In the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the singer’s mother remarked to reporters that her son had “gone and joined that stupid club.” The history of pop music is littered with an unusually high number of influential artists who died at the age of 27; as well as Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Robert Johnson and Richey Edwards all left this mortal coil in their 28th year. On Saturday 23rd July, 2011, another name was tragically added to the list, that of Amy Winehouse.
Sadly, the death of Amy Winehouse cannot really be viewed as surprising. Despite having made two marvellous, successful albums (2003’s Frank and 2006’s Back To Black), she was known to many primarily for her lifestyle and battles with addiction that had seen her become a tabloid fixture in recent years. However, to look back at the life of Amy Winehouse in such a way would be to forget the stellar body of work she created.
A graduate of the BRIT School, Amy Winehouse rose to prominence – in the UK at least – around the same time Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me was selling by the lorry-load and Jamie Cullum was rapidly gaining in popularity. Because of the jazz influences that ran through all their music, the press were quick to create a “nu-jazz” scene, which disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. In truth, Winehouse’s songs always took in a much broader palette of influences. As well as jazz, there were shades of R&B, soul, funk, pop and hip-hop in her work. Clearly a fan of a range of artists, the sleeve notes for Frank thank The Beastie Boys, Ben Folds Five, Donny Hathaway, Carole King and Thelonious Monk amongst others.
Not only did she display a surprisingly catholic taste in music for someone barely out of their teens, Frankwas a staggeringly mature album, unflinchingly showing a bruised soul and life experience that belied her tender years. Lyrically, Frank is a masterpiece; whether it’s the useless paramour in Stronger Than Me, the startlingly candid retelling of her own infidelity on I Heard Love Is Blind or a pitch-perfect dressing-down of money-hungry girls in Fuck Me Pumps, not a word is wasted or misplaced. The real highlight, though, is the heart-breaking Take The Box; a detailed account of a couple dividing their possessions post break-up over gut-wrenching chord changes. Stronger Than Me may have won an Ivor Novello award in 2004, butTake The Box announced that Amy Winehouse had arrived.
And then there was that voice. When firing on all cylinders, Winehouse could sing bewitchingly with restrained vibrato and real emotion. It became her calling card, it was a smoky drawl that suggested its owner had really lived, and could add an extra dimension to her already devastating wordplay (check out her delivery of “The only time I hold your hand is to get the angle right” on In My Bed).
Frank received a Mercury Music Prize nomination – the award eventually went to Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut – but it was the release of her second album, Back To Black, that really catapulted Winehouse to fame and mainstream success. Whereas Frank was a mélange of various musical movements from the previous half-century, Back To Black focused more on the sound of 60s girl groups and the Tamla Motown label. With Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson producing, and musical backing from The Dap-Kings, Back To Black won five Grammys and was the biggest selling album of 2007 in the UK. To date, it has sold over three millions copies in her native country and is in the Top 20 biggest selling albums of all time.
A huge spike in sales didn’t blunt Winehouse’s lyrical barbs, however. Back To Black still has stunning vignettes in abundance, from the kitchen-sink tale of (more) infidelity You Know I’m No Good to the touching rumination Love Is A Losing Game. Sadly, the more her star rose, the more her personal problems seemed to overwhelm her, a cruel state of affairs for someone whose best-known song is entitled Rehab.
It was around this time that Winehouse’s life outside of music truly began to overshadow just how talented she was. Rarely out of the papers in the past half-decade, more and more was written about her addictions, marriage, appearance and increasingly erratic stage performances than her music. Recently, it appeared she might have been getting back on track, with a European tour (albeit cancelled after one show) and the rising popularity of protégée (and goddaughter) Dionne Bromfield, who is signed to Winehouse’s Lioness Records. Sadly, it proved that any signs of a recovery were premature.
Now we’re in the immediate aftermath of her death, it’s too early to predict what the legacy of Amy Winehouse will be. It would be nice to think there won’t be a slew of inferior, posthumous releases and a ghoulish fascination with her demise, but experience tells us this is unlikely to be the case. So, for now, let’s just remember Amy Winehouse the artist: a rare talent with a phenomenal voice, razor-sharp wit and an incredible, poetic way with words. Two albums, around a dozen singles and a huge well of unrealisedpotential – the music industry has lost one of its brightest stars tragically before her time.