Atwell was born in Tunapuna in Trinidad and Tobago as Una Winifred Atwell. She and her parents lived in Jubilee Street. Her family owned a pharmacy, and she trained as a druggist, and was expected to join the family business, Winifred, however, had played the piano since a young age, and achieved considerable popularity locally.
She left Trinidad in the early 1940s and travelled to the United States to study with Alexander Borovsky and in 1946 moved to London, where she had gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music. She became the first female pianist to be awarded the Academy's highest grading for musicianship. To support her studies, she played rags at London clubs and theatres. These modest beginnings in variety would one day see her topping the bill at the London Palladium.
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 recorded in an unusual fashion, with technicians having "de-tuned" a concert grand for the occasion. (Contrary to popular legend, it was not recorded on a "honky tonk" piano at all.) The exuberant bell-like sound of the record was Atwell's ticket to popular success. In austere, post-war England, her brilliant playing and effusive presentation a made her the nation's favourite instrumentalist.
Winifred 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 fifty 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 Winifred Atwell first came to Britain, she initially earned only a few pounds a week. By the mid-fifties, 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. 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, such as Let's Have a Party, "Flirtation Waltz", Poor People of Paris (which reached number one in the charts in 1956), Britannia Rag and Jubilee Rag. Her signature "Black and White Rag" became famous again in the 1970s as the theme of the highly popular BBC snooker programme "Pot Black", which also enjoyed great popularity in Australia when screened on the ABC network.
She had her own series in Britain (1956-57) and on Australian television 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. (Photo showing Winnie with Alma Cogan & Harry Secombe)
In 1955 Winifred Atwell arrived in Australia and was greeted as an international celebrity. 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. Her enormous popularity in Australia led to her settling in Sydney in the 1970s. She became an Australian citizen two years before her death.
Winifred Atwell also created headlines in the 1960s with her spectacular dieting (slimming from sixteen to twelve stone on what would today be called a protein diet). One of her gifts to British show business was discovering Matt Monro.
Winifred Atwell suffered a stroke in 1980. She officially retired on The Mike Walsh Show, then Australia's then highest rating television variety program, in 1981. The only public performances from this point were as organist in her parish church at Narrabean. She categorically stated on the Mike Walsh show that she would retire and not return as a public performer, but that she had an excellent career. Her last TV performance was a medley of Black and White Rag and Twelfth Street rag, before being given a standing ovation and awarded a bouquet.
In 1983 following a fire that destroyed her Narrabeen home, she suffered a heart attack and died while staying with friends in Seaforth. She is buried beside husband Lew Levisohn in South Gundarimba Private Cemetery in Northern New South Wales, just outside Lismore. (info edited from Wikipedia)
**There is some uncertainty over her date and year of birth. Many sources suggest 27 February 1914, but there is a strong suggestion that her birthday was 27 April. Most sources give her year of birth as 1914, but her gravestone states that she died at the age of 73, suggesting that she was born in 1910.
Five Finger Boogie is one of Winifred's own compositions and here she is playing it in a film clip from 1953.