Who Was Amy Winehouse?
Amy Winehouse broke into the music business when, at age 16, a classmate passed on her demo tape to a record label. She signed her first record deal as a jazz vocalist, and her music later blossomed into an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, soul and R&B. Winehouse won five Grammy Awards connected to her 2006 album Back to Black, and earned acclaim for songs like the title track, "Rehab" and "Love Is a Losing Game." Winehouse died tragically on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27 from accidental alcohol poisoning.
Early Life and Career
Amy Jade Winehouse was born on September 14, 1983, in the suburb of Southgate in London, England. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, worked as a cab driver, while mother Janis was employed as a pharmacist. In her early years, Winehouse was immersed in music; many of her uncles on her mother's side were professional jazz musicians, and her father sang as a child with his family. Winehouse's paternal grandmother was also once romantically involved with British jazz legend Ronnie Scott. Winehouse grew up listening to a diverse range of music, from James Taylor to Sarah Vaughan. At the age of 10, she was drawn to listen to American R&B and hip-hop acts, including TLC and Salt-N-Pepa, and she founded a short-lived amateur rap group called Sweet 'n Sour.
At the age of 12, Winehouse was accepted into the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, and a year later she received her first guitar. But by the age of 16, Winehouse was expelled for "not applying herself" and piercing her nose. That same year, she caught her first big break when a schoolmate and close friend, pop singer Tyler James, passed her demo tape to his label, A&R, who was searching for a jazz vocalist. The opportunity led her to a record deal with Island/Universal.
Debut Album: 'Frank'
Her debut album, Frank (2003), was a critically acclaimed mixture of jazz, pop, soul and hip-hop. The album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize as well as two BRIT awards for Best Female Solo Artist and Best Urban Act. The debut single on the album, "Stronger Than Me," earned the new artist an Ivor Novello award. Frank also hit double platinum status.
During this time, Winehouse began developing a reputation as an unstable party girl, often showing up to her club or TV performances too drunk to sing a whole set. She also started a tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship with music video assistant Blake Fielder-Civil who admitted to introducing Winehouse to hard drugs. In public, the couples' arguments often devolved into fistfights and dramatic scenes. In private, their romance centered around drugs, alcohol and physical abuse.
'Back to Black'
By 2006, her management company finally suggested that Winehouse enter rehab for alcohol abuse. Instead, she dumped the company and turned the experience into the lead single for her second, critically acclaimed album Back to Black (2006). The song "Rehab," which addressed her refusal to receive treatment for substance abuse, became a Top 10 hit in the United Kingdom and earned the artist another Ivor Novello award for best contemporary song. The album was also a critical success, winning the artist a BRIT award for Best Female Solo Artist and a BRIT nomination for Best British Album in 2007.
Less than a month after her BRIT win, Back to Black made its American debut. It was an instant smash, hitting higher on the Billboard music charts than any other American debut by a British female recording artist in history. The album stayed in the Top 10 for several months, selling one million copies by the end of that summer, with "Rehab" becoming a top 10 U.S. hit as well.
Marriage and Erratic Behavior
In April 2007, Winehouse and Fielder-Civil were engaged. Winehouse revealed that her romance with the 23-year-old was the inspiration for several of the Back to Black tracks. The couple eloped and married on May 18, 2007, in a ceremony in Miami, Florida.
Winehouse, an admitted marijuana smoker, was dogged by reports of continued drug abuse and strange behavior. On August 8, 2007, the singer overdosed on several drugs and was hospitalized. First claiming exhaustion, Winehouse later told the News of the World that she overdosed after she had used a mix of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, whisky and vodka during a bar crawl in London. The episode put a planned tour of North America on hold. The August 21, 2007, announcement indicated that Winehouse had been ordered to rest and was working with doctors to address her health.
Arrests and Cancelled Appearances
Winehouse's European tour in the fall of 2007, however, was scheduled to continue. But while in Norway in October 2007, an anonymous tip led police to the star's hotel in Bergen, where she was arrested and held in prison overnight for marijuana possession. Winehouse, her husband Fielder-Civil and a third unidentified person were jailed. The trio was released after paying $715 in fines.
In November 2007, Winehouse's husband was arrested again for allegedly offering a $400,000 bribe to a bartender whom he had allegedly assaulted in June 2007. Following his arrest, Winehouse showed up in mid-November at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena to perform seemingly intoxicated and some of the crowd responded with boos and walk-outs. Winehouse canceled all concerts and public appearances for the rest of 2007, again citing "doctor's orders." A month later, Winehouse was arrested on suspicion of attempting to interfere with her husband's case. She voluntarily reported to a police station and was arrested before questioning. She later blamed her husband's legal woes for her inability to continue her tour.
Despite her inconsistent touring schedule, Winehouse's album continued to sell, going platinum nearly five times that year. It became the bestselling album of 2007 in the United Kingdom.
Rehab and Record-Setting Grammy Wins
In January 2008, a video allegedly showing Winehouse smoking crack cocaine surfaced, leading to a brief stint in rehab. She was arrested in May 2008 for questioning but wasn't formally charged in the case after police said they could not officially determine what the singer was smoking. After publicly admitting to illegal substance abuse, Winehouse was denied a U.S. visa due to her "use and abuse of narcotics." The visa prevented her from performing live at the 2008 Grammy Awards. Instead, she performed in London via satellite.
During the evening's ceremony, Winehouse won five Grammy Awards, including prizes for Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year — becoming the first British singer to win five Grammy Awards, as well as tying with singer Beyoncé for the record of the most Grammy wins by a female artist in a single night. (Knowles broke that record in 2010 when she won six Grammy Awards in one night; and Adele tied that record with six Grammy wins in 2012.)
More Personal Setbacks
Despite her musical success, Winehouse's health and personal life began to quickly deteriorate. Her erratic behavior continued in June 2008, when she appeared to punch a fan during a performance at the Glastonbury Music Festival in England. Londoner James Gostelow, 25, told BBC News that Winehouse elbowed him in the forehead after someone in the crowd behind him threw a hat at her. In a widely circulated video of the incident, Winehouse was seen throwing a series of punches into the crowd. Gostelow said he had no intention of making a complaint to police, and Winehouse escaped criminal proceedings.
After the concert, Winehouse returned to a London clinic, where she had been receiving treatment for "traces of emphysema" and an irregular heartbeat caused by smoking crack cocaine and cigarettes. Winehouse's father told reporters that his daughter was warned that she would have to wear an oxygen mask if she didn't stop abusing drugs. That same month, Fielder-Civil and three co-defendants pleaded guilty to assault and obstruction charges. The courts released Fielder-Civil from jail time on the condition that he stay in a drug rehabilitation center for long-term treatment.
By the end of 2008, the singer's marriage had dissolved. Winehouse had begun an extended stay on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, during which time she had allegedly met a new love interest. And tabloids had linked Fielder-Civil to German model Sophie Schandorff. In January 2009, Winehouse's spokesperson confirmed that divorce proceedings had begun between husband and wife, with Fielder-Civil filing for divorce and citing adultery as the reason for the split.
Regardless of personal setbacks, 2009 proved to be another strong year for Winehouse. In 2008, her album Back to Black was declared the second-highest selling album in the world, and in 2009, she earned entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for "Most Grammy Awards Won by a British Female Act."
Additionally, Winehouse announced that she was starting her own record label, Lioness Records, later signing her 13-year-old goddaughter, Dionne Bromfield, as the first musician on the label.
Sadly, at the end of her life, Winehouse's enormous talent was overshadowed by her addiction to drugs and alcohol. The singer died tragically on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27 from accidental alcohol poisoning.
Winehouse's life and career were the focus of the critically acclaimed documentary Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia, which hit theaters in 2015. While the work has been widely celebrated, receiving an Academy Award in 2016 for best documentary, the less than flattering portrayal of Winehouse's father upset her family. The family released a statement through a spokesperson after Amy was shown at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, stating that the project "is a missed opportunity to celebrate her life and talent and that it is both misleading and contains some basic untruths."
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