Amy Winehouse, Grammy-Winning Soul, Jazz Singer, Dies at 27

Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse performs on the Pyramid stage at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, near Glastonbury, south west England, June 22, 2007. The festival has been going 27 years and is now the largest music festival in Europe. Source: AP Photo via Bloomberg News

Amy Winehouse, the singer and songwriter who shot to fame with “Rehab,” won five Grammy Awards and sold more than 5 million albums, has died aged 27.

Winehouse was found dead at her home in north London just after 4 p.m. yesterday, London Police Superintendent Raj Kohli said in a statement. The cause of death remains “unexplained,” he said, speaking on Sky News, noting that a post-mortem has yet to take place.

The U.K. singer became one of the brightest young stars in music with hits such as “Valerie” and “Love Is a Losing Game,” mixing R&B, jazz and soul. Since 2007, she was in the news as much for her personal problems as for her music.

Paparazzi watched her every move as she battled alcohol and drug addictions and suffered from poor health, depression and eating disorders. She ran into trouble with the police and in her marriage.

Her death at 27 adds her name to a list of other singer-songwriters who died at the same age: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, among them.

Winehouse’s first album, “Frank” (2003), showcased her rich contralto voice. Her raw talent drew comparisons to Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan as well as the more recent stars Macy Gray and Lauryn Hill. Her second album, “Back to Black,” led to critics calling her the finest British female voice since Dusty Springfield. Many singers who followed her, such as Kate Nash, Lily Allen and Duffy, were labeled “the new Amy Winehouse.”

Beyond Sad

“It’s just beyond sad,” Allen said in a post on Twitter last night. “She was such a lost soul, may she rest in peace.”

“Amy is the finest female singer Britain has ever produced by a long, long way,” Mick Hucknall, the leader of Simply Red, said in an e-mailed release yesterday.

“Amy was an artist of immense proportions,” Tony Bennett said in a statement. He recorded the pop standard “Body and Soul” with her at Abbey Road Studios in London in March.

“This is the best female vocalist I’ve heard in my entire career,” the U.K. singer George Michael said of Winehouse in a 2007 British Broadcasting Corp. interview. “And one of the best writers. She’s a fantastic talent and we should support her.”

Winehouse’s record company Universal said her sales were boosted by her 2008 Grammy success. She tied the record for the most awards for a female artist in a single night: best new artist, best record, best female vocal, best song (for “Rehab”) and best pop vocal album (for “Back to Black”). She also won Ivor Novello songwriting prizes in the U.K.

“I knew I could sing,” Winehouse said in a 2004 BBC interview. “But I always thought everyone could sing, that everyone was born with a singing voice. Yes, I can sing, I have a good voice but there’s so many people that can and do.”

Universal Contract

As she became more famous, Winehouse’s appearance became increasingly distinctive: lots of tattoos, enlarged Cleopatra kohl wings around her eyes, bigger heels, shorter skirts, and her beehive hair piled ever higher. Her pictures were everywhere: stumbling out of bars, dressed only in bra and shorts, clutching cigarettes and bottles. The U.K. tabloids called her Declinehouse, Wino and Wineglass.

Amy Jade Winehouse was born in London on Sept. 14, 1983, to a taxi-driving father, Mitch, and pharmacy-technician mother, Janis. She grew up in Southgate, north London. Her Jewish family played records by singers such as Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra. A young Amy also liked hip-hop and started writing songs at age 14, going to the Sylvia Young Theatre School. She was expelled at 16 for piercing her nose. She also attended the BRIT School funded by the U.K. record industry.

Writing Songs

Winehouse’s musician friend Tyler James passed her demo tape to Universal, which was offering a contract for a jazz vocalist and snapped her up. Winehouse shied away from cover versions, commercially the safest course that someone with her voice might follow, and co-wrote most of the songs on “Frank.”

Musician Mark Ronson, brought in to produce her next album in 2006, added the sound of the girl groups of the 1960s.

Winehouse’s personal and musical lives were linked in the lead track, “Rehab.” Reports began to focus on her weight loss and bulimia. She appeared drunk on TV shows and when her management urged her to have treatment, she wrote the song in refusal with the chorus lyrics echoing, “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.” Like Holiday, she channeled her own anguish into songs and drugs.

The album’s second single “You Know I’m No Good” was knowingly ironic and also led to the title of a DVD, “I Told You I Was Trouble: Live in London.”

Ronson also had a hand in Winehouse’s hit “Valerie,” originally on his album “Version” and a cover of a song by the Zutons.

Secret Marriage

“Back to Black” -- a lament comparing a fading romance to a death -- followed Winehouse’s short split with boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil. They married in secret during a trip to Florida in May 2007 and became inseparable, though Winehouse said she would attack him when she was drunk.

Fielder-Civil’s father urged fans to boycott her music, saying he feared the couple would commit suicide or overdose. When Winehouse was taken to the hospital and canceled part of a European tour, her spokesman said she needed rest. Newspapers said she had taken a mix of alcohol, cocaine, heroin and a ketamine tranquilizer.

The tour resumed, though in October, Winehouse and her husband were arrested in Norway for possessing cannabis. Later, Fielder-Civil was among those arrested on a charge of trying to pervert the course of justice after an assault on a pub owner. He remained in custody and pleaded guilty in June 2008. On July 21, he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for the crime. Two years later, Fielder-Civil and Winehouse divorced.

Shambolic Shows

Her concert dates since were shambolic. She forgot the words to songs and ran offstage for frequent breaks. She was booed, reduced to tears and swore at audiences. Amid the furor, her U.S. dates were canceled.

Winehouse was initially denied a U.S. visa to travel to the 2008 Grammy ceremony. She was later allowed entry, though she was advised not to travel, so she performed via satellite.

In January of that year, U.K. newspaper the Sun released a video of a woman it said was Winehouse smoking crack cocaine. The video was passed to police, who questioned the singer without charging her.

She returned to the stage in May, though by the following month she was diagnosed with early-stage emphysema. Her father said her lungs were only at 70 percent of capacity because of smoking cigarettes and crack cocaine. He said that if she carried on, the condition would become fatal.

Offbeat Phrasing

Winehouse’s decline was sadly obvious to critics following her career. We listened to her brief torch-singing of “Love is a Losing Game” at the U.K. Mercury Prize show in 2007. From there it was all downhill, with offbeat phrasing at the Mandela birthday concert and Glastonbury in June 2008. Soon the concerts got too painful to listen to.

Last month, Winehouse canceled what was supposed to be a 12-stop European tour after an embarrassing appearance in Serbia. During the first show in Belgrade she was jeered and booed as she stumbled around the stage, unable to remember lyrics. Her spokesman, Chris Goodman, said she would take time off to recover.

Winehouse and her record company, Island, both said she had worked on material for a third album. Deluxe versions of her earlier CDs were released to fill the gap. Her last emails to journalists and fans said she was launching a clothing range with Fred Perry, planned more concerts and was setting up a website, Lioness, to promote new music.

Now fans will be playing “Back to Black” in her honor, with its lines “Goodbye.. I died a hundred times.”

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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