We Know You’re So Good
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Seven Years On: Remembering the Incredible Amy Winehouse
THERE are few modern artists…
IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2008/PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
who have made a bigger impact on music than Amy Winehouse. Today marks seven years since her death and, so long after the fact, we still mourn and remember the incredible artist. Whether you found Winehouse when Back to Black leapt into the world (2006) or discovered her music after her death in 2011 – we all have some connection with the late, great Jazz artist. It would be confined calling her music (purely) ‘Jazz’: Winehouse masterfully brought in R&B, Pop and Soul into her music. Right from her debut, Frank, people could sense there was something very special about Amy Winehouse. Life before Frank’s release (in 2003) saw Winehouse playing and singing in various groups. She was a one-time journalist for the World Entertainment News Network and, by 2000, became the featured female vocalist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Channelling influences like Saran Vaughan and Frank Sinatra; this incredible artist was starting to come together. Winehouse’s best friend, Tyler James, sent a demo to an A&R executive and was soon signed to Simon Fuller’s 19 Management. Receiving a small amount each week, Winehouse continued to play and get her music out to the people. Although the singer was playing at Jazz clubs and getting her music out there; she was still an unknown quantity and it wasn’t until Island Records heard her music did her career start to make tracks.
PHOTO CREDIT: Diane Patrice
Darcus Beese (at Island) heard Winehouse’s music by accident from the manager of The Lewinson Brothers – he showed Beese music from his clients which featured Winehouse as a backing singer. Unable to provide Amy Winehouse’s name; the manager had that secret, talented star all to himself. It too many months of searching and persistence before Amy Winehouse became known to Island Records. She had, by this time, signed a deal with EMI and there was fierce interest in the young artist. Frank arrived on 20th October, 2003 and drew some passionate reviews from journalists. Although not as hard-hitting and memorable as Back to Black; the album was a brilliant window into the abilities and influences of Amy Winehouse. That Jazz passion came through strong.
One can hear the likes of Vaughan and Sinatra in some numbers; mixed into songs by a young woman talking about her life and its highs and lows – from sex and immense passion to heartache, disappointment; through to accusation and slices from the street. A heady and eclectic collection of songs – Winehouse co-wrote every song but (There Is) No Greater Love (a 1936 Jazz standard composed by Isham Jones) – there was plenty of love from the critics. From the U.S. and U.K. to the rest of the world; journalists highlighted her subtle yet powerful voice; the blend of genres working away (many noted a comparison to Soul legends like Nina Simone and Erykah Badu) and how Winehouse provided an updated, modern-day Jazz sound that drew the listener in.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
It is the way she sprinkled Neo-Jazz and Soul together that buckled knees and dropped jaws – there was ample determination, passion and attitude to be found among the seductive, velvet-smooth and entrancing songs. If Back to Black was the masterpiece that cemented her reputation: Frank was a powerful indication of a definite star-in-the-making. Perhaps there were too many bodies in the kitchen – quite a few producers and writers assembled the music – and Winehouse herself, in terms of writing, was yet to stand out and establish her true abilities. Frank is, at times romantic and playful; sweary, definite and teenage the next – like the young woman battling through life and living the existence of a London-based Jazz heroine.
PHOTO CREDIT: Charles Moriarty
It is incredible, literally, seeing the way Amy Winehouse changed in the three years between album releases. A sweet-faced and, at times, shy star poured her heart out on her debut. We got glimpses of what was to come but, even at the start, a unique talent that British music was crying out for. The influence of the debut was Jazz and the heroines she admired growing up. Produced mostly by Salaam Remi; Winehouse shifted focus and plans when it came to the anticipated follow-up. Frank was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize and sold massively; it was a big hit but, in many ways, not the album Winehouse was truly capable of.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Unwilling to simply bow to expectations and record a carbon-copy of that debut; Back to Black was going to be a very different-sounding record. Winehouse’s musical focus shifted to the girl-group music of the 1950s and 1960s; Sharon Jones’ band, the Dap-Kings, were hired to back her in the studio and on tour. Winehouse, like all the greats, was a perfectionist in the studio and would ensure every song was as honed and good as possible. Winehouse would play what she had sung in the studio in a taxi (a C.D. cutting) and got a viewpoint of how the public would hear her music. It gave her a very real and instant realisation of how her music would be experienced and perceived. By 2006, demo tracks of You Know I’m No Good and Rehab found their way to the U.S. – courtesy of producer Mark Ronson’s New York radio show – and there was a lot of excitement building. It is Ronson’s association and work with Winehouse that added new dimensions to the music and brought it to a wider audience. Ronson was keen to work with Winehouse because she, when they first met, was blunt and thought he (Ronson) would be older with a beard – and she didn’t like his stuff. That rather honest and straight-shooting personality intrigued Ronson and the two began a working relationship that would go right into Back to Black.
Ronson was doing things with the music that surprised Tom Elmhirst – who was brought it to help mix the record. Ronson was adding Beatle-esque stuff to the music and mixing/panning drums in a new way; bringing more out of the music and emphasising instruments in a way that had not been done on an Amy Winehouse record before. The growing and more confident songwriter dispensed with her Jazz influences and started to embrace R&B more wholly. A more mature and darker artist; songs looked at ill-suited lovers and the perils of heartache. We were seeing the transformation from a girlish, if sassy, artist into a more complex and tortured artist. The songs reflected a musician who was balancing increased attention with an everyday life – the stress, demand and performance alongside relationship issues and trying to find some downtime. Critics marvelled at her womanly vocals and lyrics that flirted and teased but had plenty of punch, tears and torment. The development and leap from Frank – in only three years – stunned many. Only four of the eleven tracks on Back to Black were co-written: three of its biggest hits were written by her alone: Rehab, You Know I’m No Good and Love Is a Losing Game. The stunning title cut was written with Mark Ronson – Ronson, alongside Salaam Remi, produced the album. It is interesting to see the split between the Ronson and Remi-produced tracks.
IN THIS PHOTO: Mick Jagger and Amy Winehouse performing on stage on the final day of the Isle of Wight Festival in 2007/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The Remi cuts had a softer, more Jazz-tinged sound. Although Winehouse had embraced R&B more by this stage; you can hear flavours of her debut on a few of the numbers. The Ronson numbers are bolder, more R&B-tinged and brassy. Many other albums might suffer this clash of worlds: Winehouse’s command and stunning songwriting ensured the album was a personal, fluid and cohesive effort. There was, naturally, huge attention and award chatter as soon as Back to Black came to the shelves. The sounds and fearlessness on Back to Black inspired songwriters like Adele, Duffy and V V Brown; Florence + the Machine, La Roux and Little Boots were taking note and would take Winehouse’s bold and stunning sounds to heart. It would not be an exaggeration to call Winehouse one of the most influential artists of this generation – her legacy is still being felt and so many young songwriters count her as their idol. In 2004, photographer Diane Patrice spent a day snapping the young Winehouse. Her recollections show the contrasts between the young star then (2004) and where she was by 2006/2007:
“Her voice, her face, and her features didn't match. She sounded like a 20-stone check-out girl, she sounded huge. It was a lived-in voice. The whole package was very endearing... a contradiction in herself,” Diane says”.
The photographer noted the state of her clothing and her living space:
“…In fact, the giggling photographer cannot get over the state of Amy's clothes: “Her skirt was absolutely filthy. She didn't give a damn that it wasn't clean... it stays with me because I never saw someone wear something like that at a shoot — I thought 'good on you, girl”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Diane Patrice/Whitebank Fine Art
Winehouse, during the shoot, was close to laughter and would take a phone call whilst she was being pictured. She was an honest and typical young woman living in London. The sense of disorganisation and shabbiness had a charm and working-class honesty that, several years later, would transform into something more toxic and troubling. The raising profile, combined with increased media attention, was affecting the anxiety levels and mindset of the musicians. She was being booed at gigs, around 2007, because she was noticeably intoxicated and nervous – some saw her drinking as the excess of fame; those close to her felt it was pressure-driven. The increased level of fame, demand for performance and media glare was having a detrimental effect on the star. She was being whisked between festivals and various countries; barely able to stand still and was struggling to keep hold of a more humble and secure lifestyle she had enjoyed pre-Frank. The days of playing in her flat and walking around London without a care were being replaced by huge gigs and constant focus. It was inevitable a heroine who took influence from Jazz icons – a genre known for doomed figures and a sense of tragedy – would suffer some of their fate. That might seem like a generalisation but, in my view, the constant tabloid focus regarding her love life and movements was creating needless strain.
IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse and her fiance Blake Fielder-Civil at the Coachella Music Festival in 2007/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Mounting controversies and substance abuse were derailing the artist and getting her name into the tabloids more and more. Winehouse was arrested in 2006 after punching a female fan – who had criticised her for taking Blake Fielder-Civil as a husband. Her associated with Fielder-Civil was creating a lot of tension. Although very much in love; it was apparent the influence and effect Blake Fielder-Civil was having on Amy Winehouse was causing more damage than good. The next few years seemed to consist of alcohol issues, self-harming and drug abuse; illness, inconsistent performances and troubles. The once-proclaimed and celebrated genius was becoming better-known for her legal and personal difficulties than her music. Crack cocaine and alcohol was taking hold and it was feared, unless big changes were made, the musician would not live long. There were gigs and performance from Back to Black’s release in 2006 and Winehouse’s death in 2011 – the fact there was not another completed album shows what impact drugs and drink had on her creativity. Amy Winehouse died on 23rd July, 2011 and sent the music world into mourning. Toxicology reports found she was five times over the drink-drive limit and that excess, impacting on a weakened and ravaged heart, dealt a fatal blow. Aged only twenty-seven – another genius star who became a member of 'The 27 Club’ – the brilliant artist was tragically cut short. The world had lost one of its finest musicians and most influential figures.
Rather than pour over her drink, drugs and relationship issues; it is not worth performing an autopsy and forensic examination seven years after her death. I blame the media and the pressures of fame for a death but, in many ways, Winehouse’s talent and brilliance created that popularity. She was a woman who wanted to play music and stay modest, real and humble – the same girl who grew up in London and drooled over Jazz legends and aspired to follow in their steps. The world of fame and constant media scrutiny is not what she planned for and her way of coping, sadly, lead to her demise. The shockwaves that greeted the news of her death shows how her short and brilliant career made a meteor-sized impression on the music world. Mainstream artists from M.I.A., George Michael and Lady Gaga paid tribute and revealed their heartache. Journalists, musicians and music lovers alike mourned the loss of someone who was primed to be an icon of the modern age.
The destructiveness and excess was a part of the complicated, challenging and beautiful soul that was Amy Winehouse. Her two-album career does a disservice to the full spectrum of her talent – posthumous releases collate material she did not complete and what-ifs from the artist. (It is well worth watching the amazing documentary, Amy (2015), to get an insight into who she was and why she was so loved). Today, as we mark her death; we also celebrate a brilliant career from an artist who was bold, brilliant and never boring! We have, in fact, never seen someone as accessible and fascinating as Amy Winehouse – I doubt we will ever see her like in this lifetime! Rather than dwell on the tragedy and loss; listen to the brilliant music (below) of Amy Winehouse and remember all the gold and glory…
PHOTO CREDIT: Diane Patrice/Whitebank
SHE gave to all of us.