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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Black And White Rag - Winifred Atwell

Una Winifred Atwell (27 February or 27 April, 1910 or 1914 – 28 February 1983) was a Trinidad-born British pianist who enjoyed great popularity in Britain and other countries (including Australia) from the 1950s with a series of boogie-woogie and ragtime hits, selling over 20 million records. She was the first black person to have a number one hit in the UK Singles Chart, and still the only female instrumentalist to do so Atwell was born in Tunapuna in Trinidad and Tobago. She and her parents lived in Jubilee Street. Her family owned a pharmacy, and she trained as a pharmacist, and was expected to join the family business. Winifred, however, had played the piano from a young age, and achieved considerable popularity locally. She used to play for American servicemen at the air force base (which is now the main airport). It was whilst 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 attracted attention with 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 which were well received. The third, "Jezebel," scurried to the top of the best seller lists. It was her fourth disc that catapulted her to huge popularity in the UK. A fiendishly 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. Atwell was championed by popular disc jockey Jack Jackson, who introduced her to Decca promotions manager Hugh Mendl, who launched his career as a staff producer at Decca producing Atwell's recordings. "Black And White Rag" started a craze for her honky-tonk style of playing. The rag was originally performed on a concert grand for the occasion, but Atwell felt it did not sound right, and so got her husband to buy a honky tonk piano for 30 shillings which would then be used for the released version of the song. A Decca recording by Atwell is George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Ted Heath's band, which contained an arrangement in the slow section in the Glenn Miller style. Atwell's husband, former stage comedian, Lew Levisohn, was vital in shaping her career as a variety star. The two had met in 1946, and married soon after. They were inseparable up to Levisohn's death in Hong Kong in December 1977; they had no children. He had cannily made the choice, for stage purposes, of her playing first a concert grand, then a beaten-up old upright piano. The latter was purchased from a Battersea junk shop for 50 shillings. This became famous as Winifred Atwell's "other piano". It would later feature all over the world, from Las Vegas to the Sydney Opera House, travelling over half a million miles by air throughout Winifred Atwell's concert career. While contributing to a posthumous BBC radio appreciation of Atwell's career, Richard Stilgoe revealed that he was now the owner of the famous "other piano". When Atwell first came to Britain, she initially earned only a few pounds a week. By the mid-1950s, this had shot up to over $10,000. By 1952, her popularity had spread internationally. Her hands were insured with Lloyds of London for a quarter of a million dollars (the policy stipulating that she was never to wash dishes). She signed a record contract with Decca Records, 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. 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 U.S. 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 $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 toured Australia many times and took on Australian guitarist Jimmy Doyle as her musical director in the 1960s. Her popularity in Australia led to her settling in Sydney in the 1970s. She became an Australian citizen two years before her death. Keith Emerson noted her influence on his playing in an interview: "I've always been into ragtime. In England- and I'm sure Rick Wakeman would concur- we loved Winifred Atwell, a fantastic honky-tonk and ragtime player." Atwell 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, of a major repertoire work, the "Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op. 16", by Grieg. The two-channel version (engineered by Decca's Roy Wallace) appears not to have been released, but a transfer of the Decca LP (mono) LF1206 has been produced and issued by Pristine Audio as an available download. If you support live Blues acts, up and coming Blues talents and want to learn more about Blues news and Fathers of the Blues, ”LIKE” ---Bman’s Blues Report--- Facebook Page! I’m looking for great talent and trying to grow the audience for your favorite band! See Video Here

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