Winnipeg musician’s late cousin hailed as one of Elton John’s heroes
A Winnipeg musician’s late cousin is hailed by Elton John as one of his early musical heroes in his new autobiography, recognition that’s bringing new light to a musical career that’s a family source of pride.
In Elton John’s newly released memoir, Me, he credits legendary pianist Winifred Atwell as one of his idols.
Gerry Atwell, her proud Winnipeg cousin, never met her but has known about her gift since he was a teenager.
“I think it’s wonderful that Elton John has throughout his career acknowledged his influences,” said Atwell, himself a longtime mainstay of the Winnipeg musical scene as a keyboardist and singer. “I knew she was mentioned by him.”
Winifred Atwell, born on Feb. 27, 1914, in Trinidad, was the first black person to have a Number 1 hit on the UK singles chart and is still the only female instrumentalist to have made that list — and she did it twice, in 1954 and 1956.
She was known for looking at her audience as she played, or at the camera when her performance was recorded — a style of audience engagement that John also employs.
Winifred Atwell, who died in February 1983 in Australia, was popular during John’s childhood.
Her hit song Black and White Rag, recorded in 1952, may have inspired the young man who’s now a 72-year-old legend as a singer, pianist and composer.
Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell played boogie-woogie and ragtime with a style that inspired the flamboyant superstar Elton John. (Decca Records)
It’s a story Gerry Atwell has heard several times.
“Elton was apparently playing that song by ear on the family piano when he was three or four years old and that’s when his mother decided that he needed lessons,” he said.
Gerry Atwell said people often ask him if he’s related to the star known for smiling broadly at her audience as she played.
“When I say yes, their face lights up,” Gerry said. “She just made people feel very good, and they all mention the smile.”
And then she’d wink.
“Everybody was waiting for the wink,” Gerry said.
Gerry Atwell was the musical director behind the 2016 production of Ring of Fire at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage. (Robert Tinker)
Typically Winifred would open her act on a classical piano, then would move to a “beat-up tacky upright” piano that she would play ragtime music on, Gerry said.
“That was her schtick.”
John had other musical idols and inspirations, but Winifred left a lifelong mark on him.
While reminiscing about the impact Elvis Presley’s music had on him, John also mentions Atwell.
“Until that moment, my hero had been Winifred Atwell, a big, immensely jolly Trinidadian lady who performed onstage with two pianos,” John wrote.
“I loved her sense of glee, the slightly camp way she would announce, ‘And now, I’m going to my other piano’; 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,” the musician continues.
“I’d never experienced anything like this in my life.”