Arts & Culture
Blue plaque unveiled for Winifred Atwell: The most successful black artist you’ve probably never heard of
- 3:00 pm
18 December 2020
Online | Free
This Friday, at 1 PM a presentation will be given in her honour, with the plaque being unveiled at 2 PM in Brixton, London.
About Winifred Atwell
On 2 December 1956 a track by Winifred Atwell became the first ever by a black person to go to number one in the UK singles chart.
She’s still the only female instrumentalist to achieve the coveted top spot selling over 20 million records and counting Elton John as one of her fans, yet she has largely been forgotten.
Atwell was a Trinidadian pianist who came to the UK and studied at the Royal Academy of Music and went on to become a household name in the 1950s.
Atwell at the piano with entertainer Liberace – Photo Credit: Sky News
While studying, she played in London’s clubs and theatres to support herself and was spotted by a manager who started her career in 1952, recording a track called Black And White Rag which propelled her to stardom.
She became famous for her upbeat and unique style, which saw her combining classical music with boogie-woogie and ragtime tunes.
She developed a routine of having two pianos on stage, first playing classical on her Steinway and then halfway through, she would say “now I’m going to play my other piano”, and switch to a battered and slightly out of tune instrument she bought in a London junk shop for the boogie-woogie and ragtime hits.
However, despite being a true trailblazer, few people remember her now and fans of Atwell want her songs to be re-released for a new generation to appreciate.
Winifred Atwell – Photo Credit: Sky News
Uchenna Ngwe discovered Winifred’s work while she was researching historical black classical musicians – the genre Atwell started out in.
She said Atwell moved into pop music because at the time it was a more acceptable field for a black woman to succeed in.
“She was a classical pianist, but some people found it difficult to take her seriously and stereotyped her as a black woman from Trinidad. So, she made her move into pop music which is where she found most success.”
Ms Ngwe agreed that Atwell’s magic came from her “presence and personality” as much as her playing.
She invited the audience in when she was performing, allowing them to join in her party which was “completely opposite to what people had going on in their everyday lives”.
She stressed Atwell should be remembered because her work was “so innovative” and “really, really important” at the time.
“The work she was doing across multiple genres is just something not many people are able to do today”.
So why has she not been remembered more widely?
Ms Ngwe believes it’s down to the style she played and the fact her tunes dated so quickly.
“Both the pieces she went to number one with were quite poppy, they were very much of the time and don’t really translate into now.”
Songwriter and lyrist Sir Richard Stilgoe owns Winifred Atwell’s ‘other piano’ – the one which she used for her honky-tonk performances and recordings.
“You sing a song and it goes into the charts and it goes away. People remember it because it’s the music of their youth, but it’s not much more than that.”
Sir Richard does however believe her music still works today but says the most important thing is her position in history.
“At the time there were plenty of black rock and roll artists – Winifred Atwell was different. Winifred was a great ambassador for what can be done.”
Register to Attend
You are invited to attend this event virtually, via zoom.
Meeting ID: 972 5437 4116