Sure, for me to write about Amy Winehouse is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.
A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015).
I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.
Full of brilliant lines like
And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.
The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song (with the aid of youtube), no matter how strung out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.
Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:*
Sifting through different versions of her songs seems more instructive than comparing recordings of Zerfließe:
Amy was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.
Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behavior yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall:
Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:
I would love to be reincarnated as one of her regular backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.
* “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Hildegard von Bingen or Niña de los Peines.