Music icon Amy Winehouse passed away today at the age of 27. Looking back at her two solo albums - FRANK, and the multi-Grammy-winning BACK TO BLACK, produced by Mark Ronson - as well as her live concert DVD - I TOLD YOU I WAS TROUBLE - it seems difficult to believe an artist with this much cultural impact wrote and produced so little in her impossibly short life - yet, both albums are simply superb and the latter is on the level of the very best American pop/rock records of all time. Evoking Bilie Holliday, Janis Joplin and Courtney Love in almost equal measure - with a healthy dollop of The Shirelles and some Mary J. Blige on top - Amy Winehouse was a complete and total anomaly whose shtick was anything-but: when Amy put on, wore and sold that worn-down, worn-out beehive 'do on her head while she sang one of her dirges you damn well bought it, honey - every note, lyric and follicle! From the sugary pop frivolity of “Rehab” to the jaunty, haunting hip-hop beats of “Back To Black”; from the searing heartache of “I Wake Up Alone” to the clear-eyed plaintiveness of “To Known Him is To Love Him”; all the way to the witty, jokey, grungy fun of “Me & Mr. Jones” and “F*ck Me Pumps” - Amy could certainly do it all. And, she did - maybe doing too much of some things in some areas of her life. This special SATURDAY SPECIAL is a generous look back at what and who she was and what she did in her short time on this planet and why she deserves a place at the top.
No Time For Regret
Janis Joplin. Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. And, now, Amy Winehouse. All great icons of rock and roll; all dead at 27. The legacy that Amy Winehouse leaves to the world in her passing today - with her two released albums and one new one completed and in the can, live DVD and countless YouTube performances left behind - is one of a troubled jazz singer not unlike her idol Billie Holliday whose talent was met only by her self-destructive nature and the combination of the two created a perfect storm conducive to some of the most unique and powerful pop/rock/jazz/hip-hop compositional confections of the early twenty-first century. From the Grammys controversy - she was not legally allowed to attend the ceremony, but still performed via live-feed and picked up six awards - to the first episode of GLEE and the very first song performed on the show being “Rehab”, Amy Winehouse has left an indelible impression on pop culture and the entertainment industry the entire world over in her scant years in the public eye.
Kicking everything off, here is Amy Winehouse’s Grammy Awards performance of “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab”, as well as Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole awarding her the well-deserved Album of the Year. Plus: what a reaction shot!
Now, let’s go back to the days leading up to the Grammys in our comprehensive consideration of the life and career of Amy Winehouse.
Back To Black
FRANK was Amy Winehouse’s first album - a wild mix of genres and styles that works more often than it does not, but lacks the polish and vision that made BACK TO BLACK a masterpiece. While FRANK failed to catch on in the United States in a major way in the early 00s, the Mark Ronson-produced follow-up BACK TO BLACK became one of the most successful albums of the first decade of the twenty-first century and Amy took home a handful of Grammys for her efforts, solidifying herself as one of the most important women in modern popular music by doing so. Following that, she toured and she continued to perform live and gave some truly riveting, brilliant performances - and a few stoned stinkers, too - for the next few years. One of the great performances she gave during this period was thankfully captured on DVD and is available along with a very revealing documentary, titled I TOLD YOU I WAS TROUBLE. before she virtually disappeared for the last three years. We had heard late last year that Mark Ronson was putting the final touches on their BACK TO BLACK follow-up collaboration and it was not until last week when she canceled a number of performances after going onstage either unprepared, inebriated or both. Then came today’s news. What will the next few days bring - the truth about that event and her cause of death, perhaps? And, what will the next months bring? Her final songs and perhaps her final album? Furthermore: what does the future of music look like without Amy Winehouse in it? It’s a dark day today and before we go back to her more esoteric, Euro-centric performances and material, it would be instructive to investigate her three best known songs and those music videos first, all from the game-changing masterpiece of doo-wop-meets-hip-hop, the essential BACK TO BLACK.
“You Know I’m No Good”
“Back To Black”
Looking back at these three videos now, collectively, more than five years after they were released, it becomes clear that the musical and pop cultural legacy Amy Winehouse has left shall be felt for many more years and decades to come.
Now, let’s take a look back at what made Amy Winehouse the anomalous and inscrutable song stylist she was and why she is due the utmost praise for the astounding songs and performances she contributed to the entertainment world over the course of her very, very short life on the concert stage.
Going back to before the bee-hive bad girl BLACK TO BACK DAYS, taken from her first album FRANK, here is the album opener “Stronger Than Me” performed live at Wembley Stadium in 2004.
One of the biggest UK hits from FRANK was the scandalously titled “F*ck Me Pumps”. From the earworm riff that forms its musical foundation to the spot-on, bitchy lyrics and overall thematic and performative bite - this is Amy in her pre-BLACK mode at the height of her powers. More than many of her songs, this exhibits her coy sense of irony and comedy. What a last line!
Now, here is a live version of the song that is even better - and one of my personal favorite all-time Amy performances - taken from the I TOLD YOU I WAS TROUBLE live DVD, which is a must-own and showcases Amy at the best of her ample abilities.
Proving her considerable guitar skills, here is Amy performing a live, unplugged version of “Stronger Than Me” four years after the above performance. What reggae-riffic riffs!
While commenting on Amy’s guitar skills, here is the actual song she wrote for her favorite guitar, the eponymous title being “Cherry”. Listen to those Billie Holiday-ish riffs!
One of Amy’s most well-loved by fans, here is the impossible-to-top “Me & Mr. Jones” with a particularly spare and slinky arrangement taken from this live TV performance.
Back To Basics
Now, here is a live performance from THE JOOLS HOLLAND SHOW in 2007 of one of Amy‘s most inventive and ingratiating compositions with a sample thrown in “Tears Dry On Their Own”. Also, it’s astounding to witness what edgy lyrics can be sung on television in Europe!
Here is a duet most would think to be strange, if not impossible: Amy Winehouse and Charlotte Church take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. The result is certainly something to see - and just about what you would expect!
Taken from a live solo radio show, here is a simple and surefire hit take on “Love Is A Losing Game” - one of Amy’s most beloved ballads. Few sang of heartache and emotional pain with as much conviction and mimesis as Amy. I mean, just try not to shed a tear viewing this - I double dare you!
One of Amy’s most powerful self-penned throwback-sounding songs, here is “Wake Up Alone” from BACK TO BLACK. So 60s, so chic - yet, so cutting-edge, too, at the exact same time.
While Amy’s self-penned songs are almost always the best, she created some highly respectable and, in some cases, superior, cover versions of a number of genre-spanning songs over the course of her impossibly short career. Taken from the soundtrack of BRIDGET JONES: The Edge OF REASON, here is Amy taking on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” in her own way - with expectedly gritty, gospel-flecked and gorgeous results.
Next in the covers category, check out this live and unadorned performance of Amy’s idiosyncratically revamped version of the UK hit “Valerie”. Of special note: Amy’s version of this song was also covered by Naya Rivera in the final episodes of Season Two of GLEE earlier this year.
Paying homage to her idol Billie Holiday, here is Amy taking on the tongue-twistingly tricky “Moody’s Mood For Love” with a trip-hop beat and sax wailing just below the surface, complimenting her bluesy siren sonorousness so expertly.
Lastly, closing out the covers and the column itself, here is a simply, effortlessly elegant and so very spine-tingling “To Know Him Is To Love Him”, with Amy taking on the classic gospel song in her own unmistakably soulful way. No one sang material from the 50s and 60s quite like Amy and this is perhaps the finest example of that of them all. Bare and so very evocative.
Love her, we do - and always will. The heavenly choir has another angel today in Amy. May she find peace at last.