Known for such worldwide hits as ‘Back to Black’, ‘Rehab’, and ‘Valerie’, singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse was a British sensation that captivated the world with her vibrant vocals, rock star lifestyle, and tragic death at the age of 27. Her short time as a superstar performer lives on through her music and she is regarded as one of the most recent torch bearers of ‘blue-eyed soul’.
Born in the Southgate suburb of London, England, Amy Jade Winehouse was the only daughter of Mitchell Winehouse and Janis Winehouse. Along with her older brother Alex, born in 1979, Winehouse’s ancestors were of Russian and Polish Jewish descent. On her mother’s side, she was exposed to jazz music from a very early age, as many of her mother’s uncles were professional jazz musicians. Her father Mitch also sang as a child with his family and her paternal grandmother was a singer that dated British jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott.
Amy spent her formative years at Osidge Primary School, where she showed an early interest in music, and when her parents divorced at the age of nine, she split her time between the Southgate area of London with her mother, and Hatfield Heat, Essex on the weekends with her father and his girlfriend. In 1992, on a suggestion by her grandmother Cynthia, Winehouse attended the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School for four years, where she furthered her education in voice and studied dance. While there, she founded a rap group with her good friend Juliette Ashby called Sweet ‘n’ Sour, which was heavily influenced by the girl groups of the time like Salt-N-Pepa, and TLC.
Winehouse next enrolled full-time at Sylvia Young Theatre to continue her musical studies but was reportedly expelled at 14 years old for piercing her nose and not applying herself, claims she later refuted. While there, she appeared on an episode of The Fast Show in 1997 and then later matriculated at the Mount School, Mill Hill, the BRIT School in Selhurst, Croydon, Osidge JMI School, and the Ashmole School.
During her formative teenage years, Winehouse took up an interest in instruments, eventually toying around with her brother Alex’s guitar at 14 and then writing her own music about a year later. Shortly thereafter, she was working for the World Entertainment News Network as an entertainment journalist and singing with the local group, the Bolsha Band. In July 2000, she was selected as the featured vocalist for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, where she sang renditions of songs from acclaimed singers Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. When her best friend, soul singer Tyler James, sent her demo to A&R and it was heard by Simon Fuller’s 19 Management in 2002, Winehouse was paid £250 a week against any future earnings. During her development deal, Winehouse kept her signing a secret and began performing regularly as a jazz singer at the Cobden Club.
In a short time, a bidding war between record labels ensued as Winehouse’s talent as a singer and songwriter became known throughout the record industry. By the time Island A&R representative Darcus Beese discovered who she was, Winehouse had already signed a publishing deal at EMI and had begun a working relationship with another producer, Salaam Remi. Undeterred, Beese brought Winehouse to the attention of his boss at Island Records, Nick Gatfield, who agreed to sign her before rivals EMI and Virgin could make a move.
In October 2003, Winehouse released her debut album, Frank, a collection heavily influenced by jazz that was produced by Salaam Remi and in which she co-wrote every original song. The album received rave reviews, with many comparing her lyrics and voice to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and several other great songstresses. Frank was a hit in the UK, entering near the top of the charts and earning Winehouse Brit Award nominations for British Female Solo Artist and British Urban Act. By the end of 2004, the album had achieved platinum status and earned her and Remi the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song for the first single, ‘Stronger Than Me’. The phenomenal success of the album also put Winehouse on the short list for the 2004 Mercury Music Prize.
In support of the album, Winehouse appeared at several festivals, including the Glastonbury Festival, Jazzworld, the V Festival, and the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The album proved to have legs, and her label released more singles to support it, including ‘Take the Box’, and ‘Pumps’.
In preparation for the follow-up to Frank, Winehouse enlisted the help of artists that celebrated the sound of girl groups during the 50s and 60s. She hired the band of Sharon Jones, the Dap-Kings, to provide backing vocals and production in the studio and for upcoming tours. In May 2006, demo version of ‘Rehab’ and ‘You Know I’m No Good’ were released on Mark Ronson’s East Village Radio show. The production for the Back to Black album spanned five months and eventually included 11 tracks, with Salaam Remi, Mark Ronson, and Winehouse splitting production credits between them. The album was released in the United Kingdom on October 2006, entering the UK Albums Chart at #1, and the Billboard 200 at #7. It became the best-selling album of 2007 in the UK, selling 1.85 million copies during the year.
Back to Black was a success across the board, with several singles from the release becoming international hits. The first single from the album, ‘Rehab’ was a top ten hit in the UK and the United States, with Time magazine naming it the Best Song of 2007. The follow-up single from the album, ‘You Know I’m No Good’, was released in January 2007, and reached #18 on the UK singles chart. The title track, ‘Back to Black’, was the third single to be released from the album and charted at #25 in the UK. ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’, and ‘Love Is a Losing Game’ were also released as singles internationally in extended support of the album.
In November 2007, Island Records released a deluxe edition of Back to Black that featured bonus tracks, B-sides, and live tracks, including another version of ‘Valerie’. Her debut DVD, I Told You I Was Trouble: Live in London, was released on the same day in the United Kingdom and internationally and covered her career over the past four years. Because of her growing success, Frank was released in the United States on November 20, 2007, entering the charts at #61 on the Billboard 200. Her collaboration with Ronson for his album Version earned her a 2008 Brit Award for Best British Single. Another collaboration with former Sugababes singer Mutya Buena, ‘B Boy Baby’ was released on December 17, 2007. She soon began negotiations to collaborate on Missy Elliott’s upcoming Block Party album.
A tour in support of Back to Black was announced, which saw Winehouse performing as the headline at several events, including the Little Noise Sessions for charity at the Union Chapel in Islington, London, and on Jools Holland’s Annual Hootenanny live on the BBC. She appeared at the MTV Movie Awards in 2007, then appeared at the Isle of Wright Festival in England, Glastonbury Festival, Lollapalooza in Chicago, Rock Werchter in Belgium, and the Virgin Music Festival in Baltimore. As the tour continued on, however, problems began to emerge that began to derail it.
In February 2008, Back to Black and Amy Winehouse were the big winners at the Grammy Awards, where she took home most of the big awards from the night, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album. The night ended with Winehouse earning the most Grammy Awards in one night by a British female act. She performed two tracks from the album – ‘You Know I’m No Good’ and ‘Rehab’ – via satellite and after the night’s wins, sales from the album skyrocketed, pushing Back to Black to #2 on the Billboard 200 after initially only ranking at #7 upon its debut. By March, the album was certified double platinum with sales in excess of two million copies, and by April, the album was back at the top position in the pan-European charts for the sixth week. A celebratory DVD was released on April 14, 2008: Amy Winehouse – The Girl Done Good: A Documentary Review. The documentary chronicled her years as a singer by her family members, schoolmates, jazz experts, and pop culture reviewers. At the Ivor Novello Awards in May 2008, Winehouse became the first artist to receive two nominations for the top award with the songs ‘You Know I’m No Good’ and ‘Love Is a Losing Game’, for which she won. Her single ‘Rehab’ received the Novello award for best contemporary song of 2006 and also a nomination in 2008 for best-selling British song. She was again nominated at the 2008 MTV Europe Awards in the Act of the Year category.
Riding a high of popularity and in demand internationally, Winehouse performed at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party at Hyde Park in London on June 27th, and the following day at the Glastonbury Festival. By the end of 2008, Back to Black was the seventh best-selling album in the world and Winehouse one of its biggest pop superstars.
By 2009, 1 in 5 Americans polled knew of Amy Winehouse and her music and the singer performed a rendition of the song ‘Cupid’ with Rhythms del Mundo for the Artists Project Earth that was released on July 13, 2009. She and Ronson recorded a cover version of Lesley Gore’s ‘It’s My Party’ that was released on November 9, 2010 for the Quincy Jones Q Bossa Nostra tribute album. It was reported in the press that Winehouse was forming a group with Questlove from The Roots, but problems with immigration and obtaining a visa to work placed the project on hold indefinitely. As Universal Music continued to press her for new music for a third album, the process was further delayed by Winehouse’s insistence on learning to play the drums for the project.
By mid-2010, Winehouse opined to the press that her second album would be released by January of 2011, but with no new material to record, the singer performed at several events, including a four-song set in October to promote her new fashion line, a December 2010 performance for a Russian oligarch, and in five dates in Brazil in January 2011, with opening acts Janelle Monae and Mayer Hawthorne. Her last performance was on July 20, 2011 with goddaughter Dionne Bromfield, where she provided backing vocals to ‘Mama Said’.
On July 23, 2011, Winehouse was found dead in her Camden home and upon reports of her death internationally, sales of her albums skyrocketed back to the top of the charts, making Back to Black the best-selling album in the United Kingdom in the 21st century.
She was just 27 years old.
Her last recording was with American pop singer Tony Bennett and his latest album, Duets II, featured Winehouse on the single, ‘Body and Soul’, which was released on September 14, 2011 on what would have been her 28th birthday. The track was nominated for and won the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the Grammys on February 12, 2012.
Winehouse’s penchant for adopting the look of iconic ’60s girl groups set her apart from the current crop of pop singers during her stint as a mainstream artist. Channeling Cleopatra, The Ronettes, and even The Supremes, Amy Winehouse created a look that harkened back to an era that glorified and deified immaculate voices and great costumes. With her jazzy voice and unquestionable moxie, Winehouse made herself a force to be reckoned with in the mainstream media and the adoring public. Her look resonated with many and floundered with others, with Winehouse being named ‘Ten Worst Dressed Women’ by Richard Blackwell in his 48th annual list. Undeterred, she released a capsule collection in October 2010 in collaboration with Fred Perry that was a success.
Ultimately, however, it was Winehouse’s battle with drugs and alcohol that made her fodder for the worldwide press, which followed her constantly and chronicled her every transgression. Many of her performances were riddled with problems on stage, with several reports at several venues of her public intoxication and fighting with audience members and management. After several performances that were subpar, Winehouse was ordered to bed rest to rehabilitate her voice and body.
The mainstream media portrayed Winehouse as a hellcat, and her public appearances towards the end of her life were seen as a cry for help that remained largely ignored. In June 2008, she punched a fan at the Glastonbury Festival but escaped criminal charges. Afterwards, she checked into a London clinic to be treated for emphysema and an irregular heartbeat brought on by smoking crack and cigarettes for years. In addition to her drug problems, she also faced domestic spats that became public fodder while married to Blake Fielder-Civil. Their courtship and spats sold millions of newspapers and portrayed the singer as erratic, mentally imbalanced, and unpredictable.
Winehouse’s personal life was heavily covered in the press, with the singer dating Alex Clare while on a break from her future husband Blake Fielder-Civil in 2006. The pair lived together briefly, and when they split, he sold their story to the tabloid publication News of the World.
Her most public and longest lasting relationship was with Fielder-Civil, which was scrutinized by the press and characterized by physical violence with Winehouse reporting during an interview:
“If he says one thing I don’t like, then I’ll chin him.”
The two married in May of 2007 in Miami Beach, Florida. In August 2007, she was photographed in London with blood and bruises on her after an alleged fight with Fielder-Civil, which later denied. According to him, the two resorted to cutting their bodies to ease the pain of withdrawing from illegal drugs. He later admitted to introducing her to crack cocaine and heroin.
In January 2009, Winehouse was romantically linked with actor Josh Bowman and opened up to the press about her marriage to Fielder-Civil revolving around drug use and lies. By mid-January, a spokesman for the singer confirmed divorce proceedings and on August 28, 2009 it became official.
Winehouse’s addiction to drugs and alcohol were widely reported in the media for the duration of her career, starting in 2005, when her record label tried to talk her into rehab, which she refused. Although she recovered for the release of her album Back to Black, her grandmother’s death set her back on drugs and in 2007, she was hospitalized for an overdose of ecstasy, heroin, ketamine, cocaine, and alcohol. She also revealed that she was prone to self-harm, bouts of depression, and eating disorders. After British tabloid The Sun released footage of Winehouse smoking crack, she entered rehab for a two week treatment program. Throughout 2008, Winehouse publically battled drug abuse allegations and charges, with her primary care physician clearing her of all illegal substances towards the end of the year. But her addiction to alcohol proved to be another problem, with the singer refusing psychological therapy as treatment after being treated with Librium for alcohol anxiety and withdrawal.
Her run-ins with the law also became a mainstay, with the singer arrested several times for assault. By December 2009, Winehouse had been arrested three times for assault. Winehouse later blamed her addiction to drugs and alcohol for her often erratic behavior.
Written by: Triston Brewer