Winnie’s idol was Alexander Borovsky and she studied with him in America. In England she studied under Harold Craxton at the Royal Academy of Music.
Not long out of school she was one of the youngest people ever to qualify for her Licentiate at the Royal School of Music.
She was taught the rudiments of boogie-woogie and the rolling bass technique by Olympic sprinter Macdonald Bailey.
Winnie’s popular piano style appealed to London impresario Keith Devon of the Delfont Agency and he first put her into a Sunday concert at the London Casino where she became an instant success. Within two months she was booked into the bill at the London Casino and then a major West End Variety Theatre (?).
Winnie's husband Lew Levisohn has been described as a familiar figure on the show business scene; a man of tremendous vitality, foresight and shrewdness and blessed with a riotous sense of humour which more than matched Winnie’s.
She was the only holder in Britain presented with two gold discs in 1956 for selling over a million copies each of two recordings with the Philips Record Company namely “Let’s Have a Party” and “Let’s Have Another Party.”
Winnie’s career on record started with the Decca Company. With the assistance of radio personality Jack Jackson, who loved Winnie’s discs from the start, he played Winnie’s records on air whenever he could. Her version of “Jezebel” whilst being in direct competition at the time with the potent Frankie Lane version went on to become a sizeable hit in its own right.
In 1953 Winnie temporarily forsook Decca to join up with the then new company Philips. With them she waxed the two fabulous Golden Disc winners of “Let’s Have a Party” and “Let’s Have Another Party.” “Let’s Have a Party reached No 2 in the UK Charts and re-entered the Top 20 in 1954 and sold over a million copies. The follow up “Let’s Have Another Party” went all the way to No 1 in 1954 and also earned her a Gold disc. In 1955 “Let’s Have a Ding Dong” reached No 3. In 1956 “Make It a Party” reached the Top 10. In 1957 “Let’s Have a Ball” made the Top 5 Her 1958 Medley “Let’s Go” was her first medley to miss the chart In 1959 her medley ‘Piano Party” reached the Top 10 and was sadly her last ever hit. (Ossie Dales In Tune with Dave McAleer Encyclopaedia of Hits – The 1950s).
After her return to the Decca Company she recorded “The Poor People of Paris” which hit the number one spot in the Top Ten. She played as soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (? – when?) and Kostelanetz.
She was chosen for three Royal Variety Performances, has played several times for H.R.H. Princess Margaret and also at a private house party for H.M.The Queen.
At one time she had a worldwide fan club of over 12,000 members and she reportedly read every fan letter herself an even employed special staff each year to send out Christmas Cards.
Lloyds once insured her hands for 40,000 English pounds.
Southern Fried Chicken was one of her cooking specialities.
Alma Cogan was Winnie’s closest friend in show business.
Winnie endowed the “Winifred Atwell Piano Scholarship” at the Ivor Mairant’s Central School of Dance Music in recognition of the fact that she herself enjoyed first-class teaching as a child.
Winnie particularly liked helping children, especially the under-privileged or physically handicapped, because she said: “…they are so helpless. To them their problems are enormous and to me there is nothing more shattering to the emotions than a child with what the Scots so graphically describe as ‘a sair hert.’”
Winnie also said: “….I always hope that meeting me does the children a lot of good because they certainly do me plenty. No matter how worried or upset I am I don’t have to spend very long with them without coming to the conclusion that maybe my troubles aren’t so very great after all….And what an audience they make! Playing for them is a real tonic. Soon as they recognise a tune in they come, singing like mad without any encouragement.”
Winifred Atwell’s 1961 (?) appearance at Chequers Nightclub at Pitt and Goulburn Streets in Sydney was the first time she had consented to appear in a nightclub in Australia, during their 11th year anniversary celebration season (Chequers, 1961, p3).
On the outskirts of Blackpool Winnie slept the night on a grass verge because she apparently failed to get paid for a concert date and did not have enough money to book a hotel room and had to sleep in the open air.
At Sydney’s Pagewood Studios Winnie made thirteen half-hour television films for worldwide distribution. Throughout the thirteen films Winnie wore 39 dresses, 26 complete sets of jewellery and played four different pianos, which included the Other piano (Chequers, 1961, p6).
Her hands insurance policy excluded her form washing up after meals.
She enjoyed doing crosswords before going to sleep. She hated colour prejudice and new shoes. She slept well but often had a recurring nightmare of walking on stage without one soul clapping and thumping the air frantically to try and make them applaud.
She married within 3 months of meeting Lew. She met Lew at a party and because her feet were very cold he took off her shoes and started to rub her feet whilst she was feeling very embarrassed.
Her father had a chemist shop and being suspicious of her musical plans he made her qualify as a chemist first, so that one day if need be, she could go back to the business.
She once answered that the first object she would grab if her house caught fire was her poodle at the time called Nino.
When asked if she always loved music she replied that “In Trinidad, where I was born, we take music very seriously: we don’t all just sing calypso, you know. I was always playing the piano.” Chequers, (1961, p7)
Winnie has apparently appeared in 2 movies: “It’s Great To Be Young” (1956) UK “It’s a Grand Life (1953) UK
Although Winnie had tied her hands behind her back when it came to public performances, she had other ideas about releasing records and actually planned to release a new record in 1982 called “Pop Goes The Classics” (presumably on the then Australian RCA Record Label with Ron Wills, but to my knowledge, that record never surfaced anywhere in the world (?) Even at this point in time she was practising every morning for two hours at a time. (According to Susan Owens in the Australian Women’s Weekly, Jan 13, 1982, p 13)
She particularly liked to wear red lacquer nail polish, which is evident from most of her appearances.
When Lew died during one of Winnie’s Asian Concert Tours in 1977 she lost not just her husband but her manager, great friend and personal adviser and it was the absence of Lew in her life that made it harder for her to bear each day. She lost her direction in life and did not really know which way to turn without Lew. She used to walk along Narrabeen Beach with Lew when he was alive but ceased to do so after he passed away. She said Lew was the guide in her life.
She said she loved the space in Australia and thought the view from her apartment in Narrabeen was one of the most beautiful in the world. It looked straight out to the Pacific where, from time to time, groups of yachts skip across the water and where, on the horizon, she could see the tankers and cargo ships that leave Sydney for northern waters.
At one stage she was earning as much as $5000.00 for a week of performances in Australia.
She decided to retire a year later in 1978 but just a year later had a severe stroke. Following her recovery she planned to move back to Trinidad where she had grown up because as she and Lew had no children here, she looked to her remaining family in Trinidad for a new life.
Things did not work out there because she found the hot climate unbearable and she found Trinidad very expensive so she moved back to Australia and took out Australian Citizenship in December 1981.
After the Citizenship Ceremony she crossed the road to the Wentworth Hotel to celebrate with friends and played The Black and White Rag on the in-house piano. This performance was very special because by this time the only public appearances she made were when she played hymns on the church organ at her local catholic church in Narrabeen called St Joseph’s.
Finally, please do let me know if you would like to be included on my group mailing list for any upcoming news on Winifred Atwell via: