45. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – The Poor People of Paris (1956)

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The Dream Weavers’ It’s Almost Tomorrow was knocked off the number 1 spot for the second and final time by Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell, scoring her second and final number 1 with her cover of The Poor People of Paris.  Her fast-paced piano-playing and charming personality had seen her at number 1 during Christmas 1954 with Let’s Have Another Party, scoring a number three hit in 1955 with Let’s Have a Ding Dong. and then this track, all ploughing the same furrow. Why change a winning formula though?

La goualante du pauvre Jean, as the song was called in France, translates into The Ballad of Poor John in English. Marguerite Monnot, one of Edith Piath’s top songwriters, had written the original music, with words by René Rouzaud. However, US songwriter Jack Lawrence wrote the English lyrics, and misinterpreted the French title, which is why the two differ so much. None of this really matters here though, as Atwell’s cover was instrumental.

Atwell, as usual, plays the song as if her life depends on it. It’s so frenetic, I accidentally pressed play on two separate clips at once and felt a nervous breakdown coming on. While this style of playing is considerably dated now, it still has a certain charm, and anything with a bit of life to it impresses in these early days of the chart.

The main reason it appeals to me, however, is because I immediately recognised it as having featured in 90s Channel 4 comedy show Vic Reeves Big Night Out, a show that changed my life (no exaggeration). In the show, Bob Mortimer’s character Man with the Stick sings a slowed-down version, all about his ill-fated works holiday with ‘good-laugh’ Terry. Here it is in all its glory.

Atwell’s career continued to skyrocket. She had her own television series and performed to millions. She was loved by the Queen, who even requested she perform at a private party to keep spirits up during the Suez Crisis. Sadly, her race was an issue in the Deep South, which meant she never repeated her success in the US.

There was insight and intelligence behind Atwell’s fun-loving public persona, and at heart she was shy, eloquent and intellectual. She claimed her own life was untouched by racism, and considered herself lucky to be so loved. But after buying an apartment in Sydney and while touring the country in 1962, she spoke out about the plight of the Australian Aborigines.

Atwell suffered a stroke in 1980 and announced her retirement on TV the following year. Sadly, her house was destroyed by an electrical fire in 1983, and while staying with friends she died of a heart attack on 28 February.

It would be wrong to dismiss Atwell as a throwaway from a bygone age – her piano skills had a surprising impact on the world of progressive rock, with both Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman citing her as an influence.

Written by: Marguerite Monnot

Producer: Hugh Mendl

Weeks at number 1: 3 (13 April – 3 May)

Births:

Tennis player Sue Barker – 19 April
Actress Koo Stark – 26 April 

Meanwhile…

17 April: Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan announced in his Budget speech the launch of Premium Bonds, to go on sale on 1 November, with £1,000 prize available in the first draw, taking place in June 1957.

20 April: Jazz maestro (and eventual presenter of Radio 4’s comedy panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue) Humphrey Lyttelton and his band recorded Bad Penny Blues with then little-known sound engineer Joe Meek. It became the first British jazz record to get into the top 20, and the inspiration for The Beatles’ Lady Madonna in 1968.

2 thoughts on “45. Winifred Atwell & Her ‘Other’ Piano – The Poor People of Paris (1956)

  1. Pingback: 83. Russ Conway – Side Saddle (1959) – Every UK Number 1

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