top of page

Winifred Atwell

Born February 27, 1914 Tunapuna

Died February 28, 1983

She was a pianist who enjoyed great popularity in Britain in the 1950s with a series of boogie woogie and ragtime hits. She sold over 20 million records

She and her parents lived in Jubilee Street, which is next to Fébeau and is located in San Juan/Laventille.

Her family owned a pharmacy, and she trained as a druggist, and was expected to join the family business, She played the piano since a young age, and achieved considerable popularity locally. She played for American servicemen at the Air Force base (which is now the main airport). It was while playing at the Servicemen's Club at Piarco that someone bet her she could not play something in the boogie-woogie style that was popular back home in the United States. She went away and wrote "Piarco Boogie", which was later renamed "Five Finger Boogie".

She left Trinidad in the early 40's, and travelled to the United States to study with Alexander Borovsky and in 1946 moved to London, where she had gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music. To support her studies, she played rags at London clubs and theatres particularly the London Palladium and Prince of Wales Theatre.

She gained attention at an unscheduled appearance at the Casino Theatre, where she substituted for an ill star. She caught the eye of entrepreneur Bernard Delfont, who put her on a long-term contract. She released three discs that were well received. The third, "Jezebel", went to the top of the bestseller lists. It was her fourth disc that catapulted her to huge popularity in the UK. A complex arrangement called "Cross Hands Boogie" was released to show her virtuoso rhythmic technique, but it was the B-side, a 1900s tune written by George Botsford called "Black and White Rag", that was to become a radio standard. She earned only a few pounds a week initially, but suddenly it shot up to over $50,000.

By 1950 her popularity had spread nationally and internationally, she signed a record contract with Decca in 1951, millions of copies of her sheet music were sold she also went on to record her best-known "hits", such as Let's Have a Ding-Dong, Poor People of Paris (which reached number one in the charts), Britannia Rag and Black and White Rag. This last piece became famous again in the 1970's as the signature tune of the Pot Black snooker programme on BBC television. It was also at this time other West Indians were excelling abroad with Edric Connor and Cy Grant singing for the BCC Radio and Rudolph Dunbar becoming the first black conductor to appear at the Royal Albert Hall.

Her hands were insured with Lloyd's of London for £40,000 (the policy stipulating that she was never to wash dishes). She signed a record contract with Decca, and her sales were soon 30,000 discs a week. She was by far the biggest selling pianist of her time. Her 1954 hit "Let's Have Another Party" was the first piano instrumental to reach number one in the UK Singles Chart. She is the only holder of two gold and two silver discs for piano music in Britain, and was the first black artist in the UK to sell a million records. Millions of copies of her sheet music were sold, and she went on to record her best-known hits, including "Let's Have a Party", "Flirtation Waltz", "Poor People of Paris" (which reached number one in the UK Singles Chart in 1956) "Britannia Rag" and "Jubilee Rag". Her signature "Black and White Rag" became famous again in the 1970s as the theme of the BBC snooker programme Pot Black, which also enjoyed great popularity in Australia when screened on the ABC network. It was during this period that she discovered Matt Monro and persuaded Decca to sign him.

She also performed numerous concerts, including Royal Variety Performances and television appearances. A typical concert would start with classical music played on a grand piano, followed by popular music on a honky tonk piano, which she lovingly referred to as 'my other piano'. That had been bought for £2 10s. at a Battersea junk shop in the late 1940's.

Winifred Atwell's peak was the second half of the 1950s, during which her concerts drew standing room only crowds in Europe and Australasia. She played three Royal Variety Performances, appeared in every capital city in Europe, and played for over twenty million people. 

At a private party for Queen Elizabeth II, she was called back for an encore by the monarch herself, who requested "Roll Out the Barrel". She became a firm television favourite. She had her own series in Britain. The first of these was Bernard Delfont Presents The Winifred Atwell Show. It ran for ten episodes on the new ITV network from 21 April to 23 June 1956, and the BBC picked up the series the following year. On a third triumphal tour of Australia, she recorded her own Australian television series, screened in 1960–1961.

Her brilliant career earned her a fortune, and would have extended further to the US but for issues of race. Her breakthrough appearance was to have been on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, but on arrival in America she was confronted with problems of selling the show in the south with a British-sounding black woman. The appearance was never recorded.

In 1955, Atwell arrived in Australia and was greeted as an international celebrity. Her tour broke box-office records on the Tivoli circuit, bringing in £600,000 in box office receipts. She was paid AUS$5,000 a week (the equivalent of around $50,000 today), making her the highest paid star from a Commonwealth country to visit Australia up to that time.

She was also a skilled interpreter of classical music. On 1 and 2 December 1954, at London's Kingsway Hall, she made one of the first stereo classical recordings in the UK, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanford Robinson

She often returned to Trinidad, and bought a house in St. Augustine a home she adored and later renamed Winvilla which was later turned into the Pan Pipers Music School by one of her students Miss Louise McIntosh.

In 1971 she and her husband the former British comedian and her manager Lew Levisohn settled in Sydney. Her career there spanned about 25 years. In 1983 following a fire that destroyed her Narrabeen apartment, she suffered a heart attack and died while staying with friends in Seaforth.

In 1969 she was awarded Trinidad and Tobago's national award the Gold Hummingbird Medal, for her achievements in music.

bottom of page