National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Winifred Atwell (1913-1983)

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Winifred Atwell, pianist and entertainer, was born in Tunapuna, near Port of Spain, Trinidad, the only child of a chemist and a district nurse. Atwell began playing the piano at the age of four and within a couple of years she was giving recitals of Chopin at charity concerts. As a young woman she worked in her father's chemist shop, and he insisted that she took a degree in pharmacy. However, in her spare time she entertained friends and continued to take part in charity concerts.

After performing in Trinidad's Services Club during World War II, Atwell went to New York to study piano technique with the celebrated classical pianist Alexander Borovsky. In 1946 she came to Britain, determined to become a concert pianist, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. She supported herself by working in the evenings playing the piano in dance halls and clubs. In 1947 she married Lew Levisohn, a variety artiste who gave up his stage career to become her manager. Encouraged by Levisohn, Atwell turned her attention to playing ragtime music and became one of Britain's most popular entertainers. Atwell’s breakthrough came in 1948 at a charity concert at the London Casino. She was almost completely unknown before the curtain rose but, after captivating the audience with her ragtime music, she found herself taking several curtain calls. In 1951 she signed a contract with Decca, and in 1952 she appeared in the first Royal Variety Performance for the new queen, Elizabeth II. To a rapturous reception, Winifred closed her act with ‘Britannia Rag’, a number she had composed specially for the occasion and which reached Number Five in the pop charts.

In the bleak post-war years a party was not complete without Atwell's records being played, and they sold in their millions. In 1954, when she topped the British pop charts with ‘Let's Have Another Party’, she became the first black recording artist to reach Number One. By 1954 she had also become the first recording-artist from Britain to have three hits selling a million records: ‘Black and White Rag’ (1952), ‘Let's Have a Party’ (1953), and ‘Let's Have Another Party’ (1954). Between 1952 and 1960 she had no less than eleven top ten hits and at the end of the twentieth century she was the most successful female instrumentalist ever to have featured in the British pop charts. At the peak of her popularity her hands were insured at Lloyds for £40,000 - a vast sum in the early 1950s - and her fan club had more than 50,000 members.

Atwell never made a secret of the fact that her heart lay with classical music. Despite her success with ragtime music, she never lost sight of her original ambition to become a concert pianist. In 1954 her exquisite recording of the eighteenth variation from Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini reached Number Nine in the pop charts. On November 28, 1954 Atwell packed the Royal Albert Hall as a soloist, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing Grieg's piano concerto and George Gershwin's ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Though Atwell attempted to keep up with a new trend in popular music - rock and roll - it hastened the end of her career in the charts. However, she was one of the most successful and beloved entertainers of her time, as well as the first Caribbean artist to become a household name in an era when Black performers in Britain had more chance of success if they were American.

In the 1950s Winifred Atwell's carefree, happy-go-lucky records were extremely popular. In the severity of the post-war years she was one of Britain's most successful and best-loved entertainers. Her warm personality and glamour were just what the British public needed, and she was always consistent, rarely attempting to do anything outside her speciality. Audiences knew what to expect from her, and she never let them down. By the 1960s tastes in popular music had changed rapidly and Atwell’s rapid style of piano playing, with its famous ‘tinny’ bar-room sound, went out of fashion. Happily, Atwell had become well known abroad. Her first Australian tour in 1958–9 lasted thirteen months. Her popularity with Australian audiences was so great that, when her record sales began to fall in Britain, she settled there with her husband. Atwell never completely recovered from the death of her husband in 1978. Three years later she became an Australian citizen; she died from a heart attack in Sydney on 27 February 1983.

Further information: Stephen Bourne, ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in Film and Television (Continuum, 2001) and Winifred Atwell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Photography

The photograph is by Walter Hanlon. Taken in Brixton at the Empress Theatre in 1952.

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