Amy Winehouse, singer overshadowed by self-destructive ways

By Jill Lawless
Associated Press / July 24, 2011

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LONDON - Few artists summed up their own career in a single song - a single line - as well as Amy Winehouse.

“They tried to make me go to rehab,’’ she sang on her world-conquering 2006 single, “Rehab.’’ “I said ‘No, no no.’ ’’

Occasionally, she said yes, but to no avail: repeated stints in hospitals and clinics couldn’t stop alcohol and drugs from scuttling the career of a singer whose distinctive voice, rich mix of influences, and heart-on-her sleeve sensibility seemed to promise great things.

In her short lifetime, Ms. Winehouse too often made headlines because of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, destructive relationships, and abortive performances.

But it’s her small but powerful body of recorded music that will be her legacy.

The 27-year-old singer was found dead yesterday by ambulance crews called to her home in north London’s Camden area, a youth-culture mecca known for its music scene, its pubs - and the availability of illegal drugs.

The London Ambulance Service said Ms. Winehouse had died before ambulance crews arrived at the house in leafy Camden Square.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

It was not a complete surprise, but the news was still a huge shock for millions around the world.

The size of Ms. Winehouse’s appeal was reflected in the extraordinary range of people paying tribute as they heard the news, from Demi Moore - who tweeted “Truly sad news . . . May her troubled soul find peace’’ - to chef Jamie Oliver, who wrote on Twitter, “such a waste, raw talent.’’

Tony Bennett, who recorded the pop standard “Body And Soul’’ with Ms. Winehouse at Abbey Road Studios in London in March for an upcoming duets album, called her “an artist of immense proportions.’’

Ms. Winehouse was something rare in an increasingly homogenized music business - an outsized personality and an unclassifiable talent.

She shot to fame with the album “Back to Black,’’ a blend of jazz, soul, rock, and classic pop that became a global hit.

It won five Grammys and made Ms. Winehouse - with her black beehive hairdo and old-fashioned sailor tattoos - one of music’s most recognizable stars.

“I didn’t go out looking to be famous,’’ Ms. Winehouse said when the album was released. “I’m just a musician.’’

But in the end, the music was overshadowed by fame, and by Ms. Winehouse’s demons.

Tabloids lapped up the erratic stage appearances, drunken fights, and stints in hospitals and rehab clinics.

Performances became shambling, stumbling train wrecks, watched around the world on the Internet.

Last month, Ms. Winehouse canceled her European comeback tour after she swayed and slurred her way through barely recognizable songs in her first show in Belgrade.

Booed and jeered off stage, she flew home and her management said she would take time off to recover.

Born in 1983 to taxi driver Mitch Winehouse and his wife, Janis, a pharmacist, Ms. Winehouse grew up in the north London suburbs, and was set on a showbiz career from an early age. When she was 10, she and a friend formed a rap group.

She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, a factory for British music and acting moppets, later went to the Brit School, a performing arts academy in the “Fame’’ mold, and was originally signed to “Pop Idol’’ svengali Simon Fuller’s 19 Management.

But Ms. Winehouse was never a packaged teen star, and always resisted being pigeonholed.

Her jazz-influenced 2003 debut album, “Frank,’’ was critically praised and sold well in Britain.

It earned Ms. Winehouse an Ivor Novello songwriting award, two Brit Award nominations, and a spot on the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize.

But Ms. Winehouse soon expressed dissatisfaction with the disc, saying she was “only 80 percent behind’’ the album.

“Frank’’ was followed by a slump during which Ms. Winehouse broke up with her boyfriend, suffered a long period of writer’s block and, she later said, smoked a lot of marijuana.

The album she eventually produced was a sensation.

“Back to Black’’ was released in Britain in the fall of 2006. Working with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi and soul-funk group the Dap-Kings, Ms. Winehouse fused soul, jazz, doo-wop and, above all, a love of the girl-groups of the early 1960s with lyrical tales of romantic obsession and emotional excess.

“Back to Black’’ was released in the United States in March 2007 and went on to win five Grammys, including song and record of the year for “Rehab.’’

The songs on “Black to Black’’ detailed breakups and breakdowns with frankness.

Lyrically, as in life, Ms. Winehouse wore her heart on her sleeve.

“I listen to a lot of ’60s music, but society is different now,’’ Ms. Winehouse said in 2007. “I’m a young woman and I’m going to write about what I know.’’

Even then, her performances were sometimes shambolic, and she admitted she was “a terrible drunk.’’

Increasingly, her personal life began to overshadow her career.

She acknowledged struggling with eating disorders and told a newspaper that she had been diagnosed as manic depressive but refused to take medication.

Soon accounts of her erratic behavior, canceled concerts, and alcohol- and drug-fueled nights began to multiply.

Photographs caught her unsteady on her feet or vacant-eyed, and she appeared unhealthily thin, with scabs on her face and marks on her arms.

She also had run-ins with the law.

In April 2008, Ms. Winehouse was cautioned by police for assault after she slapped a man during a raucous night out.

The same year, she was investigated by police, although not charged, after a tabloid newspaper published a video that appeared to show her smoking crack cocaine.

Ms. Winehouse’s health often appeared fragile.

In June 2008 and again in April 2010, she was taken to the hospital and treated for injuries after fainting and falling at home.

Her father said she had developed the lung disease emphysema from smoking cigarettes and crack, although her spokeswoman later said Ms. Winehouse only had “early signs of what could lead to emphysema.’’

Ms. Winehouse leaves her parents and a brother.