Amy Winehouse: Singer who won the hearts of millions but was unable to overcome her dependency on drink and drugs
Monday 25 July 2011
Despite being as famous for her private life as her music, there is no disputing that Amy Winehouse was one of the finest singers of her generation.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, George Michael and Lady Gaga are among those to have sung the praises of her vocal power, while critics were unanimous in their approval of 2006's multi-million-selling album Back To Black. Winehouse's mantelpiece also bore testament to her talents, crammed as it was with Grammy, MOBO, MTV, Ivor Novello and Brit Awards. It's no wonder that her retro-soul style, inspired by Sixties girl groups such as the Shangri-Las and Ronettes, spawned a new generation of pretenders, though none came close to attaining Winehouse's levels of heartbreaking potency. Five years after the release of her landmark album, her influence is still everywhere.
One of the secrets of the singer's success was that her pain was real, born from her much-publicised drug abuse and heartache. While it was with glorious wit and defiance that Winehouse sang, "They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'No, no, no'" in 2006, a year later the song took on grim overtones as family, friends and fans launched a public campaign to persuade her to seek help for her drug dependency. Images of Winehouse appearing emaciated, exhausted, bloodied and bruised continually appeared in the press, and those around her claimed to fear for her life.
The daughter of a Jewish taxi driver father, Mitch, and a pharmacist mother, Janis, Winehouse was born in the north London suburb of Southgate. Her parents separated when she was nine. Jazz was in her blood – her maternal grandmother used to date Ronnie Scott, the tenor saxophonist and founder of the celebrated nightclub, while two of her uncles were jazz musicians. Where her childhood contemporaries listened to Kylie Minogue and the Spice Girls, Winehouse grew up on a diet of Etta James, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. She was drawn to the rebellious spirit of all-girl hip-hop acts such as TLC and Salt 'n' Pepa and, at the age of 10, founded a short-lived rap group called Sweet 'n' Sour.
She won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School at 13. In an essay explaining why she wanted to attend the school she wrote, "I want people to hear my voice and forget their troubles." She was later expelled for having her nose pierced and refusing to focus on her academic work. Next she enrolled at the Brit School, the singing academy that also yielded Adele, Leona Lewis, Kate Nash and Katie Melua, but left before finishing her studies. She embarked upon a brief career as a showbiz journalist, working at the World Entertainment News Network in London, in addition to singing in a jazz band. When a music impresario named Nick Shymansky heard her sing he immediately offered to pay for her to record some demos. Her boyfriend, the singer Tyler James, then sent her demo to an A&R person at Island records who wasted no time in signing her up.
In 2003 Winehouse released her jazz-infused debut LP Frank to rave reviews. The album sold 250,000 copies in its first year and earned her two Brit Award nominations as well as one for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Winehouse left both events empty-handed, though the nominations helped seal her reputation as a singer of exceptional quality.
Meanwhile Winehouse's no-nonsense attitude came to the fore in aseries of press interviews in whichshe berated fellow musicians for their lack of talent and scornfully discussed her father's infidelities. In late 2006 she re-emerged with her second album, the Mark Ronson-produced Backto Black, a starkly confessional work that revealed her love of a profanity-riddled couplet. The music mayhave harked back to the Fifties and Sixties but the songwriting – all Winehouse's own – was thoroughly contemporary as it tackled unreliable ex-boyfriends, illicit sex and her devotion to marijuana.
The album went to No 1 in the UK album charts and sold a remarkable two million copies in the first year alone. At the same time Winehouse unveiled a startling new look – towering beehive, six-inch stilettos, micro-dresses and sailor's tattoos – that was later immortalised in a waxwork at Madame Tussauds, and led the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to proclaim her the new Bardot.
As Winehouse's star soared she became one of the most sought-after celebrities in the world, with the US magazines Rolling Stone and Spin scrapping over who could put her on their covers first. Winehouse struggled to cope with the attention, however. Her weight plummeted during an exhaustive schedule of promotional appearances and gigs, and she admitted hitting a female fan at a concert and later attacking her own boyfriend when he tried to calm her down. Winehouse was unapologetic about her drinking and told the press that she suffered from eating disorders. She shocked a US magazine interviewer as she carved the first name of her boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil, into her stomach with a shard of broken mirror.
It wasn't just the red-tops upbraiding Winehouse. In a newspaper opinion piece, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that her drug habits sent a bad message "to others who are vulnerable to addiction," while a former head of Scotland's drug enforcement agency criticised her for making going to rehab a badge of honour. Music commentators compared her behaviour to that of other self-destructive singers –Dinah Washington, Edith Piaf, and Winehouse's favourite, Billie Holiday.
The year 2007 proved a tumultuous one for Winehouse. Having been feted at the Brit Awards, during which she sang an aching version of "Rehab", and been nominated for a Mercury Prize, she was all set to take on America. But then she was rushed to hospital after a reported overdose of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, leading to the cancellation of her US tour.
That year Winehouse also married Fielder-Civil, a video production assistant and fellow drug user, in a Miami registry office. In an interview Winehouse claimed that she and her husband planned to settle down and have at least five children. The drugs scandals continued, however. In August she and Fielder-Civil entered rehab but checked out after five days. There was a nocturnal tumult in Soho during which Winehouse was photographed with her feet soaked with blood, the assumption being that she had been injecting drugs between her toes. In October she was arrested for possession of marijuana in Norway, though charges were never brought.
At the end of the year Fielder-Civil was arrested and held on remand for attempting to pervert the cause of justice in relation to an assault in east London (he was later jailed for 27 months). The singer abandoned her UK tour after a series of erratic performances in which she repeatedly referred to the plight of her husband. One critic attending the opening night remarked that it was, "one of the saddest nights of my life... I saw a supremely talented artist reduced to tears, stumbling around the stage and, unforgivably, swearing at the audience."
By this time Winehouse's trials had become a national obsession, with the star constantly trailed by paparazzi and her numerous dramas played out in newspapers and magazines. Her parents Mitch and Janis intensified interest by attempting to start a public dialogue with their daughter. Her mother Janis wrote an open letter to Winehouse published by The News of the World in which she noted that "fame has overwhelmed you", while her father gave frequent interviews to the press in which he discussed his daughter's problems. Other rock stars waded into the Amy debate, with the likes of Liam Gallagher offering advice on how to deal with drug addiction.
In January 2008 Winehouse found herself at the centre of yet another media storm as The Sun obtained footage of her apparently using a crack pipe. The film, which was passed on to the police but resulted in no charges, also showed her snorting ecstasy and cocaine and admitting to having taken Valium. There were assorted highly publicised altercations, one with a man who found her looking disorientated outside a pub and offered to hail her a taxi. He later accused her of head-butting him and punching a second man in the face. Winehouse's health continued to decline as she underwent treatment for early-stage emphysema. That year she was due to record a song for the Bond film Quantum of Solace with Mark Ronson. However, amid reports that the pair fell out over the singer's erratic behaviour, they never made it into the recording studio.
In 2009 Winehouse and Fielder-Civil divorced, though reports in the press suggested that they continued to have an on-off relationship. Winehouse spent much of the year in St Lucia, where she was reported to be working on new material. According to Winehouse's record company Island, her third album was due in 2010. Lucian Grange, head of the label's parent company Universal, remarked that the new songs sounded "sensational", though a release date never materialised.
Earlier this year the singer contributed to a Quincy Jones tribute album and performed a duet with Tony Bennett, who praised her "natural jazz voice", though he added, "I'm worried about her and I'm praying for her." Winehouse made headlines again in June after she fainted at home and was taken to hospital by her father.
A few weeks later she embarked on a comeback tour of Europe that was cancelled after a catastrophic performance in Belgrade in which she appeared drunk, mumbling into the microphone, clutching members of her band and, at one point, sitting on the floor and removing her shoes. The audience booed and threw paper cups. She made a brief and similarly chaotic appearance three days before she died at her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield's gig at the Camden Roundhouse. It was to be her last performance.
Despite her uneven shows, her drunken outbursts and brushes with the law, there remained an enormous amount of goodwill towards Winehouse among fans, commentators and fellow performers who, with each new drama, willed her to get better. For all her infamy, Winehouse's belting voice and big heart won out. As news of her death swept social networking sites, Winehouse was unofficially enrolled as the latest member of the "27 Club", one of a contingent of musical legends including Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix who died at 27. But while her death at such a young age shocked many, few could claim to be truly surprised.
Amy Jade Winehouse, singer and songwriter: born London 14 September 1983; married 2007 Blake Fielder-Civil (divorced 2009); died London 23 July 2011.
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