|September 14, 1983|
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Born Amy Jade Winehouse on Sept. 14, 1983 in the borough of Southgate, London, England, she was the youngest child of parents Janis, a pharmacist, and Mitch, a London cab driver. Winehouse attributed her earliest musical influences to a pair of jazz musician uncles, as well as her father, who was known for singing Frank Sinatra tunes while working around the house. Winehouse was clearly musically gifted from an early age, and at a family member's suggestion, attended the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School to hone her talents. One year later, at the time her parents separated, she also formed her first band, Sweet 'n' Sour, with a childhood friend. More training came with Winehouse's attendance at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, until she was unceremoniously dismissed after piercing her nose. A stint at London's BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology constituted another facet of her musical training, in addition to learning to play guitar and writing songs - pursuits she began in her early teens. After a boyfriend played the 16-year-old Winehouse's demo tape to an A&R person, she was soon signed to 19 Management, an artist agency owned by music mogul Simon Fuller. Although she had recorded a small number of songs, 19 Management developed their new artist in near complete secrecy. After hearing Winehouse's backing vocals on a track for another act, a representative from Island/Universal spent six months tracking down the singer's identity before eventually signing her with the record company.
While working on her debut album, Winehouse began dating a video production assistant by the name of Blake Fielder-Civil. By all accounts, it was an intense, tempestuous relationship from the start. Fueled by the couple's consumption of drugs and alcohol, the relationship was frequently on-again/off-again. The release of Winehouse's first studio record Frank came in the fall of 2003. Heavily influenced by the jazz music that permeated her childhood and written almost entirely by the singer, the album was generally well-received by critics, with her vocal style drawing comparisons to the likes of Nina Simone and Macy Gray. It performed well on the album charts in the U.K., eventually going platinum and winning Winehouse an Ivor Novello Songwriting Award for the single "Stronger Than Me" in 2004. Despite its success in her homeland, the album was not initially released in the U.S., and Winehouse herself would later view the effort with little enthusiasm, candidly citing its overly-slick production and poor promotion as just a few of the album's flaws. For her follow-up album, Back to Black, Winehouse moved from jazz to a decidedly more soul and R&B sound. The songs, written or co-written entirely by Winehouse, were just as unabashedly personal as the previous record, with the difference being that the music now packed an equally emotional punch. Back to Black fully embraced the Motown girl group sound of the 1960s, filtered through an audio prism of modernity and an unapologetic lyrical honesty. Populated with songs of drugs, sex, and heartbreak, numbers like the hit "Rehab" described her reaction to her management agency urging her to seek help for substance abuse, while "You Know I'm No Good" and "Love is a Losing Game" were widely seen as odes to her volatile relationship with Fielder-Civil.
With Back to Black Winehouse became an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, as the album entered at the No. 7 position on the U.S. charts - the highest debut for a female U.K. singer at the time - and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Time magazine would later place the single "Rehab" in the No. 1 spot on its list of Top Ten Best Songs of the Year. Flush with the success of the album, Winehouse married Fielder-Civil in Miami, FL in the spring of 2006. The good times, however, showed signs of going off the rails when in August of the same year, the singer was rushed to a London hospital due to what representatives described as "exhaustion." (Winehouse would later admit the reason was in actuality a drug overdose.) After a brief stay at a rehabilitation facility, she and her husband quickly left for an extended vacation in St. Lucia, canceling the remainder of a scheduled tour. Winehouse's appearances over the next year were increasingly erratic, and usually marked by obvious intoxication. In August 2007, the recently married couple was photographed outside London's ritzy Sanderson Hotel, bloody, scratched and bruised after an apparent fight. Winehouse refuted speculations that she had attacked Fielder-Civil (something she had admitted to doing while drunk in the past), informing a skeptical press that her wounds were self-inflicted in a fit of despair. By now Winehouse's drug abuse, alcoholism, and bouts with depression were well-documented. Confronted by almost daily accounts of her downward spiral, the performer's parents made public pleas for her to seek help, fearing an eventual overdose or even suicide.
Apparently the words of concern fell on deaf ears. In October 2007 she and Fielder-Civil were arrested in Norway for possession of marijuana, a charge that would create complications with the performer's travel visa. In November of the same year, police raided Winehouse's London home and later arrested her husband on conspiracy charges. At the time, Fielder-Civil had been awaiting trial on an assault charge when he reportedly attempted to buy the silence of a witness in the case. The incarceration of her husband left an already emotionally fragile Winehouse devastated. Shortly after the arrest, distracted and apparently intoxicated, she was booed and heckled by disappointed fans during the first shows of a planned U.K. tour. Remaining dates of the scheduled tour were soon canceled, with the sad turn of events contrasted by the long-awaited U.S. release of Frank due to her international popularity. The heartbreaking descent continued when in the early morning hours in December 2007, Winehouse was photographed wandering outside her London home, shoeless and wearing only jeans and a bra. Five days later, she canceled all remaining performances for the year, citing the absence of her husband as the primary reason for her inability to perform. The new year did not improve, when in January 2008, a video surfaced showing Winehouse smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine (an investigation was later dropped due to lack of evidence). Once again, the embattled singer entered a treatment facility, this time for a two-week stint.
The disparity between the wreckage of Winehouse's personal life and her skyrocketing career was inarguably defined when she won a total of five Grammys in early 2008. It would be a record-breaking night for the singer, who became the first female artist from the U.K. to take home that many trophies in a single night. Winehouse herself, however, could not accept the honors in person, as previous troubles with her visa prevented her from traveling to the U.S. After performing two songs via satellite, she gave an emotional acceptance speech, thanking her parents, and Fielder-Civil, who had remained in jail. The weeks following the Grammys saw U.S. sales of Back to Black increase substantially, pushing the album up to the No. 2 position on the Billboard 200 chart. The rest of 2008 played out with as much tumult and melodrama as the year before. Winehouse was arrested twice - once for an assault charge; later on drug-related charges stemming from the earlier crack-cocaine smoking video. Repeated admissions to the hospital for everything from fainting spells to speculations on tuberculosis to a "bad reaction to medication" became regular occurrences throughout the year. Eventually it would be revealed that Winehouse had been diagnosed with early signs of the lung disease emphysema.
The year 2009 began with the announcement that Back to Black had become the seventh best-selling album worldwide for the year prior. That same month, Winehouse was seen frolicking in the Caribbean with rugby player Joshua Bowman. Fielder-Civil - who had been released from prison and entered rehab, only to be sent back to jail for violating probation - later filed for divorce, citing adultery. Despite Winehouse's insistence that she would never release her husband from the marriage, the divorce was finalized by the summer. The drama continued in much the same way for the remainder of the year and much of the following with more assault charges, returns to the hospital, and the inevitable sighting of a seemingly reunited Winehouse and Fielder-Civil. Although her much anticipated third album had repeatedly stalled - an attempt to record the theme song for the latest James Bond film "Quantum of Solace" (2008) had also failed to materialize - the troubled singer did manage to announce a clothing line designed for the Fred Perry label in March 2010. Hopes that she was getting her life back on track were bolstered when a healthier-looking Winehouse was seen out and about with a new beau, Reg Traviss, director of the horror feature, "Psychosis" (2010). For the remainder of the year, the singer kept a surprisingly low profile, until she resurfaced in January 2011 to kick off the first leg of a new tour in Brazil, her first full-length concerts in two years. At least one stop on the tour, a private show in Dubai, did not go as hoped when Winehouse was booed off stage by an angry audience as she slurred her way through a rendition of "Rehab." Her representatives blamed "technical issues" on the botched performance. Fans still hopeful for a third studio album from Winehouse took some solace in the news that she would be recording a song with her late-grandmother's favorite singer on the album Tony Bennett: Duets II, in late 2011.
Sadly, Winehouse's recovery and career resurrection, so long awaited by her fans, would not come to pass. In mid-June 2011, just weeks after another sojourn at London's Priory rehabilitation clinic, the troubled singer kicked off what was to be the first leg of a highly anticipated European tour with a concert at Belgrade's Kalemegdan Park in Serbia. Fans were shocked then angered when an apparently intoxicated Winehouse struggled to remember song lyrics, mumbled those that she could recall, threw her shoe at the audience, and made frequent, impromptu exits from the stage. Two days later, she appeared briefly on stage with her god-daughter, singer Dionne Bromfield, during a rendition of "Mama Said." It was her last public appearance. The following day, it was announced that Winehouse was cancelling her proposed European tour until she felt better able to perform. The worst fears of many - and long-standing predictions of others - came to pass on July 23, 2011, when an ambulance was called to Winehouse's home in the Camden neighborhood of London, where the singer was pronounced dead at the scene. Found unconscious in her bed by one of her security personnel, initial police reports implied that no drugs had been immediately found on the premises. An early autopsy was inconclusive. Pending toxicology reports, her death was categorized simply as "unexplained." Winehouse was 27 years old and joined the likes of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain by dying at the same tragic age. After much speculation as to cause of death, the coroner's report revealed three months later that Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning; she had more than five times the legal limit for driving in her system. The official ruling: "death by misadventure."
Bryce P. Coleman