The following is extracts written by Val Wilmer who lived in Prentis Road, Streatham
Rita Evelyn Cann [performing name Rita Lawrence] (1911–2001), pianist and singer, was born on 24 January 1911 at Heathfield, Box Ridge Avenue, Beddington, Surrey, the elder daughter and eldest of three children of Albert Sam Cann (1871–1930×34), an import–export merchant, and his wife, Emma Elizabeth, née Dowsett (1886–1967), a teacher
Rita was brought up in Streatham, where she had a nursemaid before attending a local school. Her general education and musical studies continued in Germany. She encountered scepticism on taking piano lessons, but impressed her rigid woman teacher—a friend of Wagner's widow.
Following her father's death Cann moved to London about 1934. There she met the African-American singer John Payne and joined the circle of black intellectuals and artists who met regularly at his Regent's Park flat. As a member of Payne's choir she accompanied Paul Robeson on film and record and in concert
The Second World War saw Cann working in Soho at unlicensed 'bottle-parties' such as the Nest and Smokey Joe's which relied on jobbing musicians for entertainment. She enjoyed singing, shaking maraccas, and deputizing for other pianists, but she did not entirely identify with that raffish world. This changed when she met the flamboyant Cuban pianist Don Marino Barreto (1907–1995), with whom she began a relationship in 1943.
In 1946 Cann formed her Havana Sextet to play at an exclusive Thameside hotel. Her brother Lawrence Cann wrote the group's musical arrangements and was its double-bassist, and for a period she had Eddie Calvert as her trumpeter. In 1953 she joined Fela Ṣowande's re-formed choir with which she appeared on BBC television's Club Ebony
An accomplished pianist, she was the first black British woman to lead an instrumental group in society circles
(photo ©Val Wilmer)