Obituary: Amy Winehouse, 1983 - 2011
We pay tribute to the talent of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who died aged 27 on July 23 2011
Amy Winehouse had an extraordinary voice and a unique presence. Hopefully these will be the qualities for which she's remembered. Everyone who loved Winehouse's music felt like they knew her, despite the fact that she gave few interviews. To a certain extent, they did, thanks to her incredible gifts for songwriting and performing. Winehouse was a soul singer in the true definition of the word, and that's what brought the mourners flocking to Camden Square to pay their respects. At the time of going to press, a cause of death had not been confirmed.
Speaking to Time Out in 2008, Jay-Z (one of several rappers who recorded a version of 'Rehab') praised her as an artist who 'makes music to make music'. 'When I listen to Amy Winehouse,' he said, 'I believe that her heart and soul is in the music. The aesthetic of it is different - it's not anything that's formulaic.'
Of course, Winehouse was often in the tabloids, but unlike most people who live in the spotlight, this wasn't how her audience got to know her. Winehouse's thoughts, feelings and philosophies were laid bare in her records and spellbinding live shows, as was, perhaps most importantly, the fact that she was as funny as hell. It's hard not to fall in love with someone like that.
Winehouse was just 20 when she was nominated for her first Ivor Novello award, at a time when she was being lumped in with Katie Melua and Jamie Cullum as part of new wave of British jazz-pop stars (Winehouse having sung with the prestigious National Youth Jazz Orchestra). Even then, her writing was precociously clever. The lyrics for both 'Frank' and 'Back to Black' describe a romantically literate pragmatist with an observant eye for emotional detail and a penchant for self- (and everybody else-) skewering honesty. This was the inner, idealised Amy, which her natural shyness and vulnerability wouldn't always let her express.
While there's no question Winehouse was practically in a flatshare with heartbreak, it's easy to miss the wicked sense of humour that marbled her lyrics. The 'October Song' from 'Frank' (sample lyric: 'With dread I woke in my bed/To shooting pains up in my head/Lovebird, my beautiful bird/Spoke until one day she couldn't be heard') was about a budgie Winehouse had kept for a month. She hoped the song would help her recoup the £120 she had spent on a cage.
Time Out ran one of Winehouse's last interviews, a typically casual affair which happened as much by accident as design, when she took the stage during a secret show by her father, Mitch. Writer Tutu Balogun recalls that 'she seemed somewhat on the mend - a long way from touching the light but definitely in sight of the end of the tunnel. I remember how lovely she was to me, and she seemed more together in terms of her performance, but there was still a distinct lack of connection with her own being. She had a naivety about her, and a sense of loneliness I couldn't quite put my finger on.
'One of the last things she spoke about with me was her never-to-be finished third album, which at the time she made clear she was keen to get absolutely right, as quality took precedence over quantity. I think I'll take that very same view on her life: quality over quantity.'
The stage was where Winehouse really came to life. 'To play and sing live for me is like just going on autopilot', she told Blues & Soul magazine in 2004. 'It really is just a case of me wanting to please the crowd by giving the songs their just due every night, mainly because I'm really, really proud of them.'The global success of 'Back to Black' meant the shows became glitzy and glam big-band productions, and there's no question that, mostly, they were spectacular. But if you really want to remember what all the fuss was about, watch the clip of Winehouse performing 'Love Is a Losing Game' to a packed cafe at SXSW in Austin. Just her on a stage, in T-shirt and jeans, killing them softly.
Top UK trumpeter and composer Guy Barker - a man who knows what he's talking about - worked with Amy Winehouse ten years ago on a radio broadcast, well before she was famous, and it was obvious she was something special. 'She blew us all away even then,' he says. 'And in this world of manufactured music it was so refreshing to hear someone who was obviously the real deal and who could really sing - the saddest thing of all is that there was so much more music to come from her.'
"She's one of the few women who makes me wish I was half my age. With that debut album she came out both guns blazing, spoiling for a fight, and everybody and anybody was fair game."
Just after the release of 'Back to Black' in 2007, Don Letts spoke to Time Out about Amy Winehouse and her influence on British jazz. Read the article here.