September 14, 1983– Amy Jade Winehouse:
“I didn’t go out looking to be famous; I’m just a musician.”
There are only a few albums that seem to me to be perfect. Back To Black is one of them, plus it is one of the most honest albums I have ever listened to. Winehouse wrote every track and listening to it again today, I find it to be a great gift to Popular Music. Her retro Soul-R&B-Jazz-Pop hybrid sound still feels fresh, unique and inspired.
There are only a handful of artists whose careers can be defined by a single song, much less a single line, like Winehouse:
“They tried to make me go to rehab… I said ‘No, No, No.'”
She said “yes” several times, with extended stays in hospitals and rehab clinics, but that didn’t stop the booze and drugs ending her life, silencing her distinctive voice with its rich mix of influences and her heart-on-your sleeve sensibility.
Her life was short, and much of it was made up of headlines about the drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, bad relationships and failed live performances. It was not really a surprise when the news came of her death from drugs and booze. Her music was always overshadowed by Winehouse’s demons. The tabloids regularly reported on her drunken fights. Her shambling, stumbling performances were watched around the world on that Internet thing. Winehouse canceled her comeback tour after she swayed and slurred her way through barely recognizable songs in her first show in Belgrade. She was jeered off the stage, and she flew home. Her management said she needed time to recover. But, she never did.
Thankfully, it’s Winehouse’s recorded music that will be her legacy.
Tony Bennett, who recorded the pop standard Body And Soul with Winehouse at London’s Abbey Road Studios for his album Duets II, wrote:
“Amy was an artist of immense proportions. She was an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist and I am truly devastated that her exceptional talent has come to such an early end.”
Bennett and Winehouse won a Grammy Award for Body And Soul; it was one of Winehouse’s favorite songs, and the track was Winehouse’s final recording before her death. Body And Soul was Bennett’s first Number One Hit Single in 45 years, and he is the oldest artist to go to Number One.
When it was released in autumn 2006, Back To Black became a huge worldwide hit. It won five Grammys and Winehouse, with her big black beehive hairstyle, Cleopatra eye makeup and old-fashioned sailor tattoos, became one of the most distinctive and recognizable stars in showbiz. Fans waited in vain for a follow up to Back To Black.
Born to a taxi driver father, and ironically, a pharmacist mother, Winehouse grew up in the north London suburbs. When she was 10-years-old, she and a friend formed a rap duo, Sweet ‘n’ Sour which she described as “the little Jewish Salt ‘n’ Pepa.”
She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School and The Brit School, a Fame style performing arts academy before being signed by American Idol / So You Think You Can Dance producer Simon Fuller’s management company. But, Winehouse was never presented as teen star, and she always resisted being catagorized.
Frank (2003), her jazz-tinged debut album, was critically praised and sold well in Britain. Winehouse won the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting.
Frank was followed by a difficult period of writer’s block and a devastating breakup with her troublesome boyfriend:
“I had writer’s block for so long, and as a writer, your self-worth is literally based on the last thing you wrote… I used to think, ‘What happened to me?’ At one point, it had been two years since the last record and the record company actually said to me, ‘Do you even want to make another record?’ I was like, ‘I swear it’s coming.’ I said to them, ‘Once I start writing I will write and write and write. But, I just have to start it.'”
The album she eventually produced was, of course, Back To Black produced by Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, and recorded with Soul-Funk group The Dap-Kings. Winehouse blended her Soul/Jazz with the sound of the 1960s girl-groups that she loved, making 11 songs of romantic obsession and emotional excess featuring smartass, aching, flirty, nasty lyrics. The songs detailed breakups and breakdowns with equal frankness. Back To Black with its agonizingly pained, heartbroken lyrics has a certain gravitas that most pop albums can’t carry.
Back To Black won five Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year for Rehab. It was on nearly every critic’s Ten Best List in 2007. It is Number 20 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Albums, and is also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
She was famously forthright about other artists, describing Dido as “background music… the background to death” and saying of Gay Icon Kylie Minogue: “She’s not an artist … she’s a pony“.
She also was open about her own problems struggling with eating disorders and admitted that she had been diagnosed as manic depressive but refused to take medication. Photographs showed her vacant-eyed and unhealthily thin with marks on her arms.
Occasional brilliant bits of recording were released after Back To Black, there’s her take on The Zutons’ Valerie, a highlight of Mark Ronson’s album Version (2007), and she recorded the Leslie Gore classic It’s My Party for the 2010 Quincy Jones album Q: Soul Bossa Nostra. But, other recording sessions brought nothing releasable.
She was also getting into more trouble. Winehouse was arrested for assault after she slapped a man during a wild night on the town. And, the police questioned her she after video surfaced that appeared to show her smoking crack. In 2010, Winehouse pleaded guilty to assaulting a theater manager who asked her to leave a Christmas show because she’d had too much to drink. A magistrate gave her a fine and a warning to stay out of trouble, yet praised her for trying to clean up her act. That same year, she was taken to hospital and treated for injuries after fainting and falling at home.
Her father claimed she had Emphysema from smoking cigarettes and crack. She left the hospital to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park, and at the Glastonbury Music Festival the next day, where she received a rousing reception but started a fight with someone in the audience. She returned to a clinic for treatment, continuing the cycle of music, excess and rehab.
Around this time, Winehouse infamously got back together with her toxic ex, Blake Fielder-Civil, the inspiration of many of Back To Black’s songs, and the pair went on epic drug binges that made them a sort of Sid and Nancy for the iTunes generation.
Her last public appearance was three days before her death, when she did a short set at a bar in Camden, around the corner from her home.
After her passing, her fame continued to grow. A documentary film, Amy (2015), premièred at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and received rave reviews and enthusiastic audience response. The soundtrack is a bestseller. It won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Best Music Film at the 2016 Grammy Awards, and the BAFTA for Best Documentary. A dead Winehouse was even nominated for Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2016 Brit Awards.
She only released two studio albums in her lifetime, but Winehouse’s star burned brightly while she was with us. Rehab is a classic that has managed to be both of its time and timeless. It would have been a hit in any decade of popular music. And, that girl could sing; her rich, expressive, wide range made Winehouse one of the very best singers of her generation. She was raw and real and one of a kind.
We love them, but we also love our musicians to be rock stars and to get away with things like drug binges, destroying hotel rooms, or inciting fights at concerts. We expect an element of danger from them. Winehouse obliged by joining the “27 Club”, that group of artists who all died at 27-years-old: Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kurt Cobain.
Last summer, the Amy Winehouse Foundation opened Amy’s Place, a house that helps 16 women at a time in dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.
“I’m not a natural born performer. I’m a natural singer, but I’m quite shy, really. You know what it’s like? I don’t mean to be sentimental or soppy but its a little bit like being in love, when you can’t eat, you’re restless, it’s like that. But then the minute you go on stage, everything’s OK. The minute you start singing.”