Boogie Woogie Dame with a Brixton Hair Salon
The following article by Stephen Blanchard first appeared in the Brixton Bugle, Brixton’s community newspaper, which has kindly allowed us to reproduce it.
Not everyone knows that pioneer popular music performer Winifred Atwell performed at the Brixton Empress Theatre and ran the town’s first black hairdressers – both long gone.
The modern housing development on the corner Chaucer and Railton Road in Brixton doesn’t attract the eye, but in the 1950s the site was occupied by a hair salon owned by a lady from Trinidad who was also a best-selling recording artist.
Winifred Atwell was born in February 1914. Her father was a pharmacist and her mother a nurse. They expected her to follow them into medicine, but she showed precocious skills on the piano.
She became a popular performer on the island and gave concerts for US service men stationed at the airbase. When one of them asked her to play in the boogie-woogie style she wrote the tune she would later record as Five-finger Boogie.
Winifred came to the UK in 1946, enrolling at the Royal Academy of Music. To support herself she played at London clubs, where she was spotted by the promoter Bernard Delfont and signed to Decca Records in 1951.
Her exuberant playing was just what postwar Britain needed. She had a string of hits and performed before the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. Later she was invited to the Palace to give a private performance, including Her Maj’s favourite, Roll Out the Barrel.
Winifred went on to host a TV series. Always appearing in a glamorous gown with her hair beautifully styled, she got fan-mail asking for advice on hair and make-up. There were few cosmetics available for black women at that time, and most cut and styled their hair at home.
Winifred identified a need and opened her salon in 1956. She knew Brixton, having lived there and performed at the Empress Theatre, on the corner of Brighton Terrace and Bernay’s Grove. Her salon may have been the first in the country catering for black women. Newsreel shots show a luxurious interior with windows along Railton Road.
By the late 1950s Winifred’s music was out of favour in the UK. She spent more time in Australia, where her concerts were still sell-outs. In 1961 she sold her salon so that she could keep up her touring. The ‘White Australia’ policy meant she was not allowed to settle there until 1971, when the policy was relaxed because of her ‘good character and special qualifications.’
The site of her salon was gutted during the disturbances of 1981. The target may have been a nearby pub that operated a colour bar, but the anger and the flames spread.
Winifred died in Sydney in 1983.
More Winifred Atwell facts
• First black person to have a hit in the UK singles charts.
• Only female instrumentalist to have had a hit in the UK singles charts.
• Sold over 20 million records.
• First female pianist to be awarded the Royal Academy of music’s highest grading for musicianship.
• An accomplished classical musician, she made one of the first stereo recordings: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
• In 1952 her hands were insured with Lloyds of London for £40,000 – the policy stipulated that she was never to wash dishes.