The ragtime pianist was a 1950s superstar
BY STEPHEN GROENEWEGEN
Let's have a Winifred Atwell party!
'Let's Have a Party' and 'Black and White Rag' were two of the signature hits by Winifred Atwell (27 February 1914 – 28 February 1983), the pianist from Trinidad and Tobago who was a popular sensation in the UK in the 1950s. After her first tour in 1955, Australia fell in love with her too, and you can get acquainted in our new curated collection.
Here she is in 1964, visiting the construction site of the Sydney Opera House, where she gives an impromptu performance of 'Waltzing Matilda' that wins over the audience of workers.
Winifred Atwell wasn't the first, or only, performer at the Opera House construction site. Four years earlier, Paul Robeson climbed the scaffolding and sang 'Ol' Man River' for the workers. But it seems unlikely that anyone else played piano on the site before the official opening in 1973.
The record-breaking Miss A
Winifred, also known as 'Winnie' and 'The Amazing Miss A', started as a classical pianist and studied at the Royal Academy in London. Her mother encouraged Winnie not to be a musical snob; instead she learnt to play in any venue, 'from the church to the theatre'. And it was the burgeoning boogie-woogie and ragtime craze where Winnie found her niche.
She's sold over 20 million records and was the first black artist to sell a million records in the UK, where she had two No. 1 records and a string of Top 10 hits in the 1950s. She's still the only female instrumentalist to reach No. 1 in the UK singles chart. She broke box-office records during her 1955 Australian tour and at the time was the highest-paid star from a Commonwealth country to visit these shores. Winnie loved Australia so much she settled here in 1970.
The Amazing Winifred Atwell includes segments from her episode of This is Your Life with Roger Climpson, her farewell interview and performance on The Mike Walsh Show in 1981 and a complete episode of her radio show, The Winifred Atwell Show, from the height of her popularity.