"I would do paid shows for the Americans, and a lot of free shows for the Australian troops," she said with a smile.

While her stage could be almost anywhere, from a hospital ward to "the back of a truck, singing for 800 troops", Shirley said it was an "amazing compliment" to be so important to those serving.

"Just for that short time, it made them remember home, made them laugh and relax," she said.

But it wasn't without its risks. Shirley received neck and shoulder injuries in a ceiling cave-in from a nearby explosion.

One of her strongest memories, however, is of wrapping up her time singing bed-to-bed for the wounded in an American hospital, and a young black soldier being wheeled in from a helicopter.

When he asked her to sing for him, she explained that she had just finished, and he assumed that she wouldn't sing for him because he was black.

"So I sang for him; I sang People Who Need People and we both cried and cried," Shirley said, her voice breaking at the memory.

When she left Vietnam in late 1968 and married she said, "I walked out of the business", although she continued to book other touring acts for some time.

Shirley's Six O'Clock Rock performance of You've Gotta Have Heart is on YouTube, and anyone talking to her would have to say she has one of the biggest hearts around.


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