Una “Winifred” Atwell (27 February 1914 – 28 February 1983) was a pianist who enjoyed great popularity in the UK and other Commonwealth countries (including Oz) from the 1950s with a series of boogie and ragtime hits. Atwell was born in Tunapuna in Trinidad and Tobago. Her family owned a chemist shop and she was expected to take over the family business when she grew up but luckily for us average punters she decided her musical gifts were more important. After being discovered playing music in a bar by Americans who visited her homeland in WWII she was encouraged to study music seriously in London. While she studied she played boogie in the local bars and clubs. Her popularity in variety and clubs led to recording contracts and within a few years she was making a fortune. She often came to Oz because she had fallen in love with NSW and its people.

Winifred Atwell purchased waterside properties in Bilgola and Seaforth, as jumping-off bases for her worldwide performance commitments. Enjoying the deep affection of the public, she was nevertheless keenly aware of prejudice and injustice, and was outspoken about racism in Australia. She always donated her services in a charity concert on Sundays, the proceeds going to orphanages and needy children. She spoke out against the third world conditions endured by Australian Aborigines, which made headlines during an outback tour of the country in 1962. Dismissing racism as a factor in her own life, she said she felt she was "spoiled very much by the public." When she died she left her estate to the Australian Guide Dog Association and a small amount to her goddaughter. Winnie’s husband was Lew Levisohn. After Winifred had died it was one of Lew’s cousins that contested Winifred’s will and is reported to have been granted $30,000 from her estate.

Winifred Atwell suffered a stroke in 1980. She officially retired on The Mike Walsh Show, then Australia's highest rating television variety program, in 1981. Her only public performances from this point were as an organist in her parish church at Narrabeen. She categorically stated on the Mike Walsh show that she would retire and not return as a public performer, but that she had 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 Gundurimba Private Cemetery in northern New South Wales, just outside Lismore.

Info on Win's Oz recordings:

RCA had established an Australian subsidiary in the mid-1950s and released its first locally-made recordings in late 1956. It launched the Bluebird label in Australia ca. 1964 but it released only a handful of singles, all catalogued in RCA's standard '100000' series. All but one of these singles were by local performers - country duo The Webb Brothers, pop band Bobby Thomas And The Beaumen, Peter Hiscock and The Starliners and New Zealand-born jazz singer Ricky May - although the first local Bluebird release (1964) was by British pianist Winifred Atwell, who became an Australian - she was naturalised two years before she died.

For download is the original 1964 Australian Bluebird/RCA single "Revival". It is courtesy of Jimmy Barnes who has contributed many wonderful songs from his personal collection. This track is very rare and Winifred's many fans overseas may have not heard of it before.


1 comment:

  1. Tom, this is a TRUE lost gem, oh so contemporary and so unlike the Winifred we all know and love - this would've fitted perfectly on Top 40 radio at the time.

    I love it.

    Many thanks for this.