Singer and songwriter
B orn Amy Jade Winehouse, September 14, 1983, in London, England; daughter of Mitch (a cab driver) and Janis (a pharmacist) Winehouse; married Blake Fielder-Civil (a video director), May 18, 2007. Education: Attended the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology, London, late 1990s.
Addresses: Record company—Island Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
S ang with the British National Youth Jazz Orchestra, late 1990s; music reporter for the World Entertainment News Network Ltd. (WENN), late 1990s; signed to Island Records, c. 2001, and to Brilliant/19 Management following that; released first LP in United Kingdom, Frank, 2003.
Awards: Ivor Novello Award for best contemporary song, British Academy of Composers and Songwrit-ers, for “Stronger Than Me,” 2004; Ivor Novello Award for best contemporary song, British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, for “Rehab,” 2006; BRIT (British Record Industry Trust) Award, British Phonographic Industry, for best British female artist, 2007.
L ondon-born singer Amy Winehouse became Britain’s newest soul sensation with the first of her critically acclaimed records, Frank, in 2003.
Shortly after the release of its follow-up, Back to Black, in the fall of 2006 Winehouse began captivating American listeners as well, thanks to her distinctively torchy, soulful vocal style. Her distinctly retro look—complete with tattoos, heavy eyeliner, and massive beehive hairdo—also made Winehouse a refreshing change from the majority of blandly glamorous pop songstresses who were her contemporaries. New York Times music critic Jon Pareles caught one of her live shows in the spring of 2007 and asserted that were the inimitable new star “a purely old-fashioned soul singer, she’d just be a nostalgia act, though one with some telling songs. Her self-consciousness, and the bluntness she has learned from hip-hop, could help lead soul into 21st-century territory.”
Winehouse was born on September 14, 1983, in London, England, to parents who were both from Jewish families of the city’s once predominantly Jewish area in the East End. Winehouse and her older brother grew up in Southgate, an area of north London, largely in the home of their mother Janis, a pharmacist, whose marriage to cab driver Mitch ended when their daughter was nine years old. Winehouse, however, would remain close to her father, and later in life would sport a tattoo that read “Daddy’s Girl.”
An extrovert at an early age, Winehouse won a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, a prestigious London training ground for students aged ten to 16 with entrance by audition. She was kicked out after two years, for reasons that included her new nose piercing, which she had done herself, and an independence of mind. “All the teachers at school hated me,” she told Dan Cairns in a Sunday Times interview, a situation that was repeated at two other schools she attended. She had better luck at one of the London city colleges, the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology, and after that she worked for a time as a music reporter for the World Entertainment News Network Ltd., known as WENN.
Winehouse sang at an early age with an eye toward a career. When she was ten, she and two friends formed a Salt ’N’ Pepa-copycat group, and she grew up listening to a range of jazz, soul, R&B, and disco-era divas, from Dinah Washington to Teena Marie. Her all-time favorite group, however, were the 1960s hitmakers the Shangri-Las from the New York City area, best known for their hit “Leader of the Pack” and other lushly produced melodramatic songs. “The Shangri-La’s have pretty much got a song for every stage of a relationship,” Winehouse was quoted as saying by Ed Caesar of London’s Independent, and she enumerated: “When you see a boy and you don’t even know his name. When you start talking to him. When you start going out with him. And then when you’re in love with him. And then when he [breaks up with] you and then you want to kill yourself.”
Winehouse began singing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra on weekends, and a friend who had access to a recording studio offered to help her make a few demo tapes. She agreed, but had little faith that a recorded version of her torchy style would actually land her a record deal. “I didn’t go knocking on people’s doors,” she said in an interview with Independent journalist Charlotte Cripps. “I wouldn’t bother sending anybody your tape— people get tapes by the sackload and a lot of the time they don’t care.” But Winehouse’s demo did find the right person, and at the age of 17 she was signed to Island Records, the legendary British label founded in 1959 that brought Jamaican reggae to a world audience and then scored a major coup by signing Irish rockers U2 early in their career. Wine-house also signed with Brilliant/19 Management, the artists’ management company run by Simon Fuller, the man credited with bringing the Spice Girls to fame.
Winehouse’s debut album, Frank, was released in Britain in October of 2003. She had written the lyrics for nearly all of its tracks, and collaborated with hip-hop producer and songwriter Salaam Remi, who made top-selling records for the Fugees and Nas and also produced Frank. Her debut reached platinum certification with sales of 300,000, was nominated for two BRIT Awards (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammy Awards), and also made the shortlist for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, awarded to the best LP of the year from a British or Irish act.
The twin debuts of both Winehouse and Frank caused somewhat of a media sensation in Britain: The record was hailed as an elegant throwback to the jazz era but with lyrics updated for a post-feminist world, and Winehouse’s arresting vocal style praised as the next big thing to come out of the Isles. Writing about her voice for the Sunday Times, Cairns called it “one of the most extraordinary to be heard in pop music for years. A cracked, racked husk that will one moment coo at the object of her affection, the next emit a caustic rasp at the target of her scorn, it harks back to Billie Holiday in its emotional vulnerability, to Joni Mitchell when it eases through the octaves, and to Macy Gray as it lays bare its owner’s feelings.”
Yet Winehouse was also causing a stir for her pro-vocative statements to the press, which were often delivered amidst a colorful torrent of profanity. She criticized Island and its parent company, Universal, for inserting two songs she did not want on Frank, and became known to paparazzi around London for extravagant drinking habits and general carousing. After performing live around Britain for a time, she was plagued by a case of writer’s block when it came time to write new songs for a second album. Finally she met DJ/producer Mark Ronson, who had worked with Christina Aguilera, Kanye West, and another newcomer Brit, Lily Allen, and the pair clicked—especially after Ronson heard what Winehouse wanted for her new record in the trove of Shangri-Las records she passed along to him.
Back to Black was released nearly three years after Frank, in October of 2006, and immediately became one of the U.K.’s top-selling records of the entire year; nine months later it had sold more than a million copies. It was released in the United States in March of 2007 after advance buzz surrounded the single “Rehab,” reportedly a true story of Island and Fuller’s attempts to get Winehouse into an alcohol-treatment program. “Things got so bad for me at one point that I was told: ‘We’re taking you to rehab and, if you don’t come today, we’re taking you tomorrow,’” the singer admitted in an interview with journalist Eva Simpson for the Mirror, a British tabloid. She acquiesced, she said, but upon arriving was confronted by a long questionnaire they told her to complete. “So I was like, how long it is going to take? He said about half an hour and that was too much.” She walked out, and decided to fire the management instead.
The catchy “Rehab,” like the rest of the tracks on Winehouse’s follow-up, won enthusiastic praise from critics. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Chris Willman asserted that the LP’s “modern spin on soul, Motown, doo-wop, and the girl-group sound is timelessly engineered to sound slightly spooky, as if coming out of a radio . Winehouse is retro enough to be on repeat play at your local Starbucks and badass enough to be the queen of Coachella. They might as well hand her next year’s Best New Artist Grammy right now.”
During the weeks of media promotion that followed the U.K. release of Back to Black, Winehouse continued to display the somewhat reckless behavior that had caused the British tabloids to dub her “Amy Wino.” She heckled U2 singer Bono during an awards ceremony, twice appeared to be intoxicated during television appearances, and left the stage after just one song at a London gig when she became sick to her stomach—which she later attributed to food poisoning. She capped off her first U.S. tour by marrying an off-again, on-again boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil, in Miami, Florida. The two had dated briefly but then split, with Fielder-Civil returning to his girlfriend and leaving Winehouse heartbroken. They reconciled in April of 2007 and wed just a few weeks later. Meanwhile Alex Claire, the London chef who had been Winehouse’s boyfriend until early 2007, sold his story to a British tabloid, in which he claimed she once held his head underwater in the bathtub.
Winehouse’s devastation over the breakup with Fielder-Civil inspired several songs on Back to Black, she later said. “The songs literally did write themselves,” she told Rolling Stone interviewer Jenny Eliscu. “All the songs are about the state of my relationship at the time with Blake . I thought we’d never see each other again. He laughs about it now. He’s like, ‘What do you mean, you thought we’d never see each other again? We love each other. We’ve always loved each other.’ But I don’t think it’s funny. I wanted to die.”
Even Winehouse’s weight became fodder for media speculation. She suddenly dropped several dress sizes in 2006, prompting speculation that she suffered from an eating disorder or recently acquired drug habit. She confessed that it was simply a case of feeling uneasy with comments in the press about her voluptuous figure and a decision to replace a pot-smoking habit with visits to the gym. Marijuana, she told Mirror journalist Simpson, “made me eat junk. Now I think that going to the gym is the best drug. I go four times a week and it gives me the buzz I need.” She also told Simpson that she’s fielded “offers to do modelling and stuff. But I’m like, are they mad?! I’m not exactly an oil painting, am I?”
Winehouse was hailed as a much-needed jolt of audacity and raw talent for an increasingly moribund music business. She was one of the bestselling artists of 2006 and 2007 on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when record sales seemed to be bottoming out and the public was losing faith in the industry’s ability to discover genuine artistic ability and bring it to market. Her lack of inhibition was also part of her appeal, with Newsweek writer Joshua Alston describing her as “a perfect storm of sex kitten, raw talent, and poor impulse control. She’s compulsively honest and, unlike celebrities who keep their publi-cists on speed dial, she embraces her dark side and pours it into guileless, confessional lyrics.”
Winehouse won her first BRIT Award for Best British Female Solo Artist in 2007, and performed “Re-hab” live at the perennially controversy-marred ceremony. Her first record, Frank, was released in the United States in September of 2007. When Rolling Stone journalist Eliscu asked her if it would bother her if she never made a third record—an unlikely scenario, given her immense success—she replied, “Not really. I’ve done a record I’m really proud of. And that’s about it. It’s just that I’m a caretaker and I want to enjoy myself and spend time with my husband . I don’t want to be ungrateful. I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and to look after my family. I love what I do, but it’s not where it begins and ends.”
Frank, Island Records, 2003.
Back to Black, Island Records, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, May 25, 2007, p. 46.
Independent (London, England), April 21, 2004, p. 14; February 20, 2007, p. 24; June 2, 2007.
Mirror (London, England), February 13, 2007, p. 20.
Newsweek, March 12, 2007, p. 60.
New York Times, May 10, 2007.
Rolling Stone, May 30, 2007.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 5, 2003, p. 12.