Women Who Rock Cross-Stitch
© 2019 Anna Fleiss / Running Press · Reproduced with permission.
Vocalist, original, Old Soul
Behind the towering beehive, Cleopatra makeup, and tattoos was a raw genius that had no match. The hard-living Amy Winehouse was as real as they come. The lyrics she wrote were brutally honest. “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” read like pages from her diary. And the way her brassy voice took hold of each word, as if her heart were being ripped out of her chest, was just as real. While her tragic fall from fame would be well-documented, the soul singer’s edginess came more from her truth than the tabloid stories. As Steve Kandell wrote in a 2007 story for Spin, “Music’s most authentic punk is a 23-year-old white Jewish girl from the London suburbs who sings like a lost Supreme.”
Amy was born an old soul, raised by a working-class family in Southgate. She grew up loving jazz and listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington. With her early appreciation for the classics also came a love for modern R&B and rap. As a 10-year-old, Amy formed a hip-hop duo with her best friend, called Sweet ’n’ Sour, in which Amy naturally brought the sour. Still, her musical talent wouldn’t be realized until she became a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. And when her friend sent the 16-year-old’s demo tape to a record label, the rest was history.
Her debut album, Frank, came out in 2003. The jazz-influenced record was critically acclaimed in the UK, both for Amy’s powerful, sultry voice as well her painfully frank lyrics. From calling out her older man as a “lady boy” in “Stronger Than Me” to singing through her self-destructive ways in the twisted “Amy Amy Amy,” it’s clear that the 19-year-old had already lived. Back To Black, released in 2006, traded in jazz for the sounds of ’60s girl groups and Motown, but the same deep feelings were there.
The album led to international success and five Grammys, tying the record at the time for most wins by a female in one night, but the drama that surrounded her actual life would soon take over. While Amy would have another hit with “Valerie,” the downward spiral that led to her death from alcohol poisoning at 27 would be a tragic one.
To quote music writer Ann Powers in a piece following Amy’s death, “Those of us who took pleasure in the fruits of Amy Winehouse’s inner turmoil now have to acknowledge its ultimate end. As we contemplate this, we can also revel in what was most entrancing about her music: its brashness and utterly engaging power, the upfront expression of a woman who was loud without apology. Her big notes still live.”