The piano music of Winifred Atwell, with its dynamic high spirits, optimism and mischief, is the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums and an astounding boost to productivity. Small wonder that she became a superstar during the 1950s, helping to thaw that decade’s long winter. Two of her piano medleys, which were released for the festive season and cannily entitled Let’s Have a Party and Let’s Have Another Party, shot into the top ten, the latter becoming the first number one by a Black artist in the UK (in 1954). The arrangements blended Edwardian music-hall classics with twenties and thirties popular jazz tunes. Let’s Have a Party begins with If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie) before catapulting irresistibly into Knees Up Mother Brown, then moving into a gentler, more romantic waltz tempo with Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built For Two) and She Was One of the Early Birds (And I Was One of the Worms). The even more delightful sequel melds George Robey’s Another Little Drink Wouldn’t Do Us Any Harm with Lily of Laguna and When the Red, Red, Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along). The following Let’s Have a Ding Dong, despite the title’s unwelcome suggestion of a pub altercation, merely demonstrates that Yes We Have No Bananas, Happy Days Are Here Again and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles were always meant to be together, while Make It a Party integrates Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend with Don’t Dilly Dally On the Way and concludes, inevitably, Down At the Old Bull and Bush. (Atwell flirted briefly with skiffle and rock and roll in 1957’s less successful Let’s Have a Ball, in which her trademark treatment is somewhat incongruously applied to Puttin’ On the Style, Shake, Rattle and Roll and Rock Around the Clock).
As these mashups were of songs to which most people would still have known the lyrics, Atwell’s singles were like an early, portable form of karaoke, allowing for a domestic, postwar recapturing of the pub singalong atmosphere. Her sound sparked a nation-wide craze for honky-tonk piano, but it also nostalgically evoked the tinny plonkity-plonk of pianolas and pub upright pianos, a timbre which, for me, instantly summons up the Edwardian age. These staples of entertainment were already beginning to fall out of fashion, and Atwell’s husband and promoter Lew Levisohn cannily tugged on audience’s heartstrings with his ‘other piano’ gimmick. While most of her on-stage set consisted of classical music performed in the best possible highbrow taste on a grand piano, the concert always closed with ragtime and boogie-woogie played on a battered upright pub piano next to it, Atwell beaming impishly over her shoulder while her incredibly nimble fingers executed the most dazzlingly rapid and difficult passages, as if, to her, this was all a walk in the park —as indeed it was. She was possessed of a superhuman rhythmic precision which, while it shines on her recording of Rhapsody in Blue, takes the breath away in the popular pieces. Her charmingly hectic rendition of Edith Piaf’s The Poor People of Paris, also a UK number one, calls to mind a manic mouse running amok in a music box. Apart from her classical ability, she also had a polished, refined style on the more exalted jazz standards, calling to mind George Shearing in a meltingly beautiful version of Gershwin’s Summertime.
Atwell came from a family of Trinidadian chemists in Tunapuna and was originally supposed to become one herself, but turned out to be a child musical prodigy. She learnt piano from her mother at two years old, gave Chopin concerts at five and, delightfully, became a piano teacher herself at six. During the war she was a favourite performer of American servicemen stationed in Trinidad, in the process mastering boogie-woogie. She then adventurously emigrated to New York, where she studied with the famous Russian-American classical pianist Alexander Borovsky, and was subsequently accepted by the Royal Academy of Music in 1946, moving to London to take up her place and eking out an existence by playing ragtime in various venues around town, a period to which she later referred as her ‘starving in a garret’ phase. Despite these struggles and unpromising conditions, Atwell was (according to her Wikipedia entry) the first female piano student at the RAM to have achieved the highest grade for musicianship. Eventually her performances caught the attention of talent spotters, and her joyous, glittering account of American composer George Botsford’s 1908 Black and White Rag on the aforementioned battered old pub piano, in her own arrangement, became a radio standard on the BBC. It fizzes with excitement and cheer, instantly lifting the spirits. Atwell had three Royal Command Variety Performances in total, composing her own Britannia Rag for the first in 1952, and Coronation Rag for the Queen’s enthronement in 1953. (Her Majesty was a fan, requesting Roll Out the Barrel as an encore after a private concert given by Atwell at the Palace.) Indeed, in addition to Atwell's brilliance as a performer and arranger, she was an extremely gifted composer. The wildly enjoyable Jubilee Rag of 1952 was perhaps inspired by her childhood on Jubilee Street in Tunapuna. This piece, with its exciting rhythmic changes and a jauntiness bordering on the deranged, starts out emulating Scott Joplin but then develops a prancing playfulness and humour all its own.
Despite the raucousness of her biggest hits and a dazzling grin full of bonhomie, Atwell in private was by all accounts a quiet, modest, and intellectual character, an avid reader on a wide range of subjects, devoutly Catholic (she played the piano in her local church), and a keen follower of cricket. She was also generous with her influence, responsible for the discovery of Matt Monro (the “singing bus driver” of Born Free and On Days Like These fame), and performing many concerts for charity. While Atwell claimed that racism had never negatively impacted her life, she was a determined campaigner for Aboriginal rights following her move to Australia in the seventies.
She may have been speaking truthfully (or graciously) about her experiences in England, but racism did prevent her from conquering America. A scheduled appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was cancelled due to racist agitation and the broadcasters’ well-founded fear that the American South would not be able to cope with the appearance of a Black woman with an English accent. While Atwell probably already had enough on her plate with a demanding jet-setting career as a huge star throughout the Commonwealth, American audiences certainly missed out on a great deal of warmth, love, and joy.--Isabel Taylor