Born Una Winifred Atwell, 27 February 1910, Tunapuna, Trinidad
Born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Winifred Atwell was the only child of a chemist and studied pharmacy with the intention of taking on the family business at some stage. However, she also studied the piano from the age of four and her desire to become a classical pianist was stronger. So good was she that reputedly she was giving Chopin recitals by the time she was 7 years old. Nearby to where she lived was the US Air Force base of Piarco where Winnie played classical and light pieces to entertain the airmen. There she was challenged to play boogie woogie, a piano style that took the American public by storm in the late 1930s. In answer to a bet she wrote a piece called "Piarco Boogie", later to be renamed "Five Finger Boogie".
In the early 1940s Atwell left Trinidad to study music, first in New York under Alexander Borovsky and then, in 1946, in London under Harold Craxton at the Royal Academy of Music. In order to supplement her income in Britain, Winnie took up engagements in small clubs, playing jazz, ragtime and boogie woogie. In 1948 she was spotted at London's Casino Theatre (where she was a last minute replacement at a charity concert) by entrepreneur Bernard Delfont, who put her in theatre variety shows all over Britain. On one of these shows Winifred came across disc jockey and former bandleader Jack Jackson, who recommended her to Decca. For her recording test on March 20, 1951, she played her own composition "Manzilla" and "Gypsy Samba" which became her first release in June (Decca F 9680).
It was her fifth single, recorded on October 4, 1951, that made her career take off like a bullet from a gun. Choosing a B-side for her recording of "Cross Hands Boogie" she tried her hands at George Botsford's 1908 composition "Black and White Rag". Winnie decided it didn't sound right on a grand piano and she recorded it on her "other piano", an old upright with a 'tinny' sound that reputedly cost her fifty shillings at a junk shop. (Later she would insure the instrument for £ 10,000.) Jack Jackson stepped in again and his championing of this 'B-side' on BBC's Record Round Up soon saw it selling by the tens of thousands. There were no record charts yet in the UK (these would be introduced in November 1952), otherwise Winnie's record would surely have hit the top. "Black and White Rag" went on to sell over a million copies and was later selected as the signature tune for 'Pot Black', BBC Television's first regular snooker programme (1969-84). The 'other piano' became an integral part of Atwell's act and accompanied her on all her major tours.
One success followed another in 1952 : she topped the bill at the London Palladium, had her own Radio Luxembourg programme and made the first of a number of appearances on the Royal Variety Show. More Top 10 hits followed, like "Britannia Rag", "Coronation Rag", "Flirtation Waltz" and two chart toppers: "Let's Have Another Party" (1954, her second gold disc) and "The Poor People Of Paris" (1956). Until 1957 she had great success with rags and a series of "knees up", sing-along medleys. In the middle of all the pop there was the "back to her roots" single, "Rachmaninoff's 18th Variation On A Theme By Paganini" (a.k.a. "The Story of Three Loves"), which went to # 9 on the UK charts in 1954. At that time she was temporarily recording for the Philips label, but she soon returned to Decca.
Early in 1955 Atwell made the first of what were to be many tours of Australia where she had spectacular success. But in the UK her sales were hurt by the competition of rock and roll and also of pianist Russ Conway, who played in a comparable honky tonk style. With the decline in variety theatres and the absence of hit records, her appearances in the 1960s were becoming restricted to clubs and the small screen. A change of record labels proved no help either and her repertoire on Pye and Philips never matched the rags, boogies and pop songs of the days with Decca. Australia still beckoned and it was to that country that she retired in 1971, although she did not fit in with that country's 'White Australia' immigration policy. Winifred Atwell was finally granted full citizenship in Australia in 1981, two years before she died of a heart attack on February 28, 1983 at the age of 73.
(Most websites and printed sources say that she was born in 1914 and died at 69. 1910 as the year of birth is based on the picture of her grave at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=23013 To add to the confusion, her 1947 marriage certificate states that she was born in 1915. And some sources mention April 27 as her birthday.)
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winifred_Atwell
Acknowledgements : Ossie Dales, Joseph Murrells, Wikipedia.
Dik, January 2013
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