Amy Winehouse - Biography

By David Downs


           UK pop, R&B and soul vocalist Amy Winehouse intoxicated the early 21st century music world with her second album, Back To Black (2006 Universal). The album went quintuple-platinum and garnered the young, troubled star six Grammy Nominations and five Grammy Awards in one night, including Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year for the profane, soulful hit “Rehab.” Born in Southgate, London in 1983, Winehouse debuted in 2003 with Frank (2003 Island) before recruiting famed soul revivalist band the Dap-Kings to fuse a '50s/'60s girl group and '70s soul vibe to her raw, north London accent and deeply personal, often brutal lyrics of loss and substance abuse. The result changed the course of pop music in 2007. As of 2008, Winehouse was worth an estimated ten million pounds, among the richest UK musicians under 30.


            Born Amy Jade Winehouse on September 14, 1983 in the Southgate Area of North London, her father Mitchell Winehouse drove a taxi, and mother Janis was a pharmacist. She was the second child behind her brother, Alex. The Jewish family was musical, with Janis' side of the family playing jazz as session musicians and Amy's parents raising her on Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. At age nine, Winehouse parents divorced and Janis received custody of Amy and Alex. The experience no doubt hurt Amy, as she was very much a “daddy's girl” according to interviews and the tattoo on her left shoulder. Sociological studies show that divorced children are more likely to have abandonment issues, substance abuse and relationship problems, and her adult life seemd to bear that out.


            At age eleven, inspired by Salt 'n' Peppa, she founded a short-lived rap group named Sweet 'n' Sour before she attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School. A strong-willed, odd child, she took to the guitar by age thirteen and began writing songs. Expelled from Sylvia Young for a nose-piercing and a bad attitude, Winehouse soon got her first tattoo at age fifteen and began experimenting with other associated recreational activities of her cohorts. After a stint singing with a jazz band, her sometimes boyfriend and soul singer Taylor James sent her demo to an A&R person and she was soon signed to Island Universal.


            At the fresh age of twenty, Winehouse entered the studio with hit producer Salaam Remi, who had worked with Nas, the Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest. Every song was co-written by Winehouse save for two covers. Full of jazz influences, Frank (2003 Island) garnered positive reviews, with the press comparing her to Sarah Vaughan and Macy Gray. Gilles Peterson included her track “Take The Box” alongside songs by Marvin Gaye, Kelis and James Brown on his compilation Worldwide Programme 3 (2003 Talkin Loud) and the album charted in the UK. Later in 2004, she was shortlisted for the 2004 Mercury Music Prize and performed at the Glastonbury Festival as well as the V Festival. The single, “Stronger than Me,” won the Ivor Novello songwriting award for Best Contemporary Song.


            For 18 months after Frank, Winehouse wrote little amidst relationship problems with then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil. That relationship, along with a meeting with successful producer Mark Ronson and an introduction to the legendary Dap-Kings, would provide the key ingredients for her subsequent, supernova-like explosion.


            English-American producer and cover artist Mark Ronson gained fame prior to working with Winehouse through DJ-ing in New York in the early '90s and producing Lilly Allen. Ronson catalyzed a manic, six-month writing period during which Winehouse wrote almost all of Back to Black, which would be nothing without the inclusion of her backing band, the Dap-Kings.


            Believers in the sonic perfection of mid-'60s to mid-'70s funk and soul, the Dap-Kings started in the mid-'90s with Philip Lehman and Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann. Notable Sharon Jones vehicle Dap Dippin' With ... (2001 Daptone Records) preceded Naturally (2001 Daptone Records) –a stone classic piece of neo-soul featuring vintage vocalist Jones channeling James Brown, with the Dap-Kings on vintage instruments recorded through age-old analog gear.


            Audiophile Ronson soon recruited the Dap-Kings as session musicians and the musical stars aligned. In 2006, after Winehouse's label suggested she enter rehab due to repeated inebriated club and TV appearances, she channeled her problems into Back to Black. Driven by a break-up with then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil and coaching from Ronson to embrace her sense of loss and self-immolation, Winehouse wrote for six months and recorded six of Back To Black's eleven tracks at Daptone Studios with Dap-Kings, including the soon-to-be hits “Rehab” and “You Know I'm No Good”.


            The songs would highlight Fielder-Civil and Winehouse's explosive courtship, fights, betrayals, cheating and Winehouse's heartbreak as Fielder-Civil returned to his ex-girlfriend. Winehouse has stated that her love for Fielder-Civil was profound, and Back to Black flooded out of her as a sort of catharsis. In early 2006, Mark Ronson debuted “Wake up Alone” and “Rehab” on his New York Radio show on East Village Radio. Back to Black came out on October 20, 2006 in the UK and would go on to hit number one on the UK charts multiple times, selling in excess of five million units worldwide. Subsequent singles “Rehab,” “You Know I'm No Good” and “Back to Black” proved her talents to millions worldwide, setting off a media feeding frenzy that fed back into personal problems for Winehouse.


            Winehouse's arresting, emotive voice aside, smash single and song of 2007, “Rehab” wouldn't be what it was without the arrangement duties of Dap-King Gabriel Roth. Led off with the drums of Homer Steinweiss, it's the hand claps and Wurlitzer electric piano of Victor Axelrod that give the song its vintage flavor. The old-school sound contrasts perfectly with the fundamentally contemporary issue of drug rehabilitation –here almost mocked in the lyrics by Winehouse's refusal to attend. The lead song sets up the central conflict of Back to Black–an overwhelming grief for love lost served over lushly orchestrated dollops of cello, guitar, harp, piano, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, viola and violin which give the song its class.  The song would earn Winehouse a Grammy in 2007 for 'Song of the Year' and 'Best Female Pop Vocal Performance'.


            A hip-hop beat from drummer Steinweiss grounds follow-up single “You Know I'm No Good” in present-day New York. Yet again Ronson refutes convention by backing the beat with vintage guitar, Wurlitzer, saxophone and trumpet. In a another juxtaposition, Winehouse takes R&B singing to a profane place with lyrics explicitly describing unsatisfying sexual intercourse. Ronson has stated that Winehouse's mature subject matter and her sometimes vulgar delivery re-invigorated the bland, corporate sound of modern soul music, offering an intimacy and uniqueness at odds with the generic platitudes of the genre.


            This is best evinced in the third single, “Back to Black,” an epic, maudlin love letter to Fielder-Civil noted for its mention of his genitalia as well as repeated references to cocaine and marijuana. Again, Axelrod's piano work drives the song while the strings arranged by Gabriel Roth are absolutely sweeping and crushing. The song reverberates with almost anyone who has lost a lover.


            Back to Black came out in America in March 2007 and promptly shot up the charts to #2 on the Billboard 200, embraced by neo-soul lovers as much as the mainstream. The album charted higher than any other American debut by a British female recording artist. That May Winehouse married Fielder-Civil in Miami, Florida. On June 21, “Rehab” hit the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.


            In August, the performer was hospitalized after collapsing from an alleged three-day heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, alcohol and ketamine binge. Winehouse entered rehab, but quickly left. In October, Winehouse and spouse were arrested in Norway for possession of marijuana. In November, Winehouse's home was raided in connection with an allegation that Fielder-Civil tried to bribe a witness who would testify against him in case stemming from an alleged assault earlier that year. That month, Frank was also re-released, this time to American audience which propelled it to platinum status. On July 23, 2011, Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning. She was 27.


            Winehouse entered rehab again in late January of 2008, and was later denied a US Visa because of use and abuse of narcotics, requiring her to perform via satellite for the 2008 Grammy Awards show. Her performance was generally thought to be excellent.


            Amidst more drug and arrest-related headlines in 2008, Winehouse has spoken of numerous collaborations, among them, Peter Doherty of Babyshambles as well as Prince. Winehouse is also reportedly at work on a follow-up to Back to Black with Mark Ronson. But it should be noted that Winehouse has repeatedly told journalists that she would not shed a tear if she never recorded again, as she wants to be a mother and wife, not a career musician.


            Winehouse provided a voice to the early 21st Century neo-soul revival, earning mainstream success with her explicit, honest, and ultimately contemporary reinvention of vintage girl groups, R&B and soul. With the help of the world-famed backing group the Dap-Kings and two dynamite producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, Back to Black became an international sensation. The pain, sensitivity and subsequent self-abuse that fuel the pathos in Winehouse's work are also possibly her biggest threat. The repeated arrests, lawsuits and public gaffes driven by Winehouse's vices, threaten to eclipse her enormous talent, even as such gaffes act promotional tools fueling record-breaking sales. The world awaits the next move from Winehouse, whether it’s another smash single or an untimely demise. Both extremes seem equally probable–and that concept is the key to understanding her enormous talent and early success.

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