If the pharmacy industry had claimed her first, the world would have missed out on the incredible musical talent of Una Winifred Atwell. Winifred was to become the first black person to have a number-one hit in the UK Singles Chart and is still the only female instrumentalist to do so.
Born in Trinidad-Tobago in 1910, Winifred, as she was known, was destined to become a pharmacist as her parents owned a chemist and she was expected to join the family business. Despite this, she had learnt to play the piano and became very popular in her local town, thanks to her brilliance on the keyboard.
It was while she was playing at the Servicemen's Club at Piarco in northern Trinidad 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 and wrote "Piarco Boogie", which was later renamed "Five Finger Boogie".
The 1940s saw Winifred travel first to the United States, to study with Russian-American pianist Alexander Borovsky, then to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. She became the first female pianist to be awarded the academy's highest grading for musicianship.
Winifred and her magic fingers would go on to top the bill at the London Palladium, create standing room only crowds throughout Europe and Australasia, play three Royal Variety Performances and appear in every capital city in Europe, playing for more than 20 million people. Queen Elizabeth II even asked for an encore at a private party, requesting that Winifred play Roll Out the Barrel.
One night when a performer fell ill, Winifred stood in for them at the Casino Theatre. That same night, entrepreneur Bernard Delfont was in the audience and realised the talent that was before him. He wasted no time in signing her up to a long term contract. Winifred went on to have her own series in Britain called Bernard Delfont Presents The Winifred Atwell Show.
In Australia she was greeted as an international celebrity and her tour broke box-office records on the Tivoli circuit, bringing in A£600,000 in box office receipts. She was paid AUS$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.
It was while she was on a visit to the Northern Rivers of New South Wales with her husband, stage comedian Lew Levisohn, that they fell in love with the tranquillity and beauty of the area. Their friendship with Coraki priest Father Jim Carney explained why it was Winifred's wish that when the time came, they be buried near his parish. In 1980 she suffered a stroke and eventually died of a heart attack in 1983. Both Winifred and Lew are buried in South Gundurimba cemetery, just outside Lismore.
Originally published on Tales From The Grave Uncovering family history from down under By Samantha Elley
- 'Winifred Atwell' Wikipedia, accessed November 29, 2016.
- 'Winifred Atwell flair revisited', Northern Star, March, 7, 2016, Page 4.
- 'Boogie Woogie beauty took the world by storm', The Northern Star, December 3, 2016, https://www.northernstar.com.au/news/boogie-woogie-beauty-took-the-world-by-storm/3117298/, accessed online February 15, 2020