Amy Jade Winehouse, the Grammy Award-winning soul singer who spent years struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, was found dead in her London home on July 23. Cause of death is under investigation. She was 27.
Born in 1983 to taxi driver Mitch and his pharmacist wife Janis, Winehouse was raised in a middle class neighborhood in northern London. Around the time she turned 10, Winehouse formed a rap group with her best friend called Sweet ‘n’ Sour (she was Sour). While school didn’t interest her — she was expelled from the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School for piercing her nose — music did and by the time she was 12, she had picked up a guitar and immersed herself in the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
Although Winehouse was still in her teens when she cut her demo, it soon found a home at Universal Island Records. Her critically acclaimed debut album, “Frank,” did well in Britain — earning her nominations in 2003 for best female singer and best urban act at the Brit Awards — but the jazz-tinged record was never released in the United States. It did, however, showcase her extraordinary voice and songwriting skills, and earned her an Ivor Novello award and a spot on the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize.
In 2006, her sophomore effort, “Back to Black,” rocketed Weinhouse to international stardom. The quasi-autobiographical album sold 3 million copies worldwide and won five Grammy Awards. Fans have been waiting for Weinhouse’s much-anticipated third album for five years. To date, it has not been released.
Weinhouse’s look was a unique combination of retro pop star and modern hard rocker. Her towering ebony beehive, heavy cat-eye makeup and multiple tattoos made her a much-copied fashion icon, yet she dismissed that label. “I just dress like…I’m an old Jewish black man. I just dress like it’s still the ’50s,” she once told Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. Winehouse would eventually collaborate with British brand Fred Perry on a 17-piece clothing and accessories collection.
Privately, Winehouse suffered from insecurity and depression. But it wasn’t until she began getting drunk and high that these traits became a liability. Her downward spiral was ubiquitous; she became intoxicated onstage and got arrested for possessing drugs and attacking people off-stage. The self-destruction knew few bounds; she rarely slept, grew skeletal from eating disorders and began cutting. During one interview, she even used a shard of mirror to carve her boyfriend’s name into her stomach.
Winehouse’s biggest hit was “Rehab,” which she wrote in response to pressure from her label to go into treatment, but the years of abusing cocaine, crack, ecstasy, ketamine, valium, marijuana and alcohol eventually affected her ability to sing. In recent years, many of her fans began booing her half-hearted concerts and demanded their money back. Multiple stints in rehab and encounters with police led promoters to cancel her tour dates.
The spotlight of celebrity revealed the troubled singer’s successes and failures, and the paparazzi documented her very public breakdown. Yet Winehouse never cared for fame. “If I had my choice, I’d be a roller-skating waitress in the middle of nowhere, singing songs to my husband while I’m cooking grits somewhere,” she told The Washington Post in 2007. “What I’m doing I’m so grateful to be doing — it’s so exciting, so fun. But I’ve never been the kind of girl who knocks on someone’s door and says, ‘Make me famous.’”
Along with her struggles with addiction, Winehouse made headlines for her abusive relationship to former music video producer Blake Fielder-Civil. During their two-year marriage, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil fought constantly, and frequently appeared in public looking bloodied and bruised from their altercations. The couple divorced in 2009.
Photo by Fionn Kidney.