Welcome to Black History Is Now, a content series celebrating Black culture in the UK. This year, we’re platforming Unforgotten Women throughout Black British history, highlighting their achievements and legacy.
There’s a saying which goes “behind every successful man is a great woman” and if you watch any YouTube video of Una Winifred Atwell, you’ll understand why Elton John counts the talented woman as one of his idols.
Una Winifred Atwell was a prominent pianist who became a household name in Britain and Australia. Born on 27th February 1914 in Tunapuna, Trinidad, she was the daughter of a community pharmacist. She took up the piano at the age of four and was giving classical recitals when she was just six but despite her musical talent, her father expected her to train as a pharmacist and join the family business, which she did.
During her training, she continued to play the piano and became a popular local entertainer. She regularly performed at the servicemen’s club at a US Air Force base, where she was introduced to musical styles popular in the United States. To entertain her audience, she wrote her own ragtime and boogie-woogie pieces.
Eventually, Atwell quit pharmacy for a career in music, uprooting her life and moving to New York to take up piano studies. From 1946 she studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she became the first female pianist to be awarded the highest grade for musicianship.
To support her studies, she performed honky-tonk piano in London clubs and theatres, and had a lucky break in 1948 when she stood in for a theatre star who had been taken ill. Her performance attracted the attention of a music executive who signed her on a long-term recording contract.
Throughout the 1950s, Atwell released a series of boogie-woogie and ragtime hits, selling over 20 million records. And in 1952, her recording of “Black And White Rag” propelled her to stardom.
Atwell became the first Black person to have a number one hit on the UK singles chart and remains the only female instrumentalist to have done so — and she did it twice, in 1954 and 1956. In total, she had 11 UK top 10 hits including “Britannia Rag“, “Let’s Have Another Party” and “The Poor People of Paris“.
She developed a routine of having two pianos on stage. She would begin by playing classical on her Steinway, then halfway through a set she would say, “Now I’m going to play my other piano” and switch to a battered, slightly out of tune instrument she had bought in a London junk shop for the boogie-woogie and ragtime hits.
In his memoir, Me, Elton John described Winifred as “a big, immensely jolly Trinidadian lady” with a “sense of glee”. He said he loved “the way she would lean back and look at the audience with a huge grin on her face while she was playing, like she was having the best time in the world” — a style of audience engagement that Elton went on to use himself.
Atwell’s last performance was “Choo-Choo Samba” followed with a medley of “Black And White Rag” and “Twelfth Street Rag“. After a number of tours, she finally settled in Australia in 1971 with her husband Lew Levisohn. When Lew passed away six years later, she considered moving back to Trinidad but her longtime friend and Australian tour promoter Jack Neary persuaded her to take Australian citizenship.
In 1983, following a fire that destroyed her Australian home, Atwell suffered a heart attack and died on 28th February while staying with friends.
While Atwell remains relatively unknown these days, her music was innovative for its time, producing multiple genres which aren’t seen today. She will always be known as the “Queen of the Keyboard” who switched between a classical Steinway and a battered old piano she bought from a London junk shop to perform her upbeat, timeless ragtime tunes.
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