Amy Winehouse will be remembered as the songwriter of her generation, a gifted but troubled singer and composer whose music touched on jazz, soul, R’n’B and hip-hop. She emerged in the early 2000s when jazz was enjoying one of its frequent ‘comebacks’, and was seen by the mainstream media as part of the new crop of artists including Jamie Cullum, Michael Buble, Katie Melua and Norah Jones. In truth, she was a far more compelling and controversial prospect even then, despite her extraordinarily young age.
In the first part of her short career, she was unapologetic in placing new compositions at the centre of her musical universe, once saying ‘It’s important to me to write songs. To me, jazz is about carrying a form forward and doing something different with it.’ She was outspoken, forthright and sometimes brash on the subject of her contemporaries too, though could always back up her comments when she opened her mouth to sing, preferring to look to the likes of Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Donny Hathaway and Dinah Washington for inspiration. She hugely influenced pop and jazz music, spawning a host of artists in her wake such as Paloma Faith, Pixie Lott and Adele, and her sound is even detectable in the modern jazz voices of Gretchen Parlato and Kristina Train.
Winehouse was brought up in a raucous, music-loving family home in Southgate, North London which throbbed to the sounds of Julie London, Ray Charles and Dean Martin. By her teens, she was adding her own favourites Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Anita O’Day, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder to the mix, picking up a guitar at age 13 and rehearsing her songs whilst ‘imagining Tony Bennett was in the audience’.
At 15, she became a pupil at the legendary Sylvia Young stage school, but by all accounts her feisty character rubbed the authorities up the wrong way – her headmaster didn’t take to her desecration of the school uniform, and the final straw came when she turned up wearing a nose stud. She was expelled.
But her songwriting and singing continued to go from strength to strength, and by 2002 she had signed to Simon Fuller’s 19 management company, sung with the NYJO and started work on her debut album. Frank showcased her sultry voice for the first time, a mesmerising mix of Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. An unflinching, incredibly precocious portrait of a failed love affair, the album’s title was both a nod to Sinatra and a ‘warning’ about the lyrical content. Her harmonies and chord changes were intoxicating on ‘Take This Box’, ‘You Sent Me Flying’ and ‘In My Bed’, unleashing a delicious selection of major seventh chords and flatted fifths over hip-hop beats. ‘October Song’ referenced the jazz standard ‘Lullaby of Birdland’, and on ‘Know You Now’ and ‘I Know Love Is Blind’ her voice floated above the music with phrasing more akin to a jazz horn player than a pop singer. Her takes on Grover Washington’s ‘Mister Magic’ and the James Moody/Eddie Jefferson standard ‘Moody’s Mood For Love’ demonstrated a rounded artist well aware of jazz’s range and past glories. In short, it was quite astonishing that this music was being released in the same era as Blue, Avril Lavigne, S Club 7 and Westlife’s career peaks.
The album sold moderately but was a critical smash, winning Winehouse an Ivor Novello award for songwriting as well as BRIT and Mercury Prize nominations. She toured extensively and appeared at the 2004 Brecon and Glastonbury festivals. Whilst her singing was fresh, clear and new, one already detected in her a slight uncertainty – a ‘fear’ of singing, one reviewer commented at the time – which would questionably blight her later life and career. Another way of looking at it was that she refused to ‘over-sing’ in the age of the histrionic X Factor and Popstars, preferring to think of her voice as a solo instrument. Interviews revealed her troubled childhood and insecurities, but also her kinship with jazz legends and uncompromising artistic principles. She once said, ‘I’m not here to be famous. I just want to challenge myself. If it all goes wrong, I’ll have my music.’
She took her time recording album number two with the focus moving this time towards Motown and ’60s girl groups. The huge-selling Back To Black unleashed a lean, mean, no-filler collection of songs which had a seismic effect on the record industry. ‘Rehab’, ‘Love Is a Losing Game’, ‘Back to Black’, ‘Just Friends’, ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ and ‘You Know I’m No Good‘ immediately became modern standards, brilliantly-written, dark pop songs with interesting instrumentation. The album won an incredible six Grammy Awards in 2008, a record for a British artist. ‘Rehab’ was surely the song of the noughties, a delicious mashup of Ray Charles-inspired Wurlitzer, slick drumming, Motown xylophone and bells and a grimly apposite lyric, now imbued with tragic irony.
Sadly the success of the album also accompanied a downturn in Winehouse’s private life. Possibly the most tragic outcome of this was the effect it had on her voice – rumours that her drug use had caused emphysema were all too believable on the evidence of her breathless, sometimes incoherent performance at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival.
It is said that Winehouse had completed much of her third album at the time of her death, with some reports saying it would be a return to the jazz and hip-hop influences of the first album, others saying it would continue where Back To Black left off. While the results of these sessions will surely soon be forthcoming, one can only wonder where her sure-footed musical instincts would have led her in her thirties. Would she have worked with Robert Glasper, Terri Lyne Carrington or even Herbie Hancock?
In March 2011, she made her final recording duetting with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul’. Bennett remembered her as ‘an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist’.
Winehouse was a naturally gifted artist who was tormented by love and performed because she had no choice in the matter, a deeply unfashionable concept. She once said, ‘I write songs because I need to get something good out of something bad.’
She is survived by her parents and brother Alex.
Amy Jade Winehouse, singer-songwriter, born 14th September 1983; died 23rd July 2011