Amy Winehouse: Soulful Supernova

Amy Winehouse: Soulful Supernova

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Once when R&B legend Ronnie Spector was shown a picture of Amy Winehouse, for a moment she thought she was looking at a picture of herself as a young woman. Winehouse so thoroughly embodied the girl-group look and sound of the 1960s that she became a true extension of it, not just a latter-day copycat. Yet she also imbued that retro style with a distinctly modern sensibility, an emotional transparency that expressed the singer’s own troubled life. Sadly, the trouble overwhelmed the talent just as it was blossoming.

Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27, having made only two albums. But her impact was so great that she might as well have had a decades-long career. She influenced fashion with her beehive hairdo, slinky sheath dresses, and thick eyeliner. She brought attention back to those Motown and jazz women she emulated. But mostly, Winehouse stunned the world with the honesty of her lyrics and the mesmerizing and devastating effect of her singing. As Ella Alexander of Harper’s Bazaar put it, Winehouse’s voice was “a ragged contralto perfect for conveying heartbreak, sass, and pain.”

Born in a northern London suburb in 1983, Winehouse grew up around jazz, having a special love of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Her grandmother and an aunt and uncle were all professional jazz musicians, and as a child Winehouse sang with the British National Jazz Orchestra. She started writing her own songs when she was 14. At age 18 she signed with management; at 19 she signed a recording contract with Island Records; at 20 she became a star. Along the way, she met the ideal producer in Salaam Remi. She also became addicted to heroin and alcohol.

The album Frank was Winehouse’s first. It came out in 2003, doing very well in the British market and making some serious inroads in Europe and Australia. It would not be released in the U.S. until 2007, after the wild success of her second album made it look profitable to EMI, which handled Island’s releases stateside.

Among the album’s tracks is “(There Is) No Greater Love,” a 1936 jazz standard that’s been recorded many times. For Winehouse, it’s likely that the most significant recording was Dinah Washington’s from 1954. Winehouse pays homage to Washington’s tight vibrato and pensive phrasing. One gets the sense that this young woman is visiting from the past.


The majority of Frank was composed by Winehouse. The result won her the prestigious Ivor Novello Award, which honors outstanding British songwriting. While these original tracks all draw unabashedly from the jazz tradition, they are unquestionably 21st century. This is especially obvious on “October Song.” Its drum sound owes more to hip-hop than to anything older. Winehouse wrote this as a memorial to her pet bird, Ava, and she manages to name-drop Sarah Vaughan in the chorus.


Instead of continuing in the jazzy vein of Frank, Winehouse took off in another direction for her second album. She embraced the R&B girl-group sound, even hiring an American soul band, the Dap-Kings, to back her up both in the studio and onstage. This choice opened not only an artistic floodgate, but also a commercial one: EMI was convinced to release the album in America. When Back to Black came out in 2006, the music industry seemed primed for it. It quickly became the highest-charting US debut by a female British artist. (Adele surpassed that claim soon afterwards, largely thanks to the influence of Amy Winehouse.)

The single “Rehab” was a monster hit, a black-humored look at drug addiction and family disfunction. Audiences were fascinated by the song itself and the suffering that must have led Winehouse to compose it. That public obsession with her life traumas never died down until her life ended. The album’s other singles included “You Know I’m No Good” (a duet with Ghostface Killah, of the Wu-Tang Clan), “Back to Black” (co-written with Mark Ronson), and “Tears Dry on Their Own” (using melodic phrases from Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough). That list alone shows Winehouse’s impressive range.

Among the album-only tracks was “Me and Mr. Jones.” It’s a direct answer to the Billy Paul soul hit “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Winehouse’s version tells the story from the woman’s point of view. While there’s a classic soul sound to the melody and the horns, the tempo is much faster than the way a similar tune would have been performed in the 1960s. There’s also brighter-textured instrumentation, giving the song a very different energy from Paul’s original.


As Winehouse’s fame grew, so did her problems with alcohol and drugs. Her struggles were intense and public; fans wondered when and if she would pull herself together enough to record another album. Tragically, she never did. There are, however, a number of tracks that either didn’t make it onto her two records or were recorded after Back to Black.

Lioness: Hidden Treasures (2011) is a posthumous compilation containing some of Winehouse’s unreleased material chosen by Ronson, Remi, and others who had worked with her. It’s not entirely treasures, of course, but there are some excellent tracks. One of the best is Winehouse’s haunting version of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” arranged as if it were a girl-group song and expressed as if it were a torch song. The roughness in Winehouse’s voice, the result of her poor health, only enhances the pain in her delivery, and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with her range or dexterity.


Winehouse also recorded a lot of duets over her short career, most famously with Tony Bennett. Their version of “Body and Soul” was released as a single and included on Hidden Treasures. But she partnered with musicians of her own generation as well. One of her closest personal and musical pals was the American rapper Nas. Their song “Cherry Wine” features a rap layered against Winehouse’s neo-soul backdrop (warning: explicit lyrics):


It makes one wonder how she would have developed her hybrid style further, had she gotten the chance. So much promise. So much music we’ll never get to hear.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Rama.

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