Saturday 23 July 2011
This article was published on guardian.co.uk
at 20.08 BST on Saturday 23 July
A version appeared on p30 of the Main section section
of the Guardian on
Monday 25 July 2011.
It was last modified at 11.47 BST
on Wednesday 27 July 2011.
Leading a rock'n'roll life has proved fatal to many artists, but few could be
considered as much of a loss to music as Amy Winehouse, who has been found dead
at the age of 27, the cause not immediately clear. One of the outstanding
singers of her generation, she had suffered from drug addiction, and the
destruction it causes. Her husky, soul-steeped voice belied both her youth and
her London origins – singing from the gut is not the exclusive preserve of older
black American performers.
Winehouse's music spoke to people so persuasively that her second album, Back to
Black, became Britain's bestselling record of 2007 and reached No 2 in the US,
making her one of only a few British female soloists to achieve that level of
transatlantic recognition. Its success spurred sales of her initially overlooked
first album, Frank (2003), so titled because of the diary-style lyrics that
produced songs such as Stronger Than Me, which railed against a "ladyboy"
ex-boyfriend. The two sold a total of more than 12m copies worldwide.
Born to a Jewish family in North Finchley, north London, Winehouse grew up
listening to the jazz albums of her taxi-driver father, Mitch. He and her
pharmacist mother, Janis, later divorced.
Amy caught the performing bug so early that by the age of eight she was
attending stage school. She spent time at three of them, including the Sylvia
Young theatre school in central London, from which she was expelled for "not
applying herself", and the Brit school in Croydon, south London. Rebellious
instincts surfaced in her mid-teens: by 16, she had acquired her first tattoo
and was smoking cannabis. "My parents pretty much realised that I would do
whatever I wanted, and that was it, really," she said later.
Her boyfriend of the time passed a cassette of her singing to a record company,
which was impressed. "It was unlike anything that had ever come through my
radar," said songwriter Felix Howard, who went on to collaborate with Winehouse
on Frank. She signed a deal with the world's largest label, Universal, and was
taken on by the management company run by Simon Fuller, the force behind Pop
Idol and its television spin-offs. However, being in the bosom of the pop
establishment turned Winehouse surly and defensive. When she was accused early
on by the press of being one of Fuller's pop puppets, she retorted: "He's clever
enough to know he can't fuck with me."
If Winehouse was not entirely singular – Dusty Springfield and Maggie Bell
preceded her as white British pop singers whose complicated personal lives
yielded unguarded, richly soulful music – she certainly stood out from almost
every other artist under 40. When Frank was released, just after her 20th
birthday, the prevailing female pop sound was the manicured slickness epitomised
by Girls Aloud. Winehouse's disconcerting sultriness meant she was initially
classified as a jazz vocalist. Despite being tipped by critics as a "buzz" act –
borne out by two Brits nominations in 2004 – she did not catch the public's
fancy, and Frank peaked at No 13 in the charts.
It was when she finished promoting the album and set about writing the follow-up
that a remarkable transformation took place. During this time she met her future
husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who worked on the periphery of the music business
as an assistant on video shoots. The attraction was apparently instant, at least
on Winehouse's part, and when Fielder-Civil ended the relationship after a few
months, she poured her depression into songs that would become Back to Black.
Of the months following their split, she said: "I had never felt the way I feel
about him about anyone in my life. I thought we'd never see each other again. I
wanted to die."
The album was released in late 2006, and when Winehouse began a round of
concerts and TV appearances that autumn, it was obvious she had spent the recent
past walking on the wild side. She had lost several stone and acquired armfuls
of tattoos, a mountainous beehive hairdo and, it was rumoured, drug and alcohol
Typically forthright, she drew attention to the latter in Back to Black's first
single, Rehab, which became her signature song: "I don't never want to drink
again, I just need a friend ... They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no,
no, no." Despite its subject, the song was infectiously upbeat, and became her
first top 10 hit, remaining in the charts for a near-record-breaking 57 weeks.
The whole album was also an instant, and huge, success. The jazz-lite that
characterised Frank had been supplanted by sparky R&B, immediately hummable
songs and, crucially, the performance of a lifetime from Winehouse, who sang as
if her heart were damaged beyond repair. Critical acclaim was heaped on it –
"One of the great breakthrough CDs of our time … when this lady sings about
love, she means every word," said the US magazine Entertainment Weekly – and it
appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists. Its appeal transcended language
barriers, sending it to No 1 in 18 countries, including the UK.
A great imponderable was whether Back to Black would have connected so strongly
with listeners if Winehouse had not simultaneously been playing out her
emotional dramas in public. Still wracked by the failure of her relationship
with Fielder-Civil, her behaviour was erratic: her weight dropped further and
the monstrous beehive got even taller. She seemed to lack the inhibitions that
stop most people from "acting out" in public, which made her a tabloid dream.
Drawn by the scent of disturbed celebrity, paparazzi were soon following her
around the streets of north London.
Perversely, as her life became more complex, her success increased. She won the
2007 Brit award for best female artist, and Ivor Novello awards for Rehab and
Love Is a Losing Game. In addition, she picked up Q magazine's best album
trophy, and was nominated for that year's Mercury prize.
She unexpectedly reunited with Fielder-Civil in early 2007, and in May they
married on impulse in Miami. If Winehouse had been fragile before, the marriage
seemed to bring out the worst in her. She and her new husband became heavy drug
users, and she was soon said to be injecting heroin. The couple were frequently
photographed looking much the worse for wear, and Winehouse's arms bore the
marks of self-inflicted cuts. She collapsed from an overdose in the summer, and
paid the first of several unsuccessful visits to rehab.
Fielder-Civil was arrested in November 2007, and subsequently pleaded guilty to
attacking a pub landlord and attempting to pervert the course of justice by
offering him £200,000 to keep quiet about it. While he was on remand, Winehouse
lurched on as best she could. She cancelled concerts, struck up a friendship
with fellow addict Pete Doherty and tried rehab again. In the midst of it all,
her talent still unquenched, she won five Grammy awards in February 2008.
The couple's relationship ended when Fielder-Civil received a jail sentence of
27 months the following July. Despite initially saying she would wait for him,
they divorced in 2009 and she moved temporarily to the Caribbean island of St
Lucia, where she hoped to escape the pernicious influence of the drug crowd in
Camden, north London. Her flat in Camden was conveniently close to her favourite
pub, the Hawley Arms. While she claimed to have kicked drugs in St Lucia, she
admitted that she was drinking to compensate – though not to excess, she
Several other relationships followed, the longest-lasting with Reg Traviss,
director of the films Screwed and Psychosis. Winehouse also began to record the
follow-up to Back to Black; the head of Universal, Lucian Grainge, pronounced
the demos "fantastic". She also launched her own label, Lioness, whose first
signing was her then 13-year-old goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield.
Nonetheless, Winehouse was constantly in one sort of trouble or another. She was
arrested several times for public order offences, and hospitalised for emphysema
and the pain caused by breast implants. There were always signs that she had not
conquered the demons she battled throughout her career: last year the tabloid
papers ran a photo of her unconscious on a bench outside a pub, and last month
she behaved so erratically on stage in the Serbian capital of Belgrade that the
rest of her summer tour was cancelled.
Her final public appearance came three days before her death, at a gig by
Bromfield at the Roundhouse, Camden. Winehouse danced in dreamy circles, then
disappeared without singing a note.
Last March she made her final recording, the pop standard Body and Soul with
Tony Bennett, to be released on his album Duets II in September. Bennett
remembered her as "an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a
vocalist". During the chaotic last years of her life, she was frequently
compared to other singers with tempestuous existences, such as Billie Holiday
and Edith Piaf.
She is survived by her parents and her brother, Alex.
• Amy Jade Winehouse, pop singer-songwriter,
born 14 September 1983; died 23
• This article was amended on 27 July 2011.
The original referred to "fellow
junkie Pete Doherty".