Amy Jade Winehouse (14 September 1983 – 23 July 2011) was an English singer-songwriter known for her powerful contralto vocals and her eclectic mix of musical genres including R&B, soul and jazz.
Winehouse's 2003 debut album, Frank, was critically successful in the UK and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. Her 2006 follow-up album, Back to Black, led to six Grammy Award nominations and five wins, tying the then record for the most wins by a female artist in a single night, and made Winehouse the first British female to win five Grammys, including three of the "Big Four": Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year. On 14 February 2007, she won a BRIT Award for Best British Female Artist; she had also been nominated for Best British Album. She won the Ivor Novello Award three times, one in 2004 for Best Contemporary Song (musically and lyrically) for "Stronger Than Me", one in 2007 for Best Contemporary Song for "Rehab", and one in 2008 for Best Song Musically and Lyrically for "Love Is a Losing Game", among other distinctions. The album was the third biggest seller of the 2000s in the United Kingdom.
Winehouse was credited as an influence in the rise in popularity of female musicians and soul music, and also for revitalising British music. Winehouse's distinctive style made her a muse for fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld. Winehouse's problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and her self-destructive behaviours were regular tabloid news from 2007 until her death. She and her former husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, were plagued by legal troubles that left him serving prison time. In 2008, Winehouse faced a series of health complications that threatened both her career and her life.
Winehouse died at the age of 27 on 23 July 2011, at her home in London; police have said that the cause of her death was "as yet unexplained".
Winehouse was born in the Southgate area of north London to a Jewish family, who were influential toward her interest in jazz. Winehouse was the younger of two children (older brother Alex) of Mitchell Winehouse, a taxi driver, and Janis Winehouse (née Seaton), a pharmacist. Mitchell often sang Frank Sinatra songs to young Amy, who also took to a constant habit of singing to the point that teachers found it difficult keeping her quiet in class.
When Winehouse was nine years old, her grandmother, Cynthia, suggested she attend the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School for further training. At age ten, Winehouse founded a short-lived rap group called Sweet 'n' Sour with childhood friend Juliette Ashby. She stayed at the Earnshaw school for four years before seeking full time training at Sylvia Young Theatre School, but was allegedly expelled at 14 for "not applying herself" and for piercing her nose. With other children from the Sylvia Young School, she appeared in an episode of The Fast Show in 1997. She later attended the BRIT School in Selhurst, Croydon and attended Southgate School and Ashmole School.
After toying with her brother's guitar, Winehouse received her first guitar when she was 13, and began writing music a year later. She began working soon after, including as a showbiz journalist for the World Entertainment News Network, in addition to singing with local group the Bolsha Band. Her boyfriend at the time, soul singer Tyler James, sent her demo tape to an A&R person. Winehouse signed to Simon Fuller's 19 Management in 2002. While being developed by the management company, the artist was kept an industry secret. Her future A&R representative at Island/Universal, Darcus Beese, heard her by accident when the manager of The Lewinson Brothers showed him some productions of his clients on which Winehouse featured as vocalist. When he asked who the singer was the manager told him he was not allowed to say. Having decided that he wanted to sign her it took several months of asking around for Beese to eventually discover who the singer was. By this time Winehouse had already recorded a number of songs and signed a publishing deal with EMI. Through the publishers she formed a working relationship with the producer Salaam Remi.
Beese introduced Winehouse to his boss, Nick Gatfield, and the Island head shared his enthusiasm in signing the young artist. Winehouse was signed to Island/Universal as rival interest in Winehouse had started to build, with representatives at EMI and Virgin also starting to make moves. Beese told HitQuarters that he felt the reason behind the excitement over an artist who was an atypical pop star for the time was due to a backlash against reality TV music shows with audiences becoming starved for genuine young talent.
Winehouse's greatest love was 1960s girl groups. She borrowed her "instantly recognisable" beehive hairdo and Cleopatra makeup from The Ronettes.
Influence on the music industry
British singer Adele had credited Winehouse's success in the United States for making her and fellow British singer Duffy's journey to the United States "a bit smoother". American singer Lady Gaga credited Winehouse with paving the way for her rise to the top of the charts. She appeared to be using a metaphorical analogy to explain that Winehouse made it easier for unconventional women to have mainstream pop success. The "Winehouse phenomenon" has been credited by Sebastian Danchin, author of Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues and Soul, of kick-starting a revival of soul music that has been ongoing since 2000. Danchin quoting Raphael Saadiq, Anthony Hamilton, and John Legend said "Amy Winehouse was produced by people who wanted to create a marketing coup. The positive side is that it reacquainted an audience with this music and played an introductory role for others. This reinvigorated the genre by overcoming the vintage aspect".
The release of Back to Black and the emergence of Lily Allen has been credited by The Sunday Times as directly creating the market for the media proclaimed "the year of the women" in 2009 which has seen five female artists nominated for the Mercury Prize. After the album was released record companies sought out female artists with a similar sound and fearless and experimental female musicians in general. Adele and Duffy were the second wave of artists with a sound similar to Winehouse's. A third wave of female musicians that has emerged since the album was released are led by VV Brown, Florence and the Machine, La Roux and Little Boots. In February 2010, rapper Jay-Z credited Winehouse with revitalising British music, saying, "There's a strong push coming out of London right now, which is great. It's been coming ever since I guess Amy (Winehouse). I mean always, but I think Amy, this resurgence was ushered in by Amy." In March 2011 the New York Daily News ran an article attributing the continuing wave of British female artists that have been successful in the United States to Winehouse and her absence. Spin magazine music editor Charles Aaron was quoted as saying "Amy Winehouse was the Nirvana moment for all these women," "They can all be traced back to her in terms of attitude, musical styles or fashion". According to Keith Caulfield chart manager for Billboard "Because of Amy, or the lack thereof, the marketplace was able to get singers like Adele and Duffy," "Now those ladies have brought on the new ones, like Eliza Doolittle, Rumer and Ellie."
Amy Winehouse with her band backstage, 2007
Winehouse toured in conjunction with the Back to Black album's release. She performed headlining gigs in September and November 2006, including one of the Little Noise Sessions charity concerts at the Union Chapel, Islington. On 31 December 2006, Winehouse appeared on Jools Holland's Annual Hootenanny and performed a cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" along with Paul Weller and Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. She also performed Toots & the Maytals' "Monkey Man". She began a run of another 14 gigs beginning in February 2007. At his request, Bruce Willis introduced Winehouse before her performance of "Rehab" at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards. Winehouse made awards organizers nervous when she went on a Las Vegas jaunt in the hours before the show. During the summer of 2007, Winehouse performed at various festivals, including UK's Glastonbury Festival, Chicago's Lollapalooza festival, Rock Werchter and Baltimore's Virgin Music Festival.
Winehouse's tour, however, did not go as well. In November 2007, the opening night of a 17-date tour was marred by booing and walkouts at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. A music critic for the Birmingham Mail said it was "one of the saddest nights of my life...I saw a supremely talented artist reduced to tears, stumbling around the stage and, unforgivably, swearing at the audience." Other concerts ended similarly, with, for example, fans at her Hammersmith Apollo performance saying that she "looked highly intoxicated throughout", until she announced on 27 November 2007, that her performances and public appearances were cancelled for the remainder of 2007, citing doctor advice to take a complete rest. A statement issued by concert promoter Live Nation blamed "the rigours involved in touring and the intense emotional strain that Amy has been under in recent weeks" for the decision.
On 20 February 2008, Winehouse performed at the 2008 BRIT Awards, performing "Valerie" with Mark Ronson, followed by "Love Is a Losing Game". She urged the crowd to "make some noise for my Blake." In Paris, she performed what was described as a "well-executed 40 minute" set at the opening of a Fendi boutique. Although her father, manager and various members of her touring team reportedly tried to dissuade her, Winehouse performed at the Rock in Rio Lisboa festival in Portugal in May 2008. Although the set was plagued by a late arrival and problems with her voice, the crowd warmed to her. In addition to her own material she performed two Specials covers. Winehouse performed at Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday Party concert at London's Hyde Park on the 27 June, and the next day at the Glastonbury Festival. On 12 July at the Oxegen Festival she performed a well-received 50 minute set which was followed the next day by a 14 song set at T in the Park. On 16 August she played at the Staffordshire leg of the V Festival, and the following day played the Chelmsford leg of the festival. Organizers said that Winehouse attracted the biggest crowds of the festival. Audience reaction was reported as mixed. On 6 September she was the headliner at 'Bestival'. She performed what was described as a polished set which ended with her storming off the stage. Her hour late arrival caused her set to be cut off at the halfway point due to a curfew.
In May 2009, Winehouse returned to performing at a jazz festival in Saint Lucia amid torrential downpours and technical difficulties. During her hour long set it was reported she was unsteady on her feet and had trouble remembering lyrics. She apologised to the crowd for being "bored" and ended her set by walking off the stage in the middle of a song. To a cheering crowd on 23 August at the V festival, Winehouse sang with The Specials on their songs "You're Wondering Now" and "Ghost Town".
In July 2010, she performed "Valerie" with Mark Ronson at a movie premiere. She sang lead but forgot some of the song's lyrics. In October Winehouse performed a four song set to promote her fashion line. In December 2010 Winehouse played a 40 minute concert at a Russian oligarch's party in Moscow. Guests included other Russian tycoons and Russian show business stars. The tycoon hand picked the songs she played.
During January 2011, she played five dates in Brazil, with opening acts of Janelle Monáe and Mayer Hawthorne. On 11 February 2011, Winehouse cut short a performance in Dubai following booing from the audience. Winehouse was reported to be tired, distracted and "tipsy" during the performance.
On 18 June 2011, Winehouse started her 12-leg 2011 European tour in Belgrade. Local media described her performance as a scandal and disaster, and she was booed off the stage due to her apparently being too drunk to perform. It was reported that she was unable to remember the city she was in, the lyrics of her songs or – when trying to introduce them – the names of the members of her band. The local press also claimed that Winehouse was forced to perform by her bodyguards, who didn't allow her to leave the stage when she tried to do so. She then pulled out of performances in Istanbul and Athens which had been scheduled for the following week. On 21 June it was announced that she had cancelled all shows of her European tour and would be given "as long as it takes" to sort herself out.
Winehouse's last public appearance took place at Camden's Roundhouse, London on 20 July 2011, when she made a surprise guest appearance on stage to support her goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield, who was singing "Mama Said" with The Wanted.
On 23 June 2008, Winehouse's publicist corrected earlier misstatements by Mitch Winehouse that his daughter had a small amount of emphysema, instead claiming she had signs of what could lead to early-stage emphysema. Mitch Winehouse had also stated that his daughter's lungs were operating at 70 percent capacity and that she had an irregular heartbeat. Mitch Winehouse said that these problems were caused by her chain smoking and crack cocaine use. The singer’s father also reported that doctors had warned Winehouse that, if she continued smoking crack cocaine, she would have to wear an oxygen mask and would eventually die. In a radio interview, Mitch Winehouse said the singer is responding "fabulously" to treatment which includes being covered with nicotine patches. British Lung Foundation spokesman Keith Prowse noted this type of condition can be managed with treatment. Prowse also said the condition is not normal for a person her age but "heavy smoking and inhaling other substances like drugs can age the lungs prematurely". Norman H. Edelman of the American Lung Association explained that if she stopped smoking, her lung functions would decline at the rate of a normal person, but continued smoking would lead to a more rapid decline in lung function. Photographs of the singer with a cigarette in her mouth, taken 23 June 2008, were widely published.
Winehouse was released from The London Clinic 24 hours after returning from a temporary leave to perform at Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday and at a concert in Glastonbury, and continued receiving treatment as an outpatient. On 23 July Winehouse stated that she had been diagnosed with "some areas of emphysema" and said she is getting herself together by "eating loads of healthy food, sleeping loads, playing my guitar, making music and writing letters to my husband every day". She also kept a vertical tanning bed in her apartment. Winehouse began precautionary testing on her lungs and chest on 25 October 2008 at the London Clinic for what was reported as a chest infection. Winehouse was in and out of the facility and was granted permission to set her own schedule regarding home leave. She returned to the hospital on 23 November 2008 for a reported reaction to her medication.
Tributes outside Amy Winehouse's home at Camden Square on the evening of her death on 23 July 2011
At 3:54 pm BST (14:54 UTC) on 23 July 2011, two ambulances were called to Winehouse's home in Camden, London. Shortly afterwards, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that she had died. As of 24 July, the investigation to determine the cause of death, which is described by police as unexplained, is still ongoing, however it was announced on Monday 25th July that a post-mortem would take place later that day, and that an inquest had been opened and subsequently adjourned until 26 October. After her death was announced, media and camera crews appeared as crowds gathered near Winehouse’s residence to pay their respects. Forensic investigators entered the flat as police cordoned off the street outside.
Winehouse's record label, Universal Republic, released a statement that read in part: "We are deeply saddened at the sudden loss of such a gifted musician, artist and performer." Winehouse's death made her the latest musician to join the 27 Club, a group of musicians who died at the age of 27.
Winehouse's dichotomous public image of critical and commercial success versus personal turmoil proved to be controversial. The New Statesman magazine called Winehouse "a filthy-mouthed, down-to-earth diva," while Newsweek magazine called her "a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent and poor impulse control." Karen Heller with The Philadelphia Inquirer summarised the maelstrom this way:
She's only 24 with six Grammy nods, crashing headfirst into success and despair, with a codependent husband in jail, exhibitionist parents with questionable judgement, and the paparazzi documenting her emotional and physical distress. Meanwhile, a haute designer Karl Lagerfeld appropriates her dishevelled style and eating issues to market to the elite while proclaiming her the new Bardot.
By 2008, her continued drug problems threatened her career. Even as Nick Gatfield, the president of Island Records, toyed with the idea of releasing Winehouse "to deal with her problems", he remarked on her talent, saying, "It’s a reflection of her status [in the U.S.] that when you flick through the TV coverage [of the Grammys] it’s her image they use." Post-Grammys, some questioned whether Winehouse should have been honoured with the awards given her recent personal and drug problems, including Natalie Cole, who introduced Winehouse at the ceremony. Cole (who battled her own substance-abuse problems while winning a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1975) remarked, "I think the girl is talented, gifted, but it's not right for her to be able to have her cake and eat it too. She needs to get herself together." In an opinion newspaper commentary, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that the alleged drug habits of Winehouse and other celebrities send a bad message "to others who are vulnerable to addiction" and undermine the efforts of other celebrities trying to raise awareness of problems in Africa, now that more cocaine used in Europe passes through Africa. Winehouse's spokesperson called Costa a "ludicrous man" and noted that "Amy has never given a quote about drugs or flaunted it in any way. She's had some problems and is trying to get better. The U.N. should get its own house in order." Graeme Pearson, the former head of Scotland's drug enforcement agency, criticised Winehouse and Kate Moss for making going to rehab a badge of honour, thus giving the false impression that quitting drugs is easy, because many cannot afford to go to clinics.
Winehouse became a staple in popularity polls. The 2008 NME Awards nominated Winehouse in the categories of "Villain of the Year", "Best Solo Artist", and "Best Music DVD"; Winehouse won for "Worst Dressed Performer". In its third annual list, Glamour magazine named Winehouse the third worst dressed British Woman. Winehouse was ranked number two on Richard Blackwell's 48th annual "Ten Worst Dressed Women" list, behind Victoria Beckham. In an April 2008 poll conducted by Sky News, Winehouse was named the second greatest "ultimate heroine" by the UK population at large, topping the voting for that category of those polled under 25 years old. Psychologist Donna Dawson commented that the results demonstrate women like Winehouse who have "a certain sense of vulnerability or have had to fight against some adversity in their lives” receive recognition. Winehouse was voted the second most hated personality in the United Kingdom in a poll conducted one month later by Marketing magazine.
June 2008 brought a report that Winehouse, singing a disparaging chant about blacks, the disabled, and homosexuals, and containing racial epithets about Pakistanis and Indians, was taped by her former husband Fielder-Civil, despite assurances to her that he was not filming. Winehouse denied allegations that she was a racist, saying "I don't want to play anything down, but I'm the least racist person going." Winehouse added that the film was taken during "really, really happy times." Speaking at a discussion entitled Winehouse or White House?: Do we go too big on showbiz news? Jeff Zycinski, head of BBC Radio Scotland, said the BBC and media in general were complicit in the destruction of celebrities like Winehouse. He said that public interest in the singer's lifestyle does not make her lifestyle newsworthy. Rod McKenzie editor of the BBC Radio One program Newsbeat replied that "If you play [Amy Winehouse's] music to a certain demographic, those same people want to know what's happening in her private life. If you don't cover it, you're insulting young license fee payers." British singer and songwriter Lily Allen was quoted in a Scottish newspaper as saying
I know Amy Winehouse very well. And she is very different to what people portray her as being. Yes, she does get out of her mind on drugs sometimes, but she is also a very clever, intelligent, witty, funny person who can hold it together. You just don't see that side.
Main article: Amy Winehouse discography
Winehouse created two studio albums and ten singles. Her debut album, Frank, released in October 2003, peaked at number thirteen on the UK Album Chart, but none of the four singles released from the album reached the Top 50 of the UK Singles Chart. Her second album, Back to Black, was released in October 2006 and reached number one in the UK, peaking at number seven on the Billboard 200 in the United States. The album was certified five-times platinum by the British Phonographic Industry and it was the best-selling album of 2007 in the UK. The first single from the album, "Rehab", peaked at number seven in the UK, and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. A special deluxe edition of the album was released in the UK in November 2007 and also topped the charts. By mid-2009 Back to Black had sold a total of 2,985,303 copies and was the eighteenth biggest seller ever in the UK.
Winehouse collaborated with other artists, including as a vocalist on the song "Valerie" on Mark Ronson's 2007 solo album, Version. The song peaked at number two in the UK. She also collaborated with ex-Sugababe Mutya Buena on "B Boy Baby," from Buena's 2007 solo album, Real Girl.
Back to Black (2006)
"Stronger Than Me" (2003)
"Take the Box"; "In My Bed" / "You Sent Me Flying"; "Fuck Me Pumps" / "Help Yourself" (2004)
"You Know I'm No Good"; "Back to Black"; "Tears Dry on Their Own"; "Love Is a Losing Game" (2007)
"Just Friends" (2008)
Awards and nominations
Main article: List of awards and nominations received by Amy Winehouse
Among the awards and recognitions for Frank, Winehouse earned an Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song ("Stronger Than Me"), a BRIT Award nomination for Best Female Solo Artist, and an inclusion in Robert Dimery's 2006 book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Back to Black produced numerous nominations, including two from the BRIT Awards (Best Female Solo Artist and Best British Album), six from the Grammy Awards (including five wins), four from the Ivor Novello Awards, four from the MTV Europe Music Awards, three from the MTV Video Music Awards, three from the World Music Awards, and one each from the Mercury Prize (Album of the Year) and MOBO Awards (Best UK Female). During her career, Winehouse received 23 awards from 58 nominations.