of the week

When I first saw this request, I did wonder what I was going to write. The artist I’ve always found fascinating and, having learned the piano myself as a kid, I marvelled at the way Winifred Atwell played. The tune also has a bit of history, so let’s get going.

The first I really knew of Winifred Atwell was when I saw her listed in the very first edition of The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, when it was still credible. I saw her listed as a UK artist then found out she born in Trinidad. When I joined the BBC in 1979, I asked Mike Read and Paul Gambaccini, the then-authors of the book, why they listed her as UK and they said, because that is where she had lived for a number of years and it’s where she was throughout her career.

She was born Una Winifred Atwell near Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1914 although one or two sources claim a 1910 date, but after leaving school, she studied for a degree in chemistry and gained a degree as a pharmacist which would allow her to work in her father’s shop. She also trained as a classical musician which she preferred so she made the move to the UK in 1946 and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music in London with the determination of becoming a concert pianist. She wasn’t able to make enough money playing classical music to support her studies, so she began playing in local pubs and the occasional club doing it in a ragtime boogie-woogie style which won her a lot of fans. In 1947,  she married the variety agent Lew Lewisohn and he secured her UK television debut on the BBC show Stars in Your Eyes. That appearance secured her more work doing radio shows and cabaret and concert appearances. At this time her stage featured two pianos, a grand and an upright and so the show began with some classical recitals on the grand and then ended with faster sing-a-longs numbers on the upright.

These appearances were so well received that she looked to buy her own piano and ended up in a junk shop in Battersea, south London where, for 50 shillings (£2.50) she bought an old rickety, beer stained and, at least, second-hand upright. She had it professionally tuned and then had the ‘c’ notes fractionally detuned to give it and her playing a very distinctive sound of a typical pub piano that had been pounded for years. That piano travelled the world with her thus became known as ‘her other piano’ and 13 of her 15 UK hits credit the instrument appropriately on the label. Only 1954’s Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation On A Theme By Paganini (The Story Of Three Loves) – appropriately – is credited with Wally Stott And His Orchestra and her number 18, 1956 hit, Port-Au-Prince – named after her birth town – credits Frank Chacksfield.

She signed to Decca records in 1951 and her first release was The Gypsy Samba. Her fifth release, later the same year, was called Cross Hands Boogie, but it was its B-side, The Black And White Rag that became more famous. The tune was written in 1908 by George Botsford (1874-1949) who was an American ragtime composer born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was first recorded in January 1911 by the American Symphony Orchestra.

The musical dictionary definition of a ragtime composition is:  a musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length. Got that? Botsford composed many rags between 1908 and 1913 most of which were in the aforementioned style and The Black and White Rag is a prime example that, for an average piano player, is made it easy and enjoyable to play. It was one of the first piano rags ever recorded to wax cylinder.

Prior to the inception of the UK singles chart in 1952, only sheet music ‘sales’ were recorded and The Black and White Rag peaked at number 17. Atwell’s first appearance on the newly launch NME singles chart was in December with The Britannia Rag, a track she co-composed for her star-billing performance at The London Palladium for the new Queen’s first ever Royal Variety Show. Five months later she was back with the solely-composed celebratory tune The Coronation Rag.

Winifred had 11 Top 10 hits and in 1954 she became the first black artist to make number one. Her hands were insured by Lloyds of London for £40,000 (though her insurers can’t have been happy when she played in the lions’ den at a circus for charity) and her fan club had 50,000 members. She even had a house in Hampstead built in the shape of a grand piano.

In 1969, the BBC launched a second channel and named it BBC2, the first channel to broadcast in colour. A couple of years later, they were looking for ways to boost their audience and exploiting this new found technology, so the then-controller, David Attenborough, devised the idea of a snooker tournament and called it Pot Black which was recorded at the BBC Studios (later known as Pebble Mill Studios) in Birmingham. Originally the whole tournament was recorded in one long day, but then broadcast as a later date in half hour shows. Virtually all television shows in those days had their own theme tune and Winifred Atwell’s tune was chosen. It would probably have been more appropriate for a billiards competition. Pot Black was televised annually until 1986.

The show’s commentator was Ted Lowe, brother of Dad’s Army‘s Captain Mainwaring actor Arthur Lowe, who got his lucky break after the regular BBC commentator, Raymond Glendenning was suffering from a bout of laryngitis. In those days there was no commentary box and because of the quite atmosphere, Ted spoke in a whisper which became his trademark. He became the ‘voice of snooker’ right up until his retirement in 1996 at the age of 76. He passed away in May 2011 at the age of 90. Ted had a wonderful sense of humour and used this to great effect with the occasional commentary faux pas, two of the most memorable occasions was when commentating on the Fred Davies match where Fred was trying to reach a long pot and needed to rest his leg along the table’s edge, Ted said, “Fred is getting on a bit and is having trouble getting his leg over.” The other, more famous one, was, “And for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.”

Winnie was supplanted in the UK charts by Russ Conway, but she emigrated to Australia and remained popular there until her death in Sydney in 1983 but before she left, she discovered a young balladeer called Terry Parsons. He was so grateful that he called himself Matt Monro, the name came from Matt White, the first journalist to write about him, and Monroe Atwell, after Winnie’s father.