For me, there are only a few albums that seem to be absolutely perfect; every element from cover design to arrangements to the engineering, to the songwriting and vocals come together to make a transcendent listening experience. For me, Back To Black is one of those albums. It’s one of those albums where I can hear the next cut as the previous song fades out. Amy 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.
They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, “No, no, no”
Yes, I’ve been black, but when I come back, you’ll know, know, know
I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine
He’s tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go
There are only a handful of artists whose careers can be defined by a single song, much less a single line, like Winehouse. She said ”yes” several times, with extended stays in hospitals and rehab clinics, but that didn’t stop the booze and drugs from 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. Her music was always overshadowed by Winehouse’s many demons. The tabloids 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. 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 is her legacy.
The late, great Tony Bennett, who recorded the pop standard Body And Soul with Winehouse at London’s Abbey Road Studios 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 her final recording. Body And Soul was Bennett’s first Number One Hit Single in 45 years, and he remains the oldest artist to go to Number One.
When it was released in autumn 2006, Back To Black became a huge worldwide hit. 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.
Back To Black was produced by cutie-pie Mark Ronson and recorded with the Soul-Funk group The Dap-Kings. Winehouse blended her Soul/Jazz vocals with the sound of the 1960s girl-groups that she loved, with 11 songs of romantic obsession and emotional excess featuring smartass, aching, flirty, nasty lyrics. These songs detail breakups and breakdowns with equal frankness. Back To Black with its 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‘s list of the 100 Best Albums and is also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
She 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. Photograph in the tabloids showed her to be unhealthily thin with marks on her arms.
Winehouse was arrested for assault after she slapped a man during a wild night on the town. And, the police questioned her after video surfaced that appeared to show her smoking crack. In 2010, Winehouse pleaded guilty to assaulting a theatre manager who asked her to leave a Christmas show because she was drunk. The judge gave her a fine and a warning to stay out of trouble yet praised her for trying to clean up her act.
Her father claimed she had Emphysema from smoking cigarettes and crack. She checked out of a hospital to perform at Nelson Mandela‘s 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park, and at the Glastonbury Music Festival the next day, she received a rousing reception but started a fight with someone in the audience. She returned to a clinic for treatment, continuing her cycle of music, excess, and rehab.
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 the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the new century.
Her last public appearance was three days before her death, when she did a short set at a bar around the corner from her home.
After her passing, her fame only 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. Winehouse was even nominated for Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2016 Brit Awards, even though she was dead.
She only released two studio albums in her lifetime, but Winehouse’s star burned brightly while she was still with us. Rehab is a classic album that is both of its time and timeless. It would have been a hit in any decade of popular music. And, that Amy Winehouse sure could sing; her rich, expressive, and a wide range made her one of the very best singers of her generation. She was raw and real.
We worship them, but we also love our rock stars to get away with bad behavior and even expect an element of danger from them. Winehouse gave that to us 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.
Winehouse would have, should have, been celebrating her 40th birthday today.