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Winifred Atwell: pharmacist and world renowned musician

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As a young child in the late 1950s I was aware of the hit recordings by the honky-tonk pianist Winifred Atwell, who sold more than 30 million records. She was the first black person to have a No 1 hit record in the UK singles charts, the first artist to have three consecutive million-selling hits, and to this day is the only female instrumentalist ever to have topped the UK charts.

And she was also a pharmacist.

Una Winifred Atwell was born in Trinidad in 1914, the daughter of a community pharmacist. She began learning the piano at the age of four and gave classical recitals when she was just six. But, despite her musical talent, her father expected her to join the family business and so she followed his example and trained as a pharmacist.

While working in her father’s pharmacy, Winifred carried on playing the piano and became a popular local entertainer. Among the venues at which she performed was the servicemen’s club at a US Air Force base, where she was introduced to musical styles popular in the US. To entertain the airmen she wrote her own ragtime and boogie-woogie pieces.

Eventually she quit pharmacy for a career in music. With her family’s support, she left Trinidad for piano studies first in New York and then, from 1946, 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 classical music studies she played honky-tonk piano in London clubs and theatres. In 1948 she had a lucky break when at a charity show she stood in for a theatre star who had been taken ill. Her performance attracted the attention of a music entrepreneur who put her on a long-term recording contract.

One of her early recordings, “Black and white rag”, was to become her signature tune, even though it was originally issued only as the B-side of her fiendishly complex “Cross hands boogie” in 1951. It regained popularity in the 1970s when it was adopted as the theme tune for the BBC2 snooker programme Pot Black.

Between 1952 and 1959, a dozen Atwell recordings reached the Top 10. Her first No 1 hit was “Let’s have another party” in 1954. But she never gave up on classical music, and in the same year she reached No 9 in the charts with a recording of the famous Andante cantabile in D flat major (Variation 18) from Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini”. You can listen to this and other Atwell recordings on YouTube.

Atwell played at three Royal Variety Performances, including the first one in 1952, and she was also invited to perform at private parties for the royal family at Buckingham Palace. She became popular in Australia, where she toured many times before eventually settling there in the 1970s. She died in Sydney in 1983.

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