A relative mentioned in passing that we may be related to the internationally famous, classically trained Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell – I had no idea of this. A further call to my relative revealed she had kept a newspaper cutting from 1954 and I was astonished to learn that Winifred’s hands were insured for £40,000 in the 1950s! Winifred was an international celebrity, known in households at home with Stephen Bourne citing her as a’folk hero for the British working classes.’ (Bourne 2001). My relative also told me that Elton John named one of his touring piano’s after Winifred and looking further I see that Elton names Winifred as one of his most early influences.
My next port of call, was to my mother. So duly, I rang and asked “Who was Winifred?” …it turns out not only was she famous, from Trinidad and a classically trained pianist, but also the ‘first black female instrumentalist to have a UK number one hit in the singles chart’ in postwar Britain. Winifred was extremely popular in the 1950s, Decca signed, with ‘millions of copies of her sheet music’ widely available. Again, the more I delve, the more information of her extraordinary talent becomes apparent. Winifred had more than ten top ten hits between 1952 and 1960, and was ‘the first recording artist from Britain to have three hits selling a million records.’
Further searches online revealed Winifred was born in Tunapuna near Port of Spain, Trinidad and began playing at the tender age of four and later, as she developed, performed Chopin in recitals in Trinidad, a child prodigy. As a young woman she moved to New York to study piano under Alexander Borovsky and then came to Britain to study at the Royal Academy of Music where she was the first female pianist to be awarded the highest grade in musicianship.
Winifred was a versatile, talented pianist, who supplemented her studies by playing ragtime, this I understand stemmed from her early experience of entertaining troops in the Caribbean. McKay (2014) asserts that Winifred has been neglected in both the pop and jazz musical histories. Her migration experiences, pre Windrush , were funded by her own family. I am astounded at how little I knew of her story and international success both in the classical and popular genres, and I am now in my half century, British born, with Caribbean heritage from Trinidad – Port of Spain, hence the family tenuous link, which needs more investigation before the oral history side disappears.
Winifred’s story fascinates me as I have always loved music in it’s many forms, and to hear that a Trinidadian woman, was a classically trained pianist, a number one hit maker, a traveller who took her ‘my other piano’ when she travelled, stills astounds me. However Winifreds classically trained roots meant she performed classical pieces on concert grands (at events including the Royal Variety) followed by ragtime, jazz and honky tonk numbers which she popularised. But my relative asserts Winifred’s first love was the honky tonk style, and said back in the day no one cared what you played – you were just famous for what you did.
To our family participating in music is part of our everyday lives, but also representation matters. The Chineke! Orchestra (recently at the BBC Proms) debuted in September at Birmingham THSH, opening their Classical music season. Examples of musicians of diverse origins is something our mixed heritage children can identify with. Like Winifred, diversity needs to be celebrated, and a Sheroes of History #TellHerStory that deserves reigniting for Britain, Trinidad and all our children.
Written for Sheroes of History by Charmion Roberts, @chippie41. Charmion is a Warwick Graduate exploring culture in the West Midlands & further afield! Interested in life therefore interested in politics. Family, parenting, arts and music.
Find out more…
Check out her profile on LastFM, where you can find out about her, but more importantly, listen to her playing too!
Have a look on the National Portrait Gallery’s page about Winifred and see some more images of her, here
There is another great profile of Atwell here
Watch her play piano in this video: