Like Lady Sovereign and even Janis Joplin before her, Amy Winehouse gave bad girls a good name. Her messy retro beehive, cat’s eye make-up, and tight pencil skirts inspired countless High Street fashions and she became a muse for Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld, but behind the messy eye make-up and even messier public mishaps lay a prodigious talent.
Her 2003 debut album, simply titled Frank, turned her into a critic’s darling, and snagged her a nomination for UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize and a platinum record in the UK. But it was her 2007 breakthrough album, Back to Black, inspired by a stinging breakup with boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil (whom she would later marry), that would turn her into a worldwide sensation.
On Back To Black, she was unapologetic about her nasty habits, intimacy problems or lack of romantic notions and the world applauded such candor, awarding her with a Brit Award for Best Female Artist and five Grammys - tying the record for the most wins by a female artist in a single night and making Winehouse the first British singer to ever win five Grammys.
Perhaps even more important than the awards was the way she connected with fans: she vented and cried the same bitter tears that the rest of us did when things went awry, and was unafraid to show her foibles. If anything, Winehouse functioned as a skilled, but disillusioned reporter on the front lines of the gender wars, tossing off bon mots and sneering asides like they were much too salty pimentos in her cocktail olives, while she not-so-secretly suffered inside.
With a voice that fell somewhere between Sarah Vaughn and Darlene Love, on Back to Black she excoriated a boyfriend—presumably Fielder-Civil—because he stole her marijuana, explaining she loved the substance better than she does him in a song called “Addiction,” sounding an early warning that things were amiss as far back as five years ago. She struck a similar chord on “I’m No Good,” chiding her lover: “I told you I was trouble, you know that I'm no good,” but the most chillingly prophetic reading of Winehouse’s life was “Rehab,” with its line: “I don’t even wanna drink again/I just ooh, I just need a friend,” that causes the most grief for her countless fans. Could anyone have helped her? Stopped her pain?
It wasn’t as if they didn’t try. Last May, she spent three weeks at the Priory Clinic, London’s upscale rehab facility that counts Kate Moss, Ronnie Wood, and Shane MacGowan as alums, before beginning her European tour on June 18. Yet four days after her release, Winehouse was spotted drinking in a London beer garden.
In an effort to make right things, her management banned her drinking on the tour and informed every hotel staff member on her 12-date itinerary to remove all alcohol from the rooms she and her team have booked, and that they may not deliver any drinks, but somehow she still managed to self-medicate on the tour’s opening date in Serbia, and as a result, canceled the rest of the tour.
“I believe that I live through pain. If you suffer for something it means to me that it is not unimportant,” Winehouse told Germany’s Stern Magazine in 2007. Unfortunately the pain seemed to have gotten the best of Amy Winehouse on June 23 when she was found dead in her Camden apartment.
She is survived by her father Mitchell Winehouse, mother Janis, and older brother Alex.