45. ‘The Poor People of Paris’, by Winifred Atwell


The Poor People of Paris, by Winifred Atwell (her 2nd of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 13th April to 4th May 1956

Listening to a recording of Winifred Atwell playing the piano, I can’t help but picture her smiling. She must never have stopped smiling. Her 2nd #1, just like her first, is a spectacularly perky piece of music.

Unlike her first chart-topper, however, this isn’t a medley. It’s the one tune, blasted through in barely two minutes. It wouldn’t have felt out of place as one of the songs on ‘Let’s Have Another Party’, though. And by that I mean that it sounds exactly the same. The same ragtime style, the same boogie-woogie piano, and the same frenetic pace. As jaunty as both songs have been, I won’t be rushing to try out her Greatest Hits… I can guess what it will sound like.

Actually, there is one little moment of note here, musically. Midway through, as Atwell returns for a second run-through of the melody, a strange sound begins playing over her piano. It sounds like it could be an extremely high voice – a super-soprano, maybe – or someone whistling. Or that weird box (a Theremin, or a Moog synthesiser?) that’s used to make sound effects in Sci-Fi B movies. To me it’s a very sixties kind of sound, and I’m surprised to hear it popping up on a chart-topper this early – if that indeed is what it is. I’ve had a quick look online, but can find no answer to what the sound is…


In lieu of writing any more about this record (Miss Atwell certainly got it over with in a manner that suggests she was bursting for the toilet, so we’ll keep it similarly brief) let’s look at the song in general. ‘The Poor People of Paris’ is a French song – quel surprise – recorded most famously by Edith Piaf as ‘La Goulante du Pauvre Jean.’ When it came time for the track to be adapted into English the man who did so misheard the ‘Jean’ from the French title as ‘gens’: hence the poor people of Paris. Tsk tsk. Us Anglophones and our terrible attempts at French, eh? He needn’t have bothered with his adaptation either, really, as pretty much everybody after Madame Piaf recorded the song as an instrumental.

I am glad that we’re seeing Winifred Atwell here again, don’t get me wrong. That a black woman could score not one but TWO #1s, and a score of other hits, at this time remains impressive. But the first time was always going to be the more significant and the choice of songs for the ‘Let’s Have Another Party’ medley made it very interesting. This record, however, just feels a little throwaway. Atwell’s legacy lives on in much more recent chart-topping singles though, as she was a big influence, apparently, in Elton John learning the piano.

On a final note… Do any other British chart-toppers include a capital city in their title? There must be one but – and I’m doing this completely off the top of my head here – I can’t think of any. All I can get is ‘New York, New York’ (neither a #1, nor a capital city), ‘London’s Calling’ (capital city – yes, #1 hit – no) and, um, Berlin. The band. You know, from ‘Top Gun’. Do comment if you can do any better than me on this…


24 thoughts on “45. ‘The Poor People of Paris’, by Winifred Atwell

  1. There are no other capital cities mentioned in no.1 hits. The closest we can get is two no.2 hits featuring the capitals of Austria and Russia, and two no.3 hits featuring The Netherlands and Hungary.

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  13. That strange high pitched whining sound on The Poor People Of Paris heard at 52 seconds is an early example of a musical saw, the idea of a certain Joe Meek who was uncredited on the label as one of the studio engineers

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