“Life’s short. Anything could happen, and it usually does, so there is no point in sitting around thinking about all the ifs, ands and buts.” – Amy Winehouse
On July 23, 2011, a five time Grammy Award-winning British singer was found dead in her flat in Camden Town, North London at the age of 27. She had been found lying face down on her bed with “empty vodka bottles scattered around her.” (www.huffingtonpost.com) Two inquests followed and the cause of her death was decreed as accidental alcohol poisoning.
Her name was Amy Winehouse.
Amy Jade Winehouse was born into a Jewish family with some Russian ancestry on her mother’s side, on September 14, 1983, in the North London suburb of Southgate, England. Her father Mitch Winehouse was a cab driver and entertainer and her mother Janis was a pharmacist. Many of her maternal uncles were Jazz musicians, and Amy grew up listening to a wide variety of musical influences. She would credit Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra among others as influences. Amy was a precocious talent and at the age of ten she formed a short-lived amateur rap group inspired by American R&B and rap groups such as Salt-N-Pepper. At the age of 12, Amy was admitted into the reputable Sylvia Young Theatre School, but was expelled at 14 for “not applying herself” (www.wikipedia.org) At 16 her best friend Tyler James passed her demo tape over to his label, A&R and this led to a record deal with Island (Universal).
In the early days of her career, Amy was a voluptuous raven-haired young woman with brown eyes. She was striking although she never regarded herself as pretty. It was later that she developed her trademark beehive and dramatic Kohl eyes.
There was a rebellious spirit to the rising star but also a troubled side “Since I was 16, I’ve felt a black cloud hangs over me. Since then, I have taken pills for depression.” Amy admitted (www.likesuccess.com)
Amy’s debut album ‘Frank’ was released on 20 October 2003, to critical acclaim and hit double-platinum status. The album was produced mainly by Salaam Remi and featured a mix of jazz, pop, soul and hip-hop. Amy co-wrote every song. The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and two BRIT awards for Best Female Solo Artist and Best Urban Act. Winehouse won an Ivor Novello award for the opening track on the album, Stronger Than Me.
In 2005, after an 18-month hiatus, Amy collaborated with British DJ and/multi-instrumentalist Mark Ronson and began writing her second album. This time, her focus shifted to the girl groups of the 1950s and 1960s, and she credited Ronson’s involvement for inspiring her to write the album in six months. “I’m not a jazz girl any more,” Winehouse told The Sun in 2006. “These songs are more accessible than the tracks on Frank, as jazz is quite elitist. People didn’t get it. I’ve been listening to ’60s bands and girl groups and it came out in the writing on Back to Black” (www.yahoo.com)
Amy’s lifestyle was beginning to catch up with her. She often showed up to her club or TV performance too drunk to sing a whole set and her plummeting weight became a matter of media speculation. By 2006 she had dropped several dress sizes. Amy also began a tempestuous relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil who admitted to introducing her to hard drugs. It was clear that Amy was as addicted to Fielder-Civil as she was to narcotics and alcohol. She admitted to drowning her sorrows in drink but that her troubles also inspired the material on her new album.
“Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen” Amy was to say (www.carlozundo.com)
In 2006, Amy’s management company suggested she enter rehab for alcohol abuse but she refused firing them instead. She later told The Sun newspaper she did go to rehab but did not last long: “I did, for just 15 minutes. I went in and said, ‘Hello’ and explained that I drink because I’m in love and have f***** up the relationship. Then I walked out.” (www.hollywoodlife.com) Time magazine rated Rehab as the best song of 2007 praising Amy as “mouthy, funny, sultry, and quite possibly crazy” (www.lifetimetv.co.uk)
Back To Black remained at the Top 10 in America for several months and in 2007 the stellar album won five Grammy awards, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist. That same year, Amy and Blake Fielder-Civil eloped and married on May 18, 2007, in a ceremony in Miami, Florida. Later in 2007, Amy was admitted into hospital during her American tour and slipped into a coma bought on by heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, whisky and vodka. She subsequently recovered but in November, her husband was arrested and she began cancelling all dates and appearances. Her relationship with Fielder-Civil was the catalyst for much of her self destructive behaviour. “My husband is everything to me and without him it’s just not the same” Amy was to say (www.eonline.com) Controversy seemed to follow her everywhere.
On 22 January, 2008, Amy was caught on camera smoking a crack pipe by a tabloid newspaper and was investigated by the police. Days later, she bowed to pressure and entered rehab. Her management released a statement saying: “She has come to understand that she requires specialist treatment to continue her ongoing recovery from drug addiction”. (www.lifetimetv.co.uk)
2009 was a tumultuous year for Amy, culminating in divorce from Blake Fielder-Civil in August amid trouble with the law. In spite of all the controversy and personal setbacks, Amy earned entry into the Guinness Book of World Records that year for “Most Grammy Awards Won by a British Female Act.”
The divorce from Fielder-Civil did not encourage Amy to give up drugs and in the ensuing years she continued to be booed off stage and was unable to complete her set on a number of occasions. Her undeniable talent would be overshadowed by repeated arrests on assault charges and public order offences as her struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues played out in the full glare of the media.
In 2010, a track appeared on the Quincy Jones tribute Q Soul Bossa Nostra and in early 2011, a duet with Tony Bennett was announced. It was to be her last recording. On 18 June, Amy opened what was supposed to be a 12-date European tour in Belgrade but gave a shambolic performance which culminated in her being booed off stage. It was announced shortly after that Amy would not be completing the tour. A planned follow-up to Back to Black never made it past the demo stage. Her last public appearance took place at Camden’s Roundhouse, London on 20 July 2011, when she made a surprise appearance on stage to support her goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield, who was singing “Mama Said” with The Wanted.
Amy was found dead in her Camden home by a member of hr security team on 23 July, 2011. She was 27. The cause of death was established as accidental alcohol poisoning.
Mitch and Janice Winehouse released a statement saying they had been left bereft by their daughter’s death, while their record company Universal Republic said they were “deeply saddened at the sudden loss of such a gifted musician, artist and performer” (www.lifetimetv.co.uk)
Hearing of her death, fans began leaving flowers, empty bottles and cigarette packets outside her home. Her posthumously released album Back to Black became, for a time, the UK’s best-selling album of the 21st century. Many musical artists paid tribute to Amy, and Mark Ronson dedicated his UK number one album Uptown Special to Amy, stating: “I’m always thinking of you and inspired by you” (www.wikipedia.com)
Amy’s funeral was conducted on 26 July, 2011 at Edgewarebury Lane cemetery in North London, The private service was led by Rabbi Frank Hellner and among those in attendance were her mother and father, Janis and Mitch Winehouse, close friend Kelly Osbourne, producer Mark Ronson, and her boyfriend Reg Traviss. Her father delivered a eulogy, saying: “Goodnight, my angel, sleep tight. Mummy and Daddy love you ever so much” (www.hollywoodreporter.com) Carole King’s “So Far Away” closed the service with mourners singing along. After the service, throngs of fans lined the roads outside the cemetery as Amy’s body was taken to a crematorium. Amy was later cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, and her ashes were mixed with those of her beloved grandmother Cynthia.
Near the end of 2011, Amy’s family foundation announced the release of Lioness: Hidden Treasures, a posthumous compilation featuring recordings throughout her career (and after her death) and a year later, At the BBC, rounded up all her performances at the BBC on deluxe CD/DVD compilations.
On 3 July 2015, a documentary film of her life directed by Asif Kapadia was released in the UK, and worldwide on 10 July. Amy won world wide critical acclaim. It told Amy’s story through photographs, archival footage (in the studio and out), and music. The documentary film received various awards including Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2016 Oscars, Best Music Film at the 2016 Grammy Awards, the BAFTA for Best Documentary, the MTV Movie Award for Best Documentary. It was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best British Film and the success of the documentary film led to Amy’s second posthumous nomination for Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2016 Brit Awards.
Amy Winehouse lived for only 27 years, yet the prodigiousness of her talent has ensured that she lives on as a music icon. Few musicians have blazed the trail Amy has in such a short space of time. Her recording career may have been brief, yet she has left masterpieces which will be appreciated for generations to come. It was a short life riven by drama and controversy yet marked by great talent and flashes of genius.
Words: Alex Karas
Image: Suzie Mason