Main image credit: Dean Chalkley for NME
think of the icons who have changed the shape of popular music forever, and few tower as high as Amy Winehouse and her unmistakable beehive. Breaking through in the early ‘00s like a gale-force wind that gleefully rucked up pop’s carefully-ironed tablecloth, the sharp-witted, soul-and-jazz-loving Londoner stood out in a landscape of shimmering US pop stars and perfectly choreographed girl bands. Fusing vintage sounds with her biting storytelling, Winehouse was refreshing, exciting and – above everything else – a raw and honest voice.
Amy Winehouse died a decade ago this Friday (July 23), aged 27, leaving behind a huge musical legacy. Following her passing, countless artists paid tribute to an enormous talent. “Amy changed pop music forever,” Lady Gaga tweeted in 2011. “I remember knowing there was hope, and feeling not alone because of her. She lived jazz, she lived the blues.” In another post, Adele thanked Winehouse for “[paving] the way for artists like me”, adding that she “made people excited about British music again whilst being fearlessly hilarious and blase about the whole thing. I don’t think she ever realized just how brilliant she was and how important she is, but that just makes her even more charming.” The late George Michael accurately called her “the most soulful vocalist this country has ever seen.”
Now, 10 years on from her death, fans, collaborators and fellow musicians pay tribute. “I still remember the first time I heard her on the radio, I was totally hooked,” recalls Shannon, a long-time Amy Winehouse fan who became hooked on her 2003 debut album ‘Frank’ in her early teens, and went to see some of the star’s earliest headline shows. Years later, she was at V Festival with her mates when surprise guest Winehouse casually sauntered on stage to perform ‘You’re Wondering Now’ and ‘Ghost Town’ with The Specials.
Every time she watched Winehouse live was “just magic,” Shannon says, adding: “She totally allowed herself to be completely raw and vulnerable – and that voice too! She was my first proper music idol. She was just so cool, and the music blew my mind.”
That 2009 appearance with The Specials wasn’t Amy’s only unexpected link-up – she also performed with The Rolling Stones (at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2009) and Prince (in London in 2007), among others. Scissor Sisters’ lead singer and solo artist Jake Shears also recalls heading out on little-documented tour of “end-of-year college banquets” with the star early in their careers, soundtracking the dinners of a couple of hundred students each night. “I like thinking back to that time because you just just never know where everything’s going to end up – it was early days for us,” Shears tells NME. “It was such a cool time.”
A chance encounter with The Zutons’ lead singer on a night out in Winehouse’s regular stomping ground in Camden, meanwhile, led to her wildly popular cover of their staple song ‘Valerie’, which remains one of her most popular songs 14 years after its release. “Years ago I was in Camden and I was in The Hawley Arms, drinking and all that,” recalls the band’s vocalist Dave McCabe. “And then Amy Winehouse turns up”.
Though the pair had crossed paths at the Mercury Prize in 2004, they barely knew each other, and later that night, “this lad” at the pub started bad-mouthing The Zutons. “He basically started telling me how crap I was, and how great [Winehouse] was, and at the time I was like, ‘Fair enough’”. McCabe laughs. “By about the 10th time, he was just being a bit annoying. I ended up just turning around to him, and told him to fuck off. Then [Amy] turned around to me went, ‘No – you fuck off!’’
Eventually, McCabe stormed off down the road with Winehouse in hot pursuit. “She goes: ‘Come back! I really like ‘Valerie’. I’m not really arsed about you, but you must be alright ‘causes you wrote that song.’ So we worked it out, and I went back. I think if we hadn’t had that argument… That moment was very personal. I’d like to think it’s what pushed her [to record the song herself]. Maybe something good came of all of that stupid argument?” he laughs.
“I met her since then, and I thanked her [for covering ‘Valerie’ in 2007],” he adds. “I was chuffed that she covered [it]. I remember it hit me when I was in a pub playing pool, and the [The Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games] came on – there were people dancing and stuff like that, and then that song came on. In the opening ceremony! It struck me then just how fucking big that that version of the song was. I didn’t wanna burst out crying in the middle of the pub or nothing, so I had to go away to the toilet; I was like, ‘Fucking hell that was emotional’, but in a nice way. It doesn’t feel like it’s our song any more; it feels like it’s its own world.”
Winehouse took the twanging riffs of the original, drawing out its more soulful components alongside producer Mark Ronson, unearthing a totally different character and melody. “I don’t think anyone else could have just picked it up and sung it like that,” McCabe says. “Even when I think of the song now, I think of how she sings it – that’s just what it has become. I don’t think anyone else in the world could have done that. I think it shows the strength and talent and everything she had. It could be an easy song to cover, an easy ticket – but she took it to this whole new level.”
Along with Winehouse’s ‘Frank’ collaborator Salaam Remi, Ronson produced half of Amy Winehouse’s landmark second album, 2006’s ‘Back to Black’. Together, they made for a formidable pairing – from the parping ‘Rehab’ to the smoke-stained regret of ‘Love is a Losing Game’, they forged a pop sound that dabbled in retro influences, and would influence the entire musical landscape after the album’s release.
Though Winehouse counted ‘60s girl groups, Motown and classic soul as influences – and enlisted Sharon Jones’ band The Dap-Kings to back her – the record veers away from being derivative, instead centring around Winehouse’s unmistakable vocal and vibrant lyrical voice. “He left no time to regret,” she sings in the opening lines of the title-track, her voice cracking with anger. “Kept his dick wet / With his same old safe bet.” It was cutting, fiercely witty, and unmistakably Winehouse – and across ‘Back to Black’, the searing one-liners kept coming.
“I can sometimes hear ‘Back To Black’ in some restaurant in the background and it does nothing, and then I’ll hear it on another occasion in, like, the lobby of a hotel, and it has a really heavy effect on me,” Mark Ronson told NME in 2019. “She kinda put me on the map, so all of my success and everything I’ve had since is somehow linked back to this thing.”
“‘Valerie’ doesn’t feel like it’s our song any more; it’s its own world” – The Zutons’ Dave McCabe
Though ‘Back To Black’ was Winehouse’s masterpiece, her slightly lighter debut album ‘Frank’ still established Winehouse as a fearsomely talented songwriter. ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’ finds Winehouse’s narrator bluntly defending infidelity with increasingly creative twists of logic: “Baby, you weren’t there,” she insists, “and I was thinking of you when I came”. And the matter-of-fact ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ is both biting and hilarious, meticulously mocking a woman and her garish shoes.
“Her legacy is beyond comprehension,” singer-songwriter Laura Mvula tells NME. “I think people will still be unfolding it for decades to come.” The Birmingham artist, who recently melded her love of soul, jazz and blues music with bright, disco-tinged pop on latest album ‘Pink Noise’, cites Winehouse as a huge influence – “particularly her vocal style”.
Mvula explains: “I think I was subconsciously imitating her when I was younger and first started to sing – not even as a solo artist, but just when I was learning what my voice was. If you listen to ‘Frank’, that’s the music that raised me, this neo-soul expression that she managed to birth in the UK and give its own identity. That is huge – no one’s done that since; not as authentically, transcending and also celebrating race at the same time.”
Enormously influenced by a huge number of Black musicians, Winehouse covered the likes of Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and The Shirelles. ”You could say that it’s inherently Black music,” Mvula says, “but to me she is her music. 100 per cent.”
While forging a new kind of neo-soul, it’s also fair to say that Winehouse rarely minced her words – and had little patience when she was compared to less innovative artists releasing music around the same time. Case in point: her slightly tongue-in-cheek dislike of Dido – which culminated in the singer pelting a billboard for the singer’s album ‘Life for Rent’ with an apple during an appearance on Popworld in 2004. When Amy Winehouse did feel passionately about a new artist’s talent, however, she supported it relentlessly.
“She was really supportive,” says singer Dionne Bromfield, Winehouse’s goddaughter and a MOBO-nominated singer. “I think she really saw a lot that I didn’t really see in myself at that age.” The best advice Winehouse gave her? “Be true to yourself,” Bromfield says. “Amy was someone who wore her heart on her sleeve. I think that is probably why she connected so well with people: people felt like they were almost talking to their friend or hearing their friend talk when listening to Amy.”
“Amy wore her heart on her sleeve. That’s why she connected with people” – Dionne Bromfield
Bromfield has been working on a documentary about her relationship with Winehouse: Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story airs on MTV UK on July 26. Though various other tributes are set to come out to mark 10 years since Winehouse’s death – the BBC are releasing Amy Winehouse: 10 Years On, while her mother Janis Winehouse has also made her own film, Reclaiming Amy – Bromfield hopes that her own personal celebration of a friend and mentor can show her own unique relationship with the singer.
“Amy was a very very funny person and I really wanted that to come across,” she says, adding with a laugh: “She was a really good cook if you could actually manage to get her to finish what she was cooking, because she always used to want to potter around a bit. She was really good at meatballs, and she used to do a really banging chicken soup. I mean, that’s a proper Jewish woman there with her chicken soup.
“She loved comedy stuff: when I watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air now I actually just remember all of the times watching it with her, and can almost actually hear her laughing at certain gag lines. And – oh my God – she would kill if I didn’t call her ‘Auntie Amy’. Jesus Christ! I really wanted to allow people to see this side to her.”
Bromfield sang with Amy Winehouse on several occasions, but their final performance at London’s 3,000-capacity Roundhouse – just a couple of days before the singer tragically died in 2011 – stands out as a treasured moment: “It was the last time that I actually saw her, and the last time that she was seen by the public. I really wasn’t expecting her to be there. She was at the side of the stage, and was just like: ‘I wanna come on and dance’. It was just really nice. It was the first time she’d ever actually seen me perform properly, but it was also the last time that she’d see me.”
Pondering why Amy Winehouse continues to be so influential a decade after her passing, Bromfield puts it down to one rare quality that so few artists have in such staggering abundance. “I just think it’s the honesty,” she says. “Her personality came through with her music, and I think that is really what people love about her. I honestly don’t think we’ll ever get another Amy.”
– Amy Winehouse and Me: Dionne’s Story airs on MTV UK on July 26