Neil Young once sang “it’s better to burn out than fade away.” It’s nothing more than a good lyric. Nobody should take this lyric seriously. Sadly, some singers seem to take this lyric seriously, witness Kurt Cobain and Sid Vicious. The way they led their lives, it was almost inevitable that they would meet untimely ends. Plenty of musicians have met similar ends, many of them because of their penchant for the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.” Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, they all died too young. Such a death is tragic. With every generation of musicians and singers comes the possibility that one of them will die too young. Temptation is all around for musicians. You acquire more friends than you could have ever have previously imagined. Mostly, they’re friends of the fairweather type. They’ll lead you astray, take rather than give, or help you, and when your fifteen minutes of fame are over, disappear from wherever they came. Sadly, when an artist or musician needs help or support, friends are in short supply. Suddenly, people are busy, have other things to do, other people to see. If, or when, a tragedy occurs, these people are the first to eulogize about how talented their “friend” was, how tragic their passing is. What they forget to mention, is how they failed them, how they let them down in their hour of need. 

On Saturday 23 July, tragically, Amy Winehouse died. She was only twenty-seven, far too young. She possessed a magical voice, recorded two brilliant albums, and had she been able to turn her life around, would’ve recorded many more magnificent albums. In this article, I won’t dwell on the controversy or negative aspects of her life. That would be unfair, and much of this controversy can’t be substantiated. Instead, this article will celebrate her music, particularly her second album Back To Black, the album that propelled Amy Winehouse to the attention of millions of music fans worldwide. 

Amy Jade Winehouse was born 14 September 1983, in Southgate, North London. She was born into a Jewish family who loved jazz music. Her mother Janis was a pharmacist and her father Mitchell, a taxi driver. Mitch used to sing Frank Sinatra songs to young Amy. Soon, she too, was singing those songs. This was much to the annoyance of her teachers, when she would sing them in class. Alex, Amy’s older brother would also prove influential in Amy’s musical career.

Aged nine, her grandmother Cynthia thought that Amy should enroll at the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School where she could learn about the performing arts. By ten, she was part of a rap group Sweet ‘N’ Sour with her friend Juliette Ashby. This didn’t last long. Amy stayed at the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School for four years, before joining the Sylvia Young Theatre School full time. After about a year, Amy left the theatre school. Later, it was alleged that she was expelled for failing to apply herself and piercing her nose. It was whilst at the theatre school, Amy first appeared on television, appearing in The Fast Show, a comedy sketch show. Like other successful singers, such as Adele, Jessie J and Katie Melua, Amy attended the BRIT School in Croydon. 

After discovering her brother Alex’s guitar, Amy Winehouse received her first guitar when she was thirteen. A year later, she started writing her own songs. Although she never knew it, these were her first steps to stardom. After leaving school, she had various jobs, including working as a showbiz journalist for World Entertainment News Network. During this period she sang with a local band the Bolsha Band. Her then boyfriend, Tyler James, a soul singer, sent a demo of Amy’s music to an A &R person. This led to her being signed by Simon Fuller’s company 19 Management. Wisely, Fuller helped develop the nascent star, and whilst doing so, kept the music industry in the dark about this budding star. Darcus Beese who was working in A & R at Island/Universal came across Amy by accident. He’s been shown some footage of the Lewinson Brothers and Amy Winehouse was singing on some of the tracks. Straight away, he had to find out who this singer was. Eventually, after several months, his persistence paid off. Beese wanted to sign her, but by now, she’d signed a publishing contract with EMI and recorded some songs with producer Saalam Remi, with whom she worked well with.

At last, Beese was able to introduce Amy to Nick Gatfield at Island Records. Gatfield, like Beese, spotted Amy Winehouse’s talent, and she was signed to Island. Their timing was impeccable beating of competition from EMI and Virgin, who by now, were now showing interest in signing her. Gatfield thought Amy Winehouse was the antitheses of modern manufactured music, and that he had signed a genuinely talented singer songwriter.

This proved to be the case when Frank, Amy Winehouse’s debut album was released in October 2003. Frank was produced by Saalam Remi, and of the thirteen songs on the album, Amy wrote or cowrote eleven of them. The other two songs were cover versions. On its release, Frank garnered much praise and compliments aplenty. Comparisons were made between Amy Winehouse and some of jazz and soul music’s greatest singers, including Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone. How would I describe the music on Frank? It ranges from classic jazz, nu-soul, jazz tinged soul and even shades of funk. Amy Winehouse’s performance of Frank was all this and more. On the album, Amy lays bare her soul, and the music is indeed, frank. Such high esteem was the album held in, that it was nominated for a Brit Award and won an Ivor Novello Award. Eventually, the album was certified double platinum and sold over 600,000 copies. In the UK it reached number thirteen in the UK album charts. For a debut album, such achievements were incredible. Unbeknown to Amy and Island Records, that was just a taste of the success of her next album Back To Black.

Three years after the release of Frank, Amy Winehouse released her second, and sadly, final album Back To Black. Back To Black is a mixture of classic 1960’s soul, contemporary R&B and jazz music. Among the subject matters dealt with on the album are sex, drugs, alcohol and relationships. It’s subject matters that many young, and not so young people can relate to. The album saw Saalam Remi, joined in the producer’s chair by Mark Ronson. Ronson’s addition was a masterstroke, and the combination of the familiarity of Remi and maverick Ronson worked brilliantly. On the album’s release, it was critically acclaimed, with most critics loving the album and almost exhausting their supply of superlatives to describe the album. Again, the album won numerous awards, including Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Newcomer. Mark Ronson too, won a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. Rehab, one of the singles from the album, won an Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song. Since Back To Black’s release, it has entered the UK album charts several times. It reached number three when it was released and reached number one several times. Sales of the album worldwide are well over fifteen million, and in the UK Back To Black has been certified platinum eight times. Considering that was only her second album, that was an amazing achievement.

In the introduction to this article, I said that I wouldn’t focus on the controversy or speculation surrounding Amy Winehouse’s life. That would be wrong. She should be allowed to rest in peace without people raking over her past. Personally, I find that distasteful. All I will say is that, during her sadly short life, Amy Winehouse suffered from drug and alcohol addictions. However, many people suffer from such problems. It’s an illness, not a spectator sport. Maybe if people had done more to help her, she’d still be alive today. Like many people, she had relationship problems.    Again, like many people, she fell in love. Sometimes we fall in love with the wrong person, and that relationship is unhealthy for both parties involved. Getting out of such a relationship is difficult. It’s difficult to see that you’re dragging each other down, that neither party is helping the other. Perhaps, Amy just fell in love with wrong person. She won’t be the first person to do so, and sadly she won’t be the last person to do so. It’s just that usually, such a relationship doesn’t usually have such tragic consequences. Sadly, aged twenty-seven, Amy Winehouse died in Camden, London on 23 July 2011. Her career was cut tragically short, but she left behind two wonderful albums, Frank and Back To Black. I’ll now tell you just what makes Back To Black such a wonderful album.

Back To Black opens with Rehab, a song influenced by classic 1960’s soul. Amy’s voice is strong and defiant. Behind her backing singers accompany her, making you think of some of the greatest female soul groups and girl groups. Think The Supremes or Ronettes, and you aren’t far away. Her band sound as if they’ve stepped out of the sixties too. The sound is big and full. There is a lushness present that usually, you don’t find on modern music. An orchestra plays, horns feature. They rasp ravishingly, percussion plays, bells chime, drums play their sound wonderfully retro. All the while Amy’s voice enthralls you. It’s an arrangement so big and beautiful that it’s almost indescribable. Once you hear it you’ll realize why. Rehab was a song that caused much controversy. Its critics believed that it glorified abusing alcohol and drugs. That is so far from the truth. In the song, Amy sings from an addicts point of view. Many addicts don’t want to give up their addiction. They know what they’re doing is wrong, they know that they’re damaging themselves, but, they’re enjoying themselves. One day that might change. However, at that point, rehab isn’t for them. In the song, Amy is defiant, defiant because she maybe she doesn’t see herself as an addict, or maybe she doesn’t want to stop. She believes she can learn more sitting at home, listening to Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, a bottle for company. Many people may find this attitude “shocking” or “flippant,” they’ve probably never been addicted to anything, or have an addictive personality. For me, Rehab was Amy Winehouse’s finest song, and must be one of the best songs in the last ten years. Amy sings the song brilliantly, it has wonderful lyrics and features a stunning performance by her band. Mark Ronson’s arrangement and production are perfection.

You Know I’m No Good begins with drums and bass playing. When Amy sings, her voice sound like some of the greatest jazz singer. You can hear Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan’s influence. Her delivery is clear and strong, her phrasing perfect. Her band surpass themselves. The sound is fulsome, a mixture between classic vocal jazz, sixties soul and contemporary R&B. Amy is like a torch singer for a new millennia. One with the voice of an angel, who sings about urban love and troubled relationships. When you listen to the lyrics, they’re dripping in black humor, and have a pathos about them. From the opening bars of the song, Ronson’s arrangement is masterful. Like Rehab, it’s a big production, featuring a brass section and even a Wurlitzer organ. All of this, and Amy’s amazing voice contributes towards making this a wonderful track.

As Me and Mr Jones begins, the sound is gloriously retro. Amy has borrowed heavily from previous generations of musicians on this track. The arrangement sounds like it belongs fifty or sixty years ago, when some of the greatest jazz and soul singers were alive. One thing that doesn’t belong in the past are the lyrics. Listen carefully, to this song about love and relationships, and in the lyrics have a contemporary and gritty edge to them. When the track begins, you’re transported back in time. A guitar plays, an upright bass is plucked. Backing singers accompany Amy. Saxophones blow, drums play subtly, overall, it’s like a song from another era, with Amy’s classy, sassy vocal completing what is, a beautiful homage to the music of yesteryear.

Just Friends opens with a Rhodes keyboard playing. Amy’s voice starts low and quickly gets stronger. Her voice is very different, has taken on a different sound. There is a richness present, that wasn’t there before. Here the arrangement isn’t as full as in previous songs, but it’s not understated. Having said that, their is a subtly about the playing on the track. It’s as if the band are allowing Amy to take centrestage on what is almost a jazz workout for her. The lyrics deal with alcohol, drugs and relationships, and touch upon betrayal in relationships. They demonstrate Amy’s talent as a songwriter, and her ability to write songs that many people can relate to. Not only has she written a great song, but her delivery is stunning and has a subtly about it.

The Ronettes. That’s what I think about when I hear Back To Black. Girl groups like The Ronettes were a huge influence on Amy Winehouse, and as the track begins, you can hear their influence. Although the sound may be influenced by the sixties, the lyrics belong in the present. Back To Black is another song by Amy that deals with a troubled relationship, and contains references to drugs. She isn’t glorifying drug usage, it’s part of the song’s strong narrative. It’s like a short story, one set in the new century, and featuring Amy as the central character. The longer the song goes on, the more I see the influence of groups like The Ronettes, and producer Phil Spector. Maybe, this is Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson’s tribute to these wonderful groups. If so, it’s a fitting and magnificent tribute.

Even though every song on Back To Black is of the highest quality, Love Is A Losing Game is one of the best. Quite simply, it’s the most beautiful song Amy Ever song. It’s one of her best ever performances, her voice sounds gentle and very natural. She sings within herself, whilst around her, the arrangement sweeps beautifully. A string section play subtly behind her, they’re the mainstay of the arrangement. Apart from a guitar and horns playing, it’s the strings that contribute the most. For two and a half minutes you sit spellbound, enthralled and transfixed by the most beautiful track on Back To Black. Truly, it’s Amy Winehouse at her very best. Stunning.

After such a musical masterpiece as Love Is A Losing Game, any song has a hard act to follow. However, Tears Dry On Their Own is a song that when you hear the start, doesn’t sound promising. After the first verse, and when Amy sings the chorus, the song opens out, and you think things are starting to improve. The lyrics are good, but there is something about the verses, they just don’t seem to read well musically. Strangely, the chorus is much better. Amy seems to be singing the lyrics too quickly, for the arrangement behind. It’s a slightly disappointing song, which is a shame because the arrangement is really good. At the end of the song, I feel slightly disappointed, feeling it could’ve been a much better song. 

At the start of Wake Up Alone, you immediately think that you’re about to hear a lovely jazzy number. You’re not disappointed, because what emerges is Amy at her best. Her is voice is strong and clear, as she sings the lyrics slowly, ensuring her phrasing is perfect. Again, it’s like taking a trip back in time, to a different era. Amy’s voice transports you back, and Mark Ronson, again, has produced a great track. Wake Up Alone benefits from a beautifully understated arrangement, one that never threatens to overpower Amy’s gorgeous vocal.

Some Unholy War continues with the slower, jazzier style of Wake Up Alone. Am upright bass plays, a guitar joins in, then Amy sings, accompanied by backing singers. As she sings, the fill in behind her, singing both after and during Amy’s vocal. This is highly effective. So is Salaam Remi’s arrangement. He’s obviously a believer that less is more, and his understated arrangement is perfect for the song. During the song, it’s just bass, guitar drums and organ that features. Like Wake Up Alone, Some Unholy War is a lovely slow jazz influenced song, which Amy sings beautifully, showing how versatile a vocalist she was.

After two downtempo tracks, He Can Only Hold Her sees the tempo increase. What differs is the style. It’s a mixture of classic soul and contemporary R&B. Immediately, you sense that Mark Ronson has gained control of the production chair. This track is much more his style, than Salaam Remi’s. Even the guitar playing at the start, doesn’t full you. Thereafter, the style is contemporary, and Ronson sprinkles his magical dust on the track. Amy’s voice is as good as ever, the arrangement is much fuller. A brass section features, backing vocalists accompany Amy and percussion is everpresent. My only quibble with this great track, is that it ends too quickly. Never mind, just press repeat.

The final track on Back To Black is Addicted, a track that deals with weed, marijuana, and addiction to it. When you listen to the lyrics, they immediately seem as if Amy’s attitude towards it is flippant. However, that is only in the context of the song. How she’s written the lyrics, they read perfectly, and are clever musically. They’re tight, rhyme brilliantly and even show her sense of humor when she sings she’d prefer weed instead of any man’s loving. Her performance of the song matches the lyrics. She’s reserved a brilliant performance for what is, the final track on the album. Straight away, the song swings, and for just under three minutes, Amy and her band sing and play beautifully. The tempo is quicker, the arrangement fuller. Behind her the brass section play, guitars, keyboards, bass and drums all combine masterfully. Addicted is a song that makes you wince, it’s makes you smile and most of all, you enjoy it because Amy sings the song brilliantly.

It’s taken me some time to write this article, and during that time I’ve thought much about Amy Winehouse and about her music. Personally, I prefer to remember her for her music. Music is what she loved, she was a hugely talented singer, musician and songwriter. Since the release of her debut album Frank, in October 2003, she was propelled into the media spotlight. Suddenly everyone wanted to know her, and everyone wanted to be her friend. Many of these people weren’t real friends. Instead, they used and abused her. These people contributed to her demise, and this cost her, her life. She lost her life, and music lost one of its most talented artists of the past ten years. She may have only produced two albums, but what great albums they were. They’re two of the best albums of the new millennia. Many an artist will never write or sing like Amy Winehouse could sing. Back To Black was a tremendous album. Eleven wonderful songs which Amy sang brilliantly, backed by some wonderful musicians. Two talented producers, Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi  helped harness Amy’s talent. They too, played a huge part in the success of Back To Black. Sadly, these two wonderful albums are all we have to remember Amy Winehouse by. My hope is that in the future, when we think of Amy Winehouse, we think of these two albums, instead of the terrible problems that she suffered from, and the tragic way her life ended. Standout Tracks: Rehab, Back To Black, Love Is A Losing Game and Addicted.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: