Amy Winehouse obituary

Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse sang as if her heart were damaged beyond repair. Photograph: Rex Features

Leading a rock’n’roll life has proved fatal to many artists, but few of them could be considered as much of a loss to music as Amy Winehouse, who has been found dead at the age of 27, the cause not immediately clear. Her descent into drug addiction, and the loss of hope that goes with it, was all the sadder for the fact that she was one of the outstanding singers of her generation, with five Grammys and two Ivor Novellos. Her husky, soul-steeped voice belied both her youth and her London origins – black Americans of an older generation did not hold a monopoly on singing from the gut.

Her music spoke to people so persuasively that her second album, Back to Black, became Britain’s bestselling record of 2007 and reached number two in the US, making her one of only a few British female soloists to have done so. Its success spurred sales of her initially overlooked first album, Frank (2003), so titled because of the diary-style lyrics that produced songs such as Stronger Than Me, which railed against a “gay ladyboy” ex-boyfriend.

Born to a Jewish family in North Finchley, north London, Winehouse grew up listening to the jazz albums of her cab-driving father, Mitch. He and her pharmacist mother, Janis, later divorced. Amy caught the performing bug so early that by the age of eight she was attending stage school. She spent time at three, including the Sylvia Young theatre school, central London, from which she was expelled for “not applying herself”, and the Brit school in Croydon, south London. Rebellious instincts surfaced in her mid-teens; by 16, she had acquired her first tattoo and was smoking cannabis. “My parents pretty much realised that I would do whatever I wanted, and that was it, really,” she said later.

Her boyfriend of the time passed a cassette of Winehouse singing to a record company, which was impressed. “It was unlike anything that had ever come through my radar,” said songwriter Felix Howard, who went on to collaborate with Winehouse on Frank. She signed a deal with the world’s largest label, Universal, and was taken on by 19 Entertainment, the management company run by Simon Fuller, the force behind Pop Idol and its television spin-offs. However, being in the bosom of the pop establishment turned Winehouse surly and defensive. When she was accused early on by the press of being one of Fuller’s pop puppets, she retorted: “He’s clever enough to know he can’t fuck with me.”  

If Winehouse was not entirely singular – Dusty Springfield and Maggie Bell preceded her as white British pop singers whose complicated personal lives yielded unguarded, richly soulful music – she certainly stood out from almost every other artist under 40. When Frank was released, just after her 20th birthday, the prevailing female pop sound was the manicured slickness epitomised by Girls Aloud. Winehouse’s disconcerting sultriness meant she was initially classified as a jazz vocalist. Despite being tipped by critics as a “buzz” act – borne out by two Brits nominations in 2004 – she didn’t catch the public’s fancy, and Frank peaked at number 13 in the chart.

It was when she finished promoting the album and set about writing the follow-up that a remarkable transformation took place. During this time that she met her future husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who worked on the periphery of the music business as an assistant on video shoots. The attraction was apparently instant, at least on Winehouse’s part, and when Fielder-Civil ended the relationship after a few months, she poured her depression into songs that would become Back to Black.

Of the months following their split, she said: “I had never felt the way I feel about him about anyone in my life. I thought we’d never see each other again. I wanted to die.”

The album was released in late 2006, and when Winehouse began a round of concerts and TV appearances that autumn, it was obvious that she had spent the recent past walking on the wild side. She had lost several stone and acquired armfuls of tattoos, a mountainous beehive hairdo and, it was rumoured, drug and alcohol problems.

Typically forthright, she drew attention to the latter in Back to Black’s first single, Rehab: “I don’t never want to drink again, I just need a friend/ They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.” Despite its subject, the song was infectiously upbeat, and became her first Top 10 hit, remaining in the charts for a near-record-breaking 57 weeks.

The whole album was also an instant, and huge, success. The jazz-lite that characterised Frank had been supplanted by sparky R&B, immediately hummable songs and, crucially, the performance of a lifetime from Winehouse, who sang as if her heart were damaged beyond repair. Critical acclaim was heaped on it – “One of the great breakthrough CDs of our time… when this lady sings about love, she means every word,” said the US Entertainment Weekly magazine — and it appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists. Its appeal transcended language barriers, sending it to number one in 18 countries, including the UK. By mid-2008, it had sold 8m copies.

The great imponderable was whether Back to Black would have connected so strongly with listeners if Winehouse had not simultaneously been playing out her emotional dramas in public. Still wracked by the failure of her relationship with Fielder-Civil, her behaviour was erratic; her weight dropped further and the monstrous beehive got even taller. She seemed to lack the inhibitions that stop most people from “acting out” in public, which made her a tabloid dream – drawn by the scent of disturbed celebrity, paparazzi were soon following her around the streets of north London.

Perversely, as her life became more complex, her success increased. She won the 2007 Brit award for best female artist, and a prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting award for Rehab. She also picked up Q magazine’s best album trophy, and was nominated for that year’s Mercury prize.

She unexpectedly reunited with Fielder-Civil in early 2007, and in May they impulsively married in Miami. If Winehouse had been fragile before, the marriage seemed to bring out the worst in her. She and her new husband became heavy drug users, and she was soon said to be injecting heroin. The night-dwelling couple were frequently photographed looking much the worse for wear, and Winehouse’s arms bore the marks of self-inflicted cuts. She collapsed from an overdose in the summer, and paid the first of several unsuccessful visits to rehab.

Fielder-Civil was arrested in November, and subsequently pleaded guilty to attacking a pub landlord and attempting to pervert the course of justice by offering him £200,000 to keep quiet about it. While he was on remand, Winehouse lurched on as best she could. She cancelled concerts, struck up a friendship with fellow junkie Pete Doherty and tried rehab again. In the midst of it all, her talent still unquenched, she won five Grammy awards in early 2008.

The couple’s relationship ended when Fielder-Civil was jailed in 2008 for seven months. Despite initially saying she would wait for him, she divorced him in 2009 and moved temporarily to St Lucia, in the Caribbean, where she hoped to escape the pernicious influence of the drug crowd in Camden, north London. Her flat there was conveniently close to her favourite pub, the Hawley Arms. While she claimed to have kicked drugs in St Lucia, she admitted that she was drinking to compensate – though not to excess, she insisted.

Several other relationships followed, the longest-lasting with Reg Traviss, director of the films Screwed and Psychosis. Winehouse also began to record the follow-up to Back to Black; the head of her label, Lucian Grainge, pronounced the demos “fantastic”. She also launched her own label, Lioness, whose first signing was her 13-year-old goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield.

Nonetheless, Winehouse was constantly in one sort of trouble or another. She was arrested several times for public order offences, hospitalised for emphysema and treated for an infection caused by silicone breast implants. And, always, there was evidence that she had not conquered the demons that she battled throughout her career: last year the tabloid papers ran a photo of her unconscious on a bench outside a pub, and last month she behaved so erratically on stage in the Serbian capital of Belgrade that the rest of her summer tour was cancelled.

Her final public appearance came three days before her death, at a gig by Bromfield at the Roundhouse, Camden. Winehouse danced in dreamy circles, then disappeared without singing a note. Her last recording was a duet with Tony Bennett, to be released on his album Duets II in September.

She is survived by her parents and brother.

• Amy Jade Winehouse, pop singer, born 14 September 1983; died 23 July 2011

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011. All Rights Reserved

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