While we all await the inevitable "Last Days of Amy Winehouse" report from Rolling Stone, let's take a breather and remember the voice. It was slow, smoky, insinuating, sweet-and-sour, and seemed to conjure a handful of jazz-and-soul divas in a syllable — Aretha, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan — as well as the girl-group singers she loved: Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Mary Weiss and the Shangri-Las. It wasn't a huge voice. In the one live show I saw (May 2007, Avalon), virtually none of the nuance of Back to Black cut through the Dap-Kings-centered backing band. The band couched her in a great R&B sound — one gorgeous groove after another, boosted by a trumpet-tenor-baritone horn section, Fender Rhodes, and two male back-up singers in skinny ties. It hardly mattered that you couldn't hear Winehouse's smartly written lyrics through the Avalon murk. The near-capacity crowd — women, mostly — sang along to almost every tale of broken hearts, bad behavior, and romantic masochism.
You could hear the flexibility and wit in Winehouse's singing and songwriting on Back to Black's predecessor, Frank. But it was the sound of Back to Black that made her. Sculpted by producer Mark Ronson, the sound was, as Carly Carioli wrote after that Avalon show, "just unfuckwithable . . . those firecracker snares, that busted-carburetor sax . . . and it could only have been put together by someone who'd grasped the link between the DJ-friendly rare-groove marketplace and Dap-Kings' modern soul revival."
And of course, there was the outrageous insouciance of "Rehab." I remember seeing her sing it on Letterman — what the hell! But the soul of the song was in that bridge: "I'd rather be home with Ray. . . . There's nothing you can teach me that I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway." Big tubular bells chimed, strings swooned, horns honked, and the piano floated in a Spectorish wall of sound. It was a declaration of independence, worthy of the best girl groups and a love letter to R&B. Its "Song of the Year" title was one of five Grammys she won for Back to Black.
Of course, when your breakthrough is "Rehab," it's not hard to see where things are going. The New YorkTimes talked about "deep sadness, but no surprise" among fellow musicians. But out in the blogosophere there was vitriol, too — about an artist who couldn't, or wouldn't, perform, who traded on her notoriety to maintain a tenuous grasp on fading fame. There were the drunken performances captured on video to go along with every other crack-and-booze-riddled report and photo. Greater artists have fucked up and died — Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain. Winehouse achieved less, but that doesn't make her passing any less sad.
, Elvis Presley, Music, Amy Winehouse, More