Authorities were investigating the cause of the British singer’s death. But, sadly, it was a surprise to virtually no one. Winehouse had been waging a very public struggle with substance abuse since her teens, and after the huge success of her 2006 breakthrough album, “Back to Black,” her erratic behavior devolved even further, effectively putting her career on hold.
That hit song was both autobiographical and prescient: “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘No, no, no.’ ” Full of bravado and dark humor – Winehouse once said it was written in response to her first management team who insisted that she clean up while she was still a teenager – it took on a ghastly tinge as the singer’s addictions took hold of her life.
Winehouse, born in 1983 to a pharmacist mother and cab-driver father, grew up in Northern London. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She formed a hip-hop duo in her teens, but soon began writing songs on an acoustic guitar influenced by her extensive listening to her parents’ and grandmother’s collection of jazz and soul singers. She often cited Tony Bennett as her favorite singer, and developed a vocal style of a depth and tonal color beyond her years. Her debut album, “Frank,” was released in 2003, steeped in jazz and soul influences and largely written by Winehouse. It made her a star in Britain, though it was not released in the United States.
On the follow-up, she retooled her approach by hiring pop R&B producer Mark Ronson and the New York soul band the Dap-Kings. Her songs reflected the influence of harmonizing ‘60s girl groups such as the Shangri-La’s and the rhythms of Motown. “Back to Black” name-dropped or referenced soul heroes such as Donny Hathaway and Billy Paul, and the production recycled and spiffed up ‘60s sounds. But Winehouse’s lyrics were packed with autobiographical tales of boozing, lusting and losing. That perspective, combined with a voice that veered between street-smart surliness and wounded yearning, established her as a major new voice in pop music.
“Back to Black” went on to become one of the most popular albums in U.K. history, topping 3 million sales. Unlike its predecessor, it also made a huge impression overseas; it was certified double platinum (2 million sales) by the Recording Industry Association of America. Her sound also paved the way for future U.K. pop-soul singers Adele and Duffy to cross over into the American market.
Her 2007 tour was a different story, hobbled by cancellations and erratic performances. She was a distinctive presence with her beehive hairdo, slinky cocktail dresses and heavily tattooed frame, guzzling drinks on stage and sometimes speaking and singing in slurred tones. At other concerts, she would appear subdued, even nervous. She would insist to interviewers that she sang better and more confidently when she had a few drinks.
She was able to pull it together, however, for what would be the most triumphant musical night of her career, at the 2008 Grammy Awards. She performed at the nationally televised ceremony live via satellite from London, playing her bad-girl image to the hilt as she sang “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab.” Her performance, which included a shout out to her then-jailed husband Blake Fielder-Civil, was designed to affirm that her six nominations and five awards were no fluke, and made her case persuasively. It also fostered hope that she had turned her life around; despite the protestations of “Rehab,” she had indeed just checked out of a rehab clinic, and was said to be working on a follow-up album.
Winehouse was unable to finish the album, and performed sporadically in subsequent years. A 12-date tour of Europe last June was cut short when she appeared on stage drunk and incoherent. In announcing the tour’s cancellation, a Winehouse spokesman said, “Everyone involved wishes to do everything they can to help her return to her best and she will be given as long as it takes for this to happen.”
In dying at age 27, she joins a long list of rock and soul performers who died at the same age, including Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, many of whom had a history of substance abuse. Like them, she leaves behind the tragic imponderable of what might have been.