Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse: A British great, and a life cut down in its prime

By Adrian Thrills

The tragic loss of Amy Winehouse has robbed us of a young, if fatally troubled, life cut down in its prime. It has also cheated British music of a talent, at 27, whose best years surely still lay ahead.

As a homegrown singer, she was with without question the outstanding vocalist of her generation. Without Amy, there would have been no Adele, no Duffy and no Lady Gaga. She may have been an alumni of the Brit School, but Winehouse was also a British great.

In an era of manufactured stars and precision-tooled pop puppets, she was the real deal. For all her demons - and, sadly, sometimes because of them - she cut through pop's hyperbole. Her rawness and emotional honesty harked back to an era when the best singers were more believable. For a white girl raised in the North London suburbs, she had the sweet, sure touch of an Aretha Franklin or Etta James.

Tragic loss: Amy Winehouse was a talented and much-loved singer and performer

Her talent was obvious from the off. The first time I saw her live was at the V
Festival eight years ago. Tucked away at the bottom of the bill in one of the small tents, well away from the crowds gathering for headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers, she oozed class. Dressed in a Fifties-style frock, playing a white Fender guitar, she showed nervous glimpses of a talent that would later wow the world.

I was lucky enough to interview her twice. The first time came shortly before the release of debut album Frank in 2003. Having met her in a photographic studio in Soho around lunchtime, we relocated, at Amy's insistence, to her favourite local Italian cafe, where we enjoyed a lengthy chat over a large, non alcoholic lunch. She struck me then as a witty, intelligent young girl on the cusp of womanhood.

She was full of the joys of life and understandably excited about her future.

Confident in her own abilities, she was gleefully irreverent. Whereas other singers, media-trained to within an inch of their lives, were masters in the art of diplomacy, she happily sounded off with little regard of the consequences.

Unconcerned about how her words might look in print, she dismissed her peers.

Dido and Norah Jones, huge at the time, were among her targets. They were ridiculed for being bland. She was savage, too, in her criticisms of Madonna.

She was naive, yes, but immensely likeable. A glowing review ensued.

Later, shortly before the release of second album Back To Black, I came face to face with a different Amy. Noticeably more slight than when we'd met three years previously, she turned up late in a coffee bar close to her North London home, but still turned heads with her long, raven black hair and striking eye-liner.

But, while some of that earlier youthful, sparkle had gone, she still struck me as a woman who knew exactly what she wanted. Perhaps more aware of her own flaws, she even retracted what she had said three years earlier about her fellow female stars. 'When I was promoting my first album I was very defensive, so I lashed out a lot,' she said. 'But I won't be saying anything negative about other singers now.

They've got their job to do. I'm just happy to be doing my own thing.' More mature in many ways, she was ready to let her music do the talking.

Musical stylings: Amy caused a stir with her first album Frank in 2004, and followed it with Back To Black in 2006

And Back To Black did just that. Rooted in emotional turmoil, it will go down as one of the classic British albums. Even now, in an era where female pop rules the charts in the shape of Adele, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Gaga, nothing has come close to packing the sheer emotional punch of Back To Black. A departure from her jazzy debut, it was stark, simple and stunningly direct.

Musically, it was influenced heavily by Sixties girl groups such as The Shangri-Las and The Supremes. Lyrically, most notably on signature tune Rehab, it was clearly affected by the demons that were now troubling the singer. A far more commercial prospect than her eclectic debut, it went on to sell millions.

it out: Amy performing some of her most famous tracks at the Glastonbury music festival in 2008

It won Grammys and Brits and established Amy as the pre-eminent soul girl of her age.

Despite her problems, the Amy I glimpsed during our brief encounters was different from her public persona. Nobody makes records as good and enduring as Frank and Back To Black without an intimate knowledge of the essential ingredients of great pop music. And Amy certainly had that in abundance.

For me, the most recent example of the way in which her talent truly touched people from all walks of life came in a conversation a few weeks ago with the great Tony Bennett, who sung with Amy on a track, Body And Soul, from his forthcoming duets album. As a singer who has worked with the best, from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, he had no doubt as to where Amy stood - she was one of the best. Remember her this way.

Her fans willed her to beat her demons and get well, but in the end the demons won


The voice was astonishing: a deep, powerful contralto more reminiscent of a black American R&B artist than a twentysomething Jewish girl from North London.
It was paired with a tremendous talent for writing moving songs, in which she expressed her experiences of heartbreak in a language all her own.

Amy Winehouse’s remarkable talent won her millions of fans around the world and accolades including five Grammys, a Brit award and three Ivor Novellos. Yet it was matched by a self-destructive streak just as powerful, which made her premature death, like those of so many of her musical heroes, seem tragically inevitable.

Tragic: Flowers are left outside Winehouse's home following her untimely passing

For the past few years, it often seemed to be a question of when, not if, her drug and alcohol addictions would push her body beyond its limits. Her fans willed her to beat her demons and get well, but in the end, the demons won.

Born into a Jewish family in Southgate in 1983 to Janis, a pharmacist, and Mitch, a taxi driver, Amy’s gift was apparent from an early age. Mitch was a Frank Sinatra fan and would sing around the house;

Amy inherited his passion and often sang so loudly in class as a little girl that her teachers despaired of trying to make her pay attention.

At the age of nine, her grandmother Cynthia suggested she enrol at the local Suzy Earnshaw Theatre School, which she attended for four years before moving to the famous Sylvia Young School, which had acted as star-maker to many other young hopefuls.

She lasted until the age of 14, when she was expelled for ‘not applying herself’ and defying school rules by piercing her nose. It was typical Amy, who, even then, refused to conform to the behaviour expected of her. Such was her ambition that she refused to let the episode hold her back.

Instead, she began writing songs on the guitar she had been given at 13, and a one-time boyfriend, Tyler James, sent her demo tape to record labels. She signed a deal with Universal.

Her debut album, Frank, was released in 2003 to acclaim, but although it was nominated for two Brit Awards, it did not make her a household name. It was with her follow-up album, Back To Black, that she became a sensation, having traded in the jazz of Frank for a Sixties girl group-inspired sound.

The album, which sold 1.85 million copies in 2007 alone, detailed her split from a former boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil, describing, in the title track, how his abandonment of her had led to depression and, in perhaps her most famous song, Rehab, to her drinking so heavily that people ‘tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no’.

She had the fame she always wanted, but her problems were far from over. She reunited with former music video assistant Fielder-Civil and the pair married in May 2007.

In August that year, she appeared to have hit rock bottom when she was pictured with him, bloodied and dishevelled, wandering the streets of London after an argument. By this time, the pair were said to be taking crack-cocaine.

In the later months of 2007, her national tour was marred by shambolic performances as she staggered around the stage, too drunk to remember her own lyrics. In 2008, Fielder-Civil was imprisoned for perverting the course of justice and GBH, leading to several performances in which Amy spoke of ‘my Blake incarcerated’.

By 2009, the pair had separated, but any hopes Mitch and Janis harboured that her addictions would end with the marriage proved false.

The pattern continued: more performances, more forgotten lyrics and drunken lurching.

It then appeared to the outside world that Amy had made progress. Photographs seemed to show her looking healthier, and less gaunt. In an interview last October, she claimed she had not taken drugs for three years.

But this year she began touring again, and the old problems were revealed to have never gone away. Last month, she began an 18-leg tour of Europe, but was booed off the stage during her first show in Belgrade, where she was too inebriated to continue. The tour was cancelled and she entered The Priory clinic, staying for a week.

For her millions of fans, losing a talent of Amy’s calibre is tremendously sad. Everything she achieved was not enough to save her from what can only be regarded as a death wish.


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