Entertainment & Arts

Amy Winehouse: The tortured soul

Amy Winehouse
Image caption Amy Winehouse sang via video link for the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2009

Amy Winehouse, who has died at the age of 27, was much more than the tabloid caricature she became - she was one of the most talented and soulful artists of her age.

One memory of Amy Winehouse keeps being replayed. It is the Mercury Prize ceremony in London in 2007. No-one is sure whether Amy will turn up, let alone perform.

Then she creeps onto the stage and into the spotlight and the ballroom falls silent. Pin drop time.

She sings Love is a Losing Game, backed by one man with an acoustic guitar. It is a stunning performance. Sensational. Spine-tingling. The stuff legends really are made of.

Her voice is charged with pain and her jazzy delivery serves to deepen the sense of soul and personality. It is an emotional sucker punch.

Then she looks lost. She mumbles a couple of barely audible words into the microphone - probably "thank you" - and shrugs.

Image caption Winehouse performed at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2007

On climbing down from the stage, she moves to her table, embraces her father Mitch and sits between him and her then husband Blake Fielder-Civil. The couple spend the rest of the night with their arms draped around each other.

Thousands of people will be replaying similar memories of the power of seeing Amy perform.

There are other memories, like the time when she arrived at the nightclub, was ushered into the DJ booth, promptly started a fight with the DJ and was ushered straight out again.

Then, there was the time when she appeared to punch a fan in the front row who reached out to grab her during a set at the Glastonbury festival.

That was the other side of Amy.

But unlike most of the people she rubbed shoulders with in the gossip columns, there was a real talent behind the infamy.

On her second album Back To Black, hers is the eternal voice of love and loss, the tortured soul in the tradition of Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday.

She was an individual who had broken the record industry's mould for modern, anodyne pop stars.

And hers was a forthright voice that reflected her fiery nature, refusing to go to rehab, sticking up for her man, warning: "I told you I was trouble." She was no victim, except to her own success and addictions.

Her story was told in great tunes that were given a timeless feel thanks to the homage to 1960s R&B girl groups. Songs like Rehab and Back To Black are genuine pop gems that will go down as classics.

Songwriting partners and producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi helped ensure those songs appealed on many levels.

Songwriting struggle

There are other memories. There was the time in the early hours of one February morning in 2008 that she performed in Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London, for a live video link with the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

Unable to travel to the US due to visa issues, she jumped up and hugged her mother Janis as she won five awards, with the crowd in LA chanting her name.

She was a global star, one of the rare singers whose burning artistry was allied with massive commercial and critical success.

Back To Black was released in 2006. In October 2009, I spoke to the head of her record label Island, who said her follow-up would "hopefully" be released in 2010.

"I've heard a couple of song demos that absolutely floored me," Island co-president Darcus Beese said. He said the singer had been writing and recording "in fits and starts".

At that time, producer Remi said the pair had "about four songs done". Lucian Grange, head of Island's parent company Universal Music Group, said her new material was sounding "sensational".

'Most natural voice'

2010 has come and gone and there has been no new album. She contributed a track to a Quincy Jones tribute album and even popped up as a backing singer for her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield.

She recorded a duet with the legendary singer Tony Bennett, for an album that is out in September.

"Of all the contemporary artists I know, she has the most natural jazz voice," he told The Guardian recently. "But I'm worried about her and I'm praying for her."

Her personal problems were legendary - especially her addictions to alcohol and drugs.

The infamy overtook the artistry and she seemed unable to get well enough to live up to the legend she had become.

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