The big, sad – although not altogether unsurprising - entertainment news from the weekend is the passing of English singer Amy Winehouse at age 27. She died at home, and most of her substantial fan base knew Winehouse battled addiction and substance abuse for most of her (short) adult life. Even more unfortunate is how her very troubles seemed to inform her performance content; songs like “Rehab” put her on the map and contributed to her Grammy Awards triumphs. Professionally, hers was a voice that broke real ground for this decade; her smoky girl-group vocals ushered in a crop of lovely and fiercely talented ladies (like Duffy and Adele) who probably wouldn’t be household names were it not for Ms. Winehouse. She’s credited with kickstarting the British neo-soul revival that’s alive and well today. I was working on-air in alternative radio when she first surfaced, and I remember well the excitement that heralded her arrival. Now, when records get released there are always record promoters trying to sell their artists to radio stations – here it was completely unnecessary because everyone knew that this girl with the signature 60’s beehive had vocal talent the likes of which hadn’t been seen in eons. Really and truly, Amy Winehouse had an astonishing voice.
She was recognized professionally in an almost instantaneous fashion; allegedly as a young up-and-coming singer Winehouse showed such promise that early management decided to groom her and keep her identity a secret. To the extent that when she was accidentally “heard” by music execs, a bidding war ensued and she became a very hot commodity. In 2006 she released the album Back To Black which catapulted her to superstardom, at which point she cleaned up at the Grammys and subsequently set a record for Most Grammy Awards Won By a British Female Act.
One of the other unfortunate features of a death like this is that it calls into question the alliances that she had while she lived. Her addictions were well-known, her reputation as a troubled performer was heavily documented by the press, and her erratic performance schedules became commonplace. Similarly those managing her came under public scrutiny regarding motive and interest. At one point her father requested that fans boycott her albums because he felt that her music (and the people who produced and released it) fed off of, and enabled, her addictions. She once called her former husband Blake Fielder Civil “the male version of me” and the couple was notorious for their public outbursts and his jail time.
Also somewhat disconcerting is the fact that Amy Winehouse is not the only troubled pop phenomenon to pass away at the age of 27. In a bizarre twist, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones also left us at 27; with the exception of Morrison (whose death is still listed as ‘heart failure’) all the performers’ deaths involved unnatural causes.
The music world – and popular culture in general – lost a wildly talented icon this past weekend. It is indeed a tragedy that such extraordinary talent so frequently succumbs to its host’s personal demons; Amy Winehouse will surely be remembered as one of those bright lights unable to surmount that struggle – leaving behind a small but spectacular legacy of song.
1) Kurt Cobain
2) Janis Joplin
3) Jim Morrison
4) Amy Winehouse