Shelia Tracy Tributes

Shelia Tracy | January 10 1934 – September 30 2014

Much loved BBC broadcaster and former BTS President Sheila Tracy was a talented broadcaster who enjoyed a strong rapport with musicians of many traditions. Her career took off in an era when a television in the home was a rarity and live performances drew audiences who liked what they had heard on the ‘wireless’. Although a trailblazer for women on the television, it was in radio – particularly the world of Radio 2 – that she found her final niche.

Sheila studied trombone under Sidney Langston, along with violin and piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Choosing trombone as her specialist instrument, she remembered, ‘down in the string section at the Royal Academy, it was all girls. Up in the brass were all the boys! I had never played a brass instrument before, but it all worked out. I have never been out of work.’

The Tracy Sisters

Sheila joined the Ivy Benson All Girls Band in 1956. While in the band, she paired up with trombone player and vocalist, Phyll Brown to form the duo ‘The Tracy Sisters’. The act’s first big break occurred when they replaced the Kaye Sisters on a tour with brothers Mike and Bernie Winters, the English comedy double act. This led to regular radio and television broadcasts, appearing on popular shows such as Workers Playtime and The Black and White Minstrel Show. Their cabaret jobs took them all over the world, including a three-month engagement at the Great Eastern Hotel, Calcutta. The subsequent invitation of a six-month contract in Las Vegas was too much for Brown, who declined, and the duo broke up.

At her mother’s suggestion, Sheila applied to the BBC for a job. She was accepted, and in the 1960s begun her television career as one of the last ‘in-vision’ announcers. After arguing passionately that the nation was ready for a female newsreader, Sheila made her radio debut in a late-night Radio 4 slot in July 1974, making radio history as the first female newsreader with the BBC.

Three years later, Sheila transferred to Radio 2, where she pioneered the music show ‘Trucker’s Hour’, an idea borrowed from the US. Presenting this popular overnight show gained Sheila a cult following and she later insisted it was ‘the most successful show I’ve ever done’.

Tracy in 1961, working as an announcer at The Radio Show

Sheila was to enjoy even longer-lasting popularity as the presenter of Radio 2’s Big Band Special. From its inception in 1979, the show was centred on the BBC Big Band, which was then a contracted BBC Orchestra. As well as the show’s weekly broadcasts, the band played up to 60 concerts a year and for non-broadcast performances, Sheila was even known to join the trombone section. In the end Sheila spent over two decades with Big Band Special.

Sheila was also the long serving presenter of Radio 2’s National Big Band Competition. Her producer on Big Band special, Bob McDowell, explains that ‘true to form she wouldn’t just show up for the Winners broadcast – but always attended the judging session and took a genuine interest in what the next generation of musicians were doing’. Sheila was also a supporter and judge at the British Trombone Society’s bi-annual Don Lusher Competition. 

Sheila wrote two books about jazz and big bands. The first, ‘Bands, Booze and Broads’, published 1995, collects a series of interviews she had carried out for Radio 2 documentaries, each featuring top American bands and players from the 30s, 40s and 50s. ‘Talking Swing: British Big Bands’, which followed two years later, puts the spotlight on British Bands of the same era. Preceding these publications, were two reference books ‘Who’s Who on Radio’ (1983) and ‘Who’s Who in Popular Music’ (1984). 

An introduction to the world of brass bands came in the late 1970s when Sheila compered a series of concerts at the Colston Hall, Bristol. Having developed an interest, she became part of the first female adjudicators panel for the 4th division National Brass Band Championships in 1994. Following this engagement Sheila regularly announced the results and compered the Gala concerts for the championship finals at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 1997, Sheila was made a Freeman of the City of London and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. In 2002 she was awarded the Alan Dell Trophy for Services to Music and one year later, she was one of two overseas broadcasters to be honoured by the Big Band Academy of America in Los Angeles.

Sheila left Radio 2 in 2000 and moved to newly formed Primetime Radio where she hosted her own weekly show, Swingtime with Sheila Tracy, until 2008. Subsequently she had shows on the US internet station Pure Jazz Radio and on Age UK’s station, The Wireless.

Personal messages from friends of the British Trombone Society

‘Sheila was a complete professional, in everything she did. If she was the presenter of a show, that you were involved in, you knew you were in safe hands. She’d be at rehearsals talking to all the musicians about the show and then using little anecdotes that would make the show more interesting. Qualities that are rare these days. She was also a very kind person. Memories of her friends and colleagues at her home sitting down to her home made Cornish pasties, home made bread sandwiches etc, very happy days that we will miss. I feel privileged to have been a friend for so many years.’ – Bill Geldard

‘Sheila didn’t suffer fools gladly, as we all know, but under the often firm exterior lay a very kind heart. I often think back to the happy times with her both socially and professionally. She was very helpful to Don and I, in the last months of his life when he became ill. She will be one of those people who will be remembered affectionately with a giggle for many years to come.’ – Diana Lusher

Musicians have always worked hard for their money, but Sheila was old enough to remember a world of constant touring and buzzing provincial halls. Her great breadth of experience as a performer helped her develop a natural presence as a presenter. On a personal level, she knew what made life worth living for performers – these qualities will be greatly missed.  

This tribute was first put together for the Winter 2014 edition of The Trombonist.