A Career and a Life Ended Too Soon

by scottleydon

Unfortunately, Amy was unable to help herself overcome her addictions.

Neo-soul singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse,born 14 September 1983 and found dead in her London home on Saturday, aged 27, was probably best known for the endless tabloid reports documenting her drug and alcohol addictions, mental health issues and the self-destructive behavior that accompanied them. But anyone who has paid attention to her music beyond the cheeky refrain of “no, no, no”‘s in Rehab (her only successful single in North America) knows that the world hasn’t just lost some celebrity train-wreck, but rather an uncommonly clever songwriter and occasionally electric live performer whose expressive contralto voice was a one-of-a-kind instrument.

Amy’s brief career took off in 2003 with the release of her debut studio album Frank, a playful, witty, jazz-inflected pop album that earned the young crooner triple-platinum status in the UK and a number of prestigious accolades for song writing (including an Ivor Novello award for the album-opener Stronger than Me.) A quick flip through YouTube clips of her performances from around the time of Frank’s release show a healthy-looking, spirited teenager whose vocal chords – relatively unmarred by the rough-and-tumble lifestyle she was about to adopt – reverberated with a soulfulness and control surprising for her young age.

And then came Back to Black. Allegedly written and recorded during a period of sobriety following a split with her troubled on-again off-again beau Blake Fielder-Civil, Amy’s second LP was an unqualified artistic triumph and massive global success. It racked up five Grammys (including the awards for Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year) and hundreds of millions of dollars in record sales around the world. The eleven songs on the album are frank, autobiographical explorations of the artist’s relationship with men, drinking, drugs, and depression, painfully honest tunes buoyed by a rich, fully-formed sound, breezily referencing decades of soul music, R&B, rock & roll, funk and jazz. She flirts with positivity on tracks like Rehab and You Know I’m No Good but she’s most affecting when singing torch songs about love lost and the hope she has for her tears to dry (an image she reverts to again and again in her lyrics.) Unlike her forebears in the brassy-voiced-female-balladeers-with-tragic-private-lives club (counting Dusty Springfield, Judy Garland, etc., as members), Amy’s music never shied away from the darkest parts of her emotional life. In the middle of the title track off the album, when the tempo slows and her voice drops a register, wavering as she repeats “black, black, black” a few more times than expected, the depth of her despair is totally – beautifully – conveyed.

Sadly, Amy’s musical output basically came to a halt after Back to Black (except for a joyous cover of The Zutons’ Valerie) and a third album probably won’t see the light of day. Since the news of her death on July 23, 2011, fans and music industry professionals have flooded the internet with messages of love, mourning and appreciation for having been witness to such a talent. A mass of handwritten notes, flowers, candles, beer bottles and cigarettes left by adoring fans sits outside her Camden home. A private funeral for friends and family took place three days after her death, after which her body was cremated.

Within hours of her passing, Back to Black shot to the top of digital album sales charts in nearly every country in the world and 45,000 hard copies of her two CDs were sold in the U.S. alone over the weekend (an astonishing number considering most music stores don’t tend to carry much stock of 5-year-old albums.) Although the media was more concerned with her abusive relationships, drunken jaunts around London, and increasingly haggard appearance over the years, it seems the public has chosen to mourn her for the reason she mattered in the first place. Amy will be remembered for generations, romanticized like Jimi and Janis and Kurt, partly because of the shared tragedy of their too-soon deaths, but mostly because there’s no denying the gift of a voice like that.

Story by Scott Leydon, a student at McGill University studying English Literature.

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