Amy Winehouse: In Memoriam 1983 - 2011
Some experiences in your life remain etched into your memory long after you've forgotten what else you did that day or even that year. One of these experiences for me was a chance encounter with a fresh faced teenage jazz singer who would later go on to become one of the most iconic artists in music history.
It was 2003 and I was a first year Uni student at Leeds College of Music. Like all Uni students I blew through my loan in precisely 5.7 seconds and was forced to take a job working at the college concert venue as an usher. To be fair, as far as student jobs go it was pretty cool, checking a few tickets and then getting to watch a gig, and getting paid for it! I didn’t know it at the time but my first night on the job would see my path cross with a very special individual.
The main act scheduled to perform that night was Jazz artist Jamie Cullum. I arrived at the venue during Jamie’s soundcheck, made a run for the lift when a voice beckoned out “wait for me, hold the lift”. I held open the doors as a petit yet buxom young lady in heels scuttled into the lift. I remember being taken aback by her strong north London accent, which you don’t hear that much up in Leeds. She was bubbly and vivacious and seemed particularly excited about a new dress that she would be wearing later that evening. “Probably one of the band member’s girlfriends, or a groupie” I assumed. Imagine my embarrassment when later that night the support act, one Miss Amy Winehouse was introduced and out walked the very same girl I had shared an entertaining lift ride with.
Amy blew me away that night. Accompanying herself on guitar she sang with so much soul and with such a down to earth, matter-of-fact lyrical delivery. I had never seen anything like that before within the genre. This was so much more than “chick rock”, or “sensitive folk singer songwriter”. This was compelling Jazz infused hip hop soul with a maturity far beyond her mere 20 years, 20 year olds just don't sing like that or at least they're not supposed to. For me, her voice harked back to the Jazz greats of the 30’s and 40’s, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington but with a contemporary edge reminiscent of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. But it wasn’t just the voice; as a music geek I was mesmerised by Amy’s command of complicated Jazz guitar chords and progressions which were truly impressive. It was stunning to think that she was a UK artist and it was particularly inspiring for me as an aspiring artist myself that she had grown up ten minutes down the road from me in my native north London suburb of Southgate.
I was hooked from that night, a life long fan,she had me at the first note. Needless to say I purchased her debut album Frank the day it was released. I treasured this album as the soundtrack to my time at Uni and it has had pride of place in my collection ever since.
Just weeks prior to my first encounter with the lady that would one day inspire a generation of new UK artists to take on the world and win, a then unknown Amy Winehouse had been invited to perform at the MOBO Nominations launch night.
Accompanying herself on just an acoustic guitar she wowed an audience of hardened music industry professionals. They were united in their response and all echoed the sentiment that they had witnessed something very special that night. I imagine the industry professionals that night thought very much the same as the over-awed usher would; a star was being born before our eyes. As much as I'd like to take credit for predicting her success, I'd be lying if I said I ever imagined just how iconic she would become.
When Amy’s debut album Frank was released in October 2003, it was wrongly lumped in with the Jazz resurgence artists, Katy Melua, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum etc. However, Frank stood alone as a body of work. Though Amy’s roots were in Jazz, the album was a modern jazz hip hop cross. Songs such as ‘Stronger Than Me’ and ‘In My Bed’ showcased Amy as the young urban cosmopolitan girl about town. The beautiful and heartbreaking ‘Take The Box’ showed Amy’s ability to capture a broken relationship in such poignant, soulful and poetic lyrics. The album earned Amy 2 MOBO nominations, 2 Brit nominations and a mercury music prize nomination... not a bad way to see out 2004.
After the huge critical acclaim of Frank, Amy took a break from music. She’d worked the Frank album hard and wanted to take some time to do the things any normal 20 year old girl would want to do. It would be another three years before Amy would put pen to paper. It was at this time that Amy met the person with whom she would go on to have one of the defining relationships of her life and when the tragic chain of events that would lead to her untimely death were set in motion.
Camden was the backdrop to Amy and Blake Fielder Civil’s turbulent love affair. When the pair split in early 2006, Amy was heartbroken yet creatively energised; her heartbreak inspired most of the lyrics on her sophomore album. The genuine anguish in the lyrics was unmistakably the product of bitter experience and when this raw emotion was combined with Amy's immense natural talent the result was what is now considered to be Amy's seminal work, the iconic Back to Black. Like many great artists before her she turned personal pain into beautiful music.
Throughout 2005 - 2006 I would scour the internet for news on Amy. Performances, new songs, appearances, but it seemed as though it had all gone quiet on the Winehouse front. In fact at one point I resigned myself to thinking that Amy was to be another Lauryn Hill, one great album and then silence. Myself and about 20 other Winehouse fanatics would post regularly on an Amy Winehouse forum, sharing our opinions on Amy and speculating about when she would make a return. Then all of a sudden, there seemed to be action again. Photos of Amy began appearing in the media displaying a drastic change in appearance. Gone were her former curves in place of a dramatically slimmed down physique and a shock of thick eyeliner flicks, perhaps in homage to Etta James, another of her idols.
The forum geeks speculated whether this indicated a Winehouse comeback. Almost overnight Amy's Myspace had been redesigned and advertised a new album due for release in October 2006. I and the rest of the forum geeks would tune in to Mark Ronson’s east village radio show nightly just for the possibility of hearing snippets of the new demos for the forthcoming album. A one minute demo clip of ‘Rehab’ was the first to hit the airwaves, with ‘You Know I'm No Good’ following soon after. The forums exploded with excitement. The sound was vintage, edgy, retro and utterly compelling. Yet no one on that forum could have predicted just how big the album would eventually become.
It was around this time that I had my second encounter with the singer. Having bought tickets to her first gig showcasing the new material live, I found myself lost in London’s Bloomsbury looking for the venue. Starting to think I would never find it, I turned a corner to find none other than Amy herself having a cheeky pre sound check cigarette. I seized my opportunity to grab a photo with her but to my utter embarrassment couldn’t get my camera to work. “Ere ya darlin, let me have a go” Amy said in that distinctive north London dialect that had so won me over that first time we met. Amy proceeded to perform a diagnostic on my camera and quickly discovered the problem “The batteries are in the wrong way love” she concluded whilst trying (unsuccessfully) to stifle a laugh. She then posed for the below photo before being beckoned back into the venue for sound check. A lot of artists claim to always make time for their fans but Amy genuinely did and I say that as a fan. To me, she seemed to have a genuine maternal instinct and she could not help but mother those around her. It was these sweet and endearing qualities that were often obscured by the tabloid obsession with the darker parts of her life.
That gig was my final time seeing Amy live and it’s a memory I will always treasure. Being there to see her perform tracks like ‘Rehab’, ‘You Know I’m No Good’ ‘Love is a Losing Game’ and ‘Back To Black’ live for the very first time is something only the two hundred or so audience members there that night can claim and it was truly an honor to count myself amongst them.
Then everything went crazy. ‘Rehab’ Amy’s first single from Back to Black went straight in at No.7 and the album itself hit No.1. At the same time that her music career skyrocketed, her personal life became more and more chaotic. The agonized poetry within the lyrics of her songs started to become ever more evident in her daily life. With a critically acclaimed album, a second mercury music prize nomination, two Brit awards to her name her star was rapidly ascending but her personal life was starting to unravel.
Despite her well publicised personal problems, Amy managed to give a truly show stopping performance at the 2007 MOBO Awards performing her hit ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ and an exclusive TV performance of ‘Me and Mr Jones’. Amy led the nominees that year with a staggering four nominations and claimed the most prestigious title of ‘Best UK Female Artist’.
Though the tabloids printed stories about Amy’s out of control backstage antics, the reality was quite the opposite. Everyone who worked on the 2007 show found Amy to be a professional, sweet natured and extremely talented girl, a truth that is there for all to see in her live performance on the show. Amy would then go on to win a staggering 5 Grammy Awards in 2008, the most ever won in a single year by a British female solo artist.
It was after this triumph that things really fell apart for Amy. Her battle with alcohol and drugs seemed to consume her and she eventually withdrew from the music world altogether. An extended stay in the Caribbean and successful completion of several rehabilitation programs had held out hope of a recovery. Amy also started her own record label Lioness Records, through which she helped launch the career of her talented goddaughter Dionne Broomfield. Amy seemed more concerned with helping develop young Dionne’s obvious talent than working on any of her own music. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this was perhaps Amy’s way of passing the baton to the next generation of talent.
Hopes of a recovery were dashed on Saturday 23rd July 2011 when Amy was found dead at her Camden home. At just 27 years old she had become one of the most respected artists in the world, a globally recognized tabloid figure and a tragic but undeniably gifted soul whose talent will transcend her time. When the dust has settled and the media speculation has faded to silence, what will remain is the music, the legacy, the unique icon that is Amy Winehouse.
“Ava was the morning, now she’s gone, she’s reborn like Sarah Vaughan” – ‘October Song’ by Amy Winehouse.
Words: Chris O’Gorman