Atwell, Winifred (1914–1983)

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Atwell, Winifred (1914–1983)

Trinidad-born British pianist and entertainer who dominated the pop charts in the 1950s with a string of hits. Born in Tunapuna, Trinidad, in 1914; died in Sydney, Australia, on February 27, 1983.

Winifred Atwell, born in 1914 in Tunapuna, Trinidad, was trained as a classical pianist. Soon after arriving in London in 1946, she turned to the popular idiom, playing medleys in a vigorous ragtime style, which she played on a "honky-tonk" piano. Her 1952 Decca recording of George Botsford's "Black and White Rag" was immensely popular as it helped to relieve some of the gloom of a Britain still suffering from postwar austerity and economic anemia. For Queen Elizabeth II 's coronation in 1953, Atwell recorded "Flirtation Waltz," "Britannia Rag" and, especially for the royal occasion, a "Coronation Rag."

An even greater commercial success followed when Atwell hit upon the concept of recording a song medley that, in effect, was a sing-along of the type commonly found in pubs throughout the British Isles. Although scorned by highbrows, the Philips album "Let's Have a Party" hit the top of the charts. Armed with a winning formula, Atwell released "Let's Have Another Party" in 1954. Not surprisingly, the two hit albums quickly resulted in a flood of imitations, few if any of them as exuberant or commercially successful as were Atwell's.

In 1955, she returned to the Decca label and delighted its board of directors by turning in a string of hits that made it into the Top 20 category. Best known of her smash successes from these years was the 1956 "Poor People of Paris," which became very popular in the United States as performed by Les Baxter. The advent of rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s spelled the end of Atwell's domination of the charts, although she tried to join the new phenomenon in 1957 with her "Let's Rock 'n' Roll." Winifred Atwell died in Sydney, Australia, on February 27, 1983, fondly remembered by her now-aging, but still loyal, fans.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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