Posts Tagged ‘racism’

The Honky Tonk Woman – Winifred Atwell and the Railton Road in Brixton.

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Winifred Atwell. One of Britain’s biggest stars in the 1950s. Modelling Oliver Goldsmith’s sunglasses.

At around eight o’clock on the Saturday evening of 14 April 1981 a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window of The George Hotel on the corner of Effra Parade and Railton Road in Brixton.  It was the second night of the Brixton riots and it was no coincidence that the pub had been targeted – the landlord was infamous in the sixties and seventies for his treatment of local black people and he had been reported to the Race Relations Board for his behaviour.

In the 1970s the pub had been the subject of several local marches and The South London Press, not exactly known to be at the vanguard of radical black separatism, wrote that the arson was “undoubtedly an act of revenge for years of racial discrimination.”

It was relatively un-noticed that the welding shop directly across the road from the George at 82A Railton Road was also set alight. The building all but burnt down during the night and would eventually be demolished.

What was left of 82A Railton Road after the 1981 Brixton Riots.

82A Railton Road around 1975.

Railton Road in 1975. The George pub can be seen in the background on the left behind the greengrocer’s awnings.

The 1981 riots were mainly a reaction to the very heavy-handed Metropolitan Police’s ‘Operation Swamp 81′- it was rather horrendously named after Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 World in Action interview where she said “if there is any fear that it [Britain] might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”. To be fair, and sometimes this isn’t remembered, Thatcher also said in the interview, albeit maybe patronisingly, that “in many ways [minorities] add to the richness and variety of this country”.

It certainly isn’t remembered now, and I doubt it was in 1981, but the building at 82A Railton Road that burnt down that night once housed maybe the first black women’s hairdressers in London. It had opened in 1956 and was called The Winifred Atwell Salon.

A customer at Winifred Atwell’s hairdressing salon has her hair straightened out. 1957.

Winifred Atwell’s hairdressing salon, 1957.

Winifred has her hair straightened out at her salon in Brixton, 1957.

In the mid 1950s Winifred Atwell was undoubtedly one of Britain’s most popular entertainers. Trinidadian-born, her undisguised cheerful personality and well-played honky-tonk ragtime music brightened up many a ‘knees up’ in the fifties. In fact when Atwell reached number one in 1954 with ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, she became the first black musician in this country to sell a million records.

Between 1952 when she reached number five with ‘Britannia Rag’ (written for her appearance at the Royal Variety Show that year), and 1959 when Piano Party reached number ten she had eleven top-ten hits and is still the most successful female instrumentalist to ever have had featured in the British pop charts.

WInifred at the piano.

Winifred Atwell by Walter Hanlon in 1952.

Winifred having a cup of tea and a cigarette before performing in 1952.

At the peak of her popularity her hands were insured for £40,000. It was said, and how many of us would like to sign a legal document like this, that there was a clause in the insurance contract stipulating that she must never wash the dishes.

Atwell, was born in Tunapuna, near Port of Spain in Trinidad around 1914 (most sources say that year but according to her marriage certificate it was 1915 and on her grave it says 1910) and had been playing Chopin recitals since the age of six. After the war she went to study music in New York under the pianist Alexander Borovsky, but arrived in London in 1946 to study classical music piano at the Royal Academy of Music. In the evenings she supported herself by playing ragtime and boogie-woogie at clubs and hotels around London. She had learnt the music playing for servicemen during the war in Trinidad.

A year after Atwell arrived in London she married Reginald ‘Lew’ Levisohn, who gave up his stage career as a variety comedian, and become her manager. Encouraged by Lew, and not discouraged by her professor at the Royal Academy, the former child prodigy was skilfully groomed for stardom and by now she was playing her piano in a rollicking honk-tonk upbeat style.

In 1948 Winifred was booked at a Sunday charity concert at the London Casino (originally and now the Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street) in place of the glamorous actress and singer Carole Lynne who was unwell. The impresario Bernard Delfont, who was married to Lynne, had heard from the agent Keith Devon about a “coloured girl, a pianist, who has the makings of a star.” Winifred Atwell, to huge applause, ended up taking several curtain calls and was immediately signed up by Delfont to a long-term contract.

Within four years she was playing for the new Queen Elizabeth at the 1952 Royal Variety Performance. Winifred completed her act with ‘Britannia Rag’ – a piece of music she had written specially for the occasion.It received a rapturous reception, not least from the Queen, and it was to be her first big hit, reaching number five over Christmas and into the New Year.

Atwell brought the two worlds of her classical piano training and  her popular ragtime honky-tonk into her performances. She would open her act with a piece of classical music played on a grand piano but after a short while would then change over, to what she and her audiences came to know as her ‘other piano’ – a beaten up and specially de-tuned upright said to have been bought by her husband in a Battersea junk-shop for just 30 shillings.

Her small journey across the stage between the two pianos encapsulated beautifully how she managed to turn her career from a trained European-classical piano player to the more, even though she was Trinidadian, ‘authentic’ black-American rhythmic music for which she was now famous.

Honky Tonk Winnie

The writer and economist C.B. Purdom wrote that London in the fifties was:

dulled by such extensive drabness, monotony, ignorance and wretchedness that one is overcome by distress.

Purdom  wouldn’t be the only person to describe post-war Britain in that way and looking at pictures of Winifred Atwell in the fifties it’s easy to see why she became so popular. The successful record producer and lyricist Norman Newell wrote:

Winnie was around at the right time. Immediately after the war there was a feeling of depression and unhappiness, and she made you feel happy. She had this unique way of making every note she played sound a happy note. She was always smiling and joking. When you were with her you felt you were at a party, and that was the reason for the success of her records.

Introduced by Eamon Andrews, Winifred Atwell playing Poor People of Paris, 1956

In March 1956, and now at the height of her fame, she had her second number one called Poor People of Paris. A few months later she was due to make her second appearance at the Royal Variety Performance which traditionally took place on the first Monday of November. Except this time it never happened. Four hours before the curtain rose, and to the shock of the still-rehearsing all-star cast which included Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh but also Sabrina backed by the Nitwits,  the show was suddenly cancelled.

The day before on Sunday 4th November, the Observer had written about the Suez Crisis, declaring that the action against Egypt had “endangered  the American Alliance and Nato, split the Commonwealth, flouted the United Nations, shocked the overwhelming majority of world opinion and dishonoured the name of Britain”. Later that Sunday afternoon, at a huge rally at Trafalgar Square attended by 10,000 people or more, Aneurin Bevan told the crowd:

If Sir Antony is sincere in what he says – and he may be – then he is too stupid to be Prime Minister.

The next day the Royal Family decided that maybe it would be best to cancel the show. Bernard Delfont wrote in his autobiography that after the cast were informed: “Winifred Atwell gave an impromptu party in an attempt to lift our spirits.” Whether the Queen’s spirits needed lifting as well we don’t know but Winifred performed later at a private performance for the Queen and Princess Margaret at Buckingham Palace where she played Roll Out the Barrel and other Royal favourites.

And it didn’t. Bernard Delfont complained that he lost a lot of money.

In 1956, Winifred opened her hairdressing Salon on Railton Road. She had lived initially in the area, although was now living in Hampstead, and still had property in Brixton. A very young Sharon Osbourne, then Sharon Arden, and her father  Don “Mr Big” Arden – manager of Gene Vincent, Small Faces, ELO and Black Sabbath, lived in a nearby house rented from Winifred Atwell at the time.

Isabelle Lucas, originally a Canadian actress who performed in many National Theatre productions and remembered as Norman Beaton’s wife in The Fosters and also in two separate roles in Eastenders wrote about Atwell:

In those days there were no black salons for black women in this country. Black women styled their hair in their kitchens. I needed advice on how to straighten and style my hair, but I didn’t know any black women in Britain. I had only heard about Winifred Atwell. So one day I looked her up in the London telephone directory and found her listed! I rang her, and to my great surprise she answered! I explained my predicament, and she invited me to her home in Hampstead. It was as easy as that! I met her lovely parents ,whom she brought to this country from Trinidad, and Winifred gave me some hair straightening irons.

At the height of her career Winifred Atwell was one of Britain’s favourite performers. She had her own series on ATV in 1956 and another series on the BBC the following year. For a black woman of that era this was nothing short of extraordinary but unfortunately nothing remains of this TV history.

Winifred performing with the Ted Heath Orchestra at the BBC, 1957.

Winifred Atwell with David Whitfield, Vera Lynn, Eddie Calvert and Mantovani. 1953.

Winifred Atwell in 1953 with fellow pianist Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson.

By the late fifties, however, tastes in music were rapidly changing and Winifred Atwell had her last top ten hit in 1959. Atwell’s manic style either sounded old-fashioned – the era of Rock ‘n’ Roll was now a few years old and not going away – or  to people who still liked her style, Russ Conway  had taken up her baton and would have six top ten hits in 1959 and 1960.

Winifred Atwell first toured Australia in 1958 and her popularity was such there that when record sales started to dramatically fall in Britain she spent more and more time there. She started to only return for club bookings and the odd television appearance. By 1961 her hairdressing salon in Railton Road had been sold and the premises became A.C. Skinner and Co. Builders merchants.

Winifred booked at the Pigalle nightclub in 1961.

In 1971 Atwell was granted permission to stay in Australia and the Daily Mirror reported on the news:

Pianist Winifred Atwell has been given permission to settle down in Australia as an immigrant. She has been told this officially in spite of the country’s ‘White Australia’ policy. An Australian immigration official said yesterday that she had been granted residence because she was ‘of good character and had special qualifications.’ Immigration Minister Mr Phillip Lynch said: ‘We will not stand in the way of an international artist of such repute’.

In 1978 Atwell’s husband Lew died and she never really recovered. In 1981, at around the same time the flaming bottle of petrol was thrown through the window of what used to be her hair salon on the Railton Road, she was finally granted Australian citizenship. She died just two years later from a heart attack in Sydney on 27 February 1983.

The corner of Railton Road and Effra Parade in 2012. The original building, that once housed Winifred Atwell’s Salon and was burnt down in 1981.

The view down Railton Road from the other direction. Showing where the George pub once stood. 2012.

Various versions of Winifred playing Black and White Rag, which became the theme tune for BBC’s snooker series ‘Pot Black’.

Many thanks to Stephen Bourne whose book Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film and Television’ (Continuum, 2001) helped immensely in writing this post.
















Marc Blitzstein, Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1943

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Black American soldier and girlfriend at the Bouillabaisse Club in Old Compton Street, 1943

According to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the cabinet meeting at Great George Street on 13th October 1942 was very disappointing:

Everyone spoke at once while PM read papers. Discussion was on a low level.

In fact the only contribution Churchill made during the whole meeting was to look up, after Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had pointed out that one of his black Colonial Office staff had been excluded from a certain restaurant at the request of white American troops, and say:

That’s all right: if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.

Maybe not Churchill’s finest hour. The cabinet, with or without Churchill fully concentrating, agreed that it was important to respect how the US Army treated its black troops (they were completely segregated) and that it would be less problematic for all-concerned by concluding that:

It was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops.

The war cabinet room at Great George Street. Protected by a five foot layer of solid concrete known as ‘the slab’. Now part of the Churchill War Rooms.

Less than a year later on September 28th 1943 the Daily Express, who had recently been running a pretty strong anti-segregation and anti-colour bar campaign, put on a show at the Royal Albert Hall that was for and on behalf of the visiting ‘coloured American troops’.

At the beginning of the evening and to the sound of rolling drums a single file of two hundred black soldiers from a segregated division of the American Air Forces’ Engineers marched onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of September 28th 1943. The nervous soldiers were joined on stage by Roland Hayes the renowned black lyric-tenor who had travelled to England specifically for the occasion.

Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ were at the prestigious venue for the debut of an orchestral work called ‘Morning Freedom’. The piece of music was described as a ‘tone poem’ set to traditional ‘negro spirituals and songs’ by its composer – the controversial communist and, as far as the mores of the day allowed, the pretty-well openly gay Corporal Marc Blitzstein.

The dapper Roland Hayes performing at the Royal Albert Hall, 28th September 1943

Corporal Marc Blitzstein the gay, communist American composer.

The two-hundred strong ‘negro chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall.

The black serviceman choir was originally put together by Private McDaniel from Kansas City as a quartet to sing spirituals and hymns they would have sung at church back home. Slowly the singing group grew to the two hundred men that made up the chorus Blitzstein used for the Albert Hall concert. Private McDaniel explained to Life magazine about the soldiers’ love of spirituals:

Christianity means a lot to us dark boys. A man that can sing a good spiritual can always find his way into another boy’s heart.

members of the audience at the Albert Hall watching Blitzstein’s Morning Freedom

Roland Hayes, a son of two former slaves, was well known to British audiences of the time , although unlike his contemporary Paul Robeson, almost completely forgotten in Britain now. He had first came to London twenty three years ago. Hayes, born in Georgia, had been finding it next to impossible to find prestigious engagements in his homeland and decided to travel to Britain to further his career.

Incredibly within a year of arriving in London he was asked to give a private performance to George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on St Georges Day 1921. When Hayes arrived at the Palace, it was said that King George told his attendants: “There will be no formalities today. I shall meet Mr. Hayes man to man.” The royal recital immediately gave Hayes international prestige and he toured Britain and Europe to great success.

Roland Hayes painted by Glyn Philpott, 1923

Hugo Weisgall conducting American tenor Roland Hayes and the London Symphony Orchestra

The (Manchester) Guardian wrote of him:

The only really good tenor who has come along lately is the Negro Roland Hayes. His voice is genuine, pure warm and rich, and his artistic instincts are of the finest.

When Hayes visited Berlin in September 1923 he found the appreciation slightly harder to come by. Time magazine that year wrote:

To Germans, black men are “colonials”; they encountered them in the French line during the War; more recently, in the Ruhr. Learning that a member of this unpopular race was to appear publicly in their midst, Berliners were indignant. Protests were made to the American Ambassador against the “impertinence” of permitting a Negro to be heard on the concert stage, against the lèst majesté of offering musically scrupulous Berlin the tunes of the Georgia cotton-pickers.

Not entirely surprisingly, when Hayes appeared on stage, the audience started booing and hissing almost immediately. Hearing the noise the apprehensive singer suddenly decided to change his rehearsed programme and started the evening singing Schubert’s Du Bist Die Ruh. It was a German favourite and the crowd quietened almost immediately but by the end of the song, the audience, throwing their prejudice aside, were on their feet cheering and applauding the black American singer.

Roland Hayes at the Royal Albert Hall, 1943

Exactly twenty years later the British had started to bomb Berlin seemingly on a nightly basis in the hope of breaking the city’s morale. The tide in the war had changed and American soldiers were arriving in Britain in greater and greater numbers, including approximately 130,000 segregated black Americans. In 1943 the entire indigenous black population of Britain was around only a tenth of that number.

I am fully conscious that a difficult social problem might be created if there were a substantial number of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.” Herbert Morrison (the Home Secretary) in a memorandum for the cabinet, 1942.

The arrival of the black American troops caused disquiet in both the US and UK governments ostensibly because of the fear of racial mixing and miscegenation. Sir Percy James Grigg, the Secretary of State for War, advised in a circular that he intended to be sent to all senior officers in the British Army:

It is necessary for British men and women…to take account of the attitude of white American citizens. British soldiers and auxiliaries should try to understand the American attitude to the relationships of white and coloured people and that difficult problems do arise when people of different races live together.

Sir PJ, as he was known, betrayed a rather hideously ignorant and patronising attitude to black Americans in his circular. ‘Mutual esteem’ indeed.

Tom Driberg, then an Independent M.P., asked the Prime Minister in Parliament to “make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country.” Time magazine in the US reported that Driberg’s question ‘peeled the blanket of official silence off a complex and dangerous problem’. The magazine quoted eyewitness stories such as:

A pub keeper, indignant at American whites’ behavior toward Negroes, put up a sign on his bar door:

For the use of the British and of colored Americans only.

Three Negroes on a bus leaped to their feet when a white officer boarded it. Said the girl conductor, tartly:

Sit down. This is my bus and this is England.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought Driberg’s question was unfortunate and

…that without any action on my part the points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.

‘Understood’ and ‘respected’ weren’t probably the first words that came to mind for a lot of people when the US military issued an horrific memorandum of advice, albeit hurriedly withdrawn, for its commanders:

Colored soldiers are akin to well-meaning but irresponsible children. Generally they cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to act on their own initiative except in certain individual cases. The colored individual likes to ‘doll up’, strut, brag and show off. He likes to be distinctive and stand out from the others.

At a cabinet meeting it was agreed that the UK should not object to the Americans segregating their troops, but they must not expect the UK authorities to assist them with this policy. “It should be made clear to the US that there should be no restrictions on the use of canteens, cinemas, pubs and theatres by ‘coloured’ troops”.

Black American GI dancing at the Bouillabaise club in Soho, 1943

“The morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by American coloured troops”. Herbert Morrison, reporting to the cabinet, 1942.

“There are some white women in this country who feel that American coloured troops are particularly attractive and who run after them, that is a difficulty which will not be cured by keeping American coloured troops out of canteens or clubs at all”. Memorandum from Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor, 1942.

“For a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead controversy and ill-feeling, it may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves”. Memorandum from Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal, 1942.

In reality this just wasn’t the case, for instance in 1944 American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was in Britain on a morale boosting tour. He decided to watch a film but when he entered the cinema, he was told by the manager that there was a special section in the cinema which was reserved for black troops. Louis recalled:

Shit! This wasn’t America, this was England. The theatre manager knew who I was and apologized all over the place. Said he had instructions from the Army. So I called my friend Lieutenant General John Lee and told them they had no business messing up another country’s customs with American Jim Crow.

Marc Blitzstein, determined to do his bit in the fight against fascism, joined the US 8th Army Air Force after the USSR entered the war. Stationed in London he was also the music director of the American Broadcasting Station (eventually to become ABC) and continued to compose.

Before the war he had written a musical that had made his name – The Cradle Will Rock. The show was about striking steel-workers and produced by the young Orson Welles (the success of the productions inspired him to start the Mercury Theatre).

Marc Blitzstein with Leonard Bernstein at the piano in 1943

Now Blitzstein was in London he became incensed about the blatant oppression and segregation of the second-class soldiers that made up the so-called ‘colored units’. Black soldiers, whatever their rank, were always seen as subservient to white officers. The segregation of the black soldiers inspired the composer to write Morning Freedom and he dedicated it to their struggle.

The ‘Negro Chorus’ performing ‘Morning Freedom’.

Roland Hayes

At the Royal Albert Hall Morning Freedom was performed for the first time. McDaniel’s chorus was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergeant Hugo Weisgall. The choir with the help of Roland Hayes also sang Blitzstein-arranged spirituals such as Go Down Moses and In the Sweet By and By. They also sang Ballad for Americans a political song made famous by Paul Robeson.

At the end of the concert the audience of over five thousand stood up and ‘enthusiastically acclaimed’ the performance. The Evening Standard wrote:

The most remarkable ceremony I have ever attended in that famous meeting place. The audience was in ecstasy…it was impossible to believe that the chorus had not sung together before in public

The Times was equally as effusive:

without parallel in the long and varied sequence of events that have taken place within its encircling walls.

Marc Blitzstein carried on composing after the war but in terms of commercial and popular success it was Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation and translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that made the greatest impact. Incidentally, due presumably to the lack of threepenny bits in America, Blitzstein had toyed with calling the musical ‘The Two-Bit Opera’ or the ‘Shoestring Opera’.

The production, featuring Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya recreating her original role, albeit this time in English, enjoyed one of the longest runs in New York’s theatre history. By the end of the decade Blitzstein’s version of Mack the Knife became a huge hit for several singers including, of course, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1958, Blitzstein appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he admitted his membership of the Communist Party although he had left in 1949. However he refused to name names or co-operated any further.

In January 1964, holidaying in Martinique, and after a session of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Pretending to initially respond to his sexual advances they eventually robbed him, beat him and stripped him of all his clothes. The injuries didn’t seem serious at first but he died the next day of internal bleeding on January 22nd 1964.

American serviceman were paid up to five times the amount their British equivalent earned.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981. It at last integrated the military and ensured the equality of treatment and opportunity for black soldiers. It also made it illegal in military law to make a racist remark. Unsurprisingly the American army dragged its feet and the proper desegregation of the military was not complete for several years and in fact persisted during the Korean War. The last all-black unit in the US Army wasn’t disbanded until 1954.

American public information film called ‘Know Your Ally – Britain’. Apparently the island is as crowded as a sardine tin.

Nat ‘King’ Cole – In the Sweet By and By

Roland Hayes – Du Bist die Ruh

Paul Robeson – Ballad for Americans

Roland Hayes – He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word