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Amy Winehouse: A tragic life that still resonates

Suzanne Cords
July 22, 2019

Amy Winehouse was an exceptional talent whose wild and too brief career was cut short eight years ago today. On July 23, 2011, the soul singer died of alcohol poisoning and became yet another member of the "27 Club."

Amy Winehouse
Image: Getty Images

Growing up, Amy Winehouse wanted only one thing: to perform. The daughter of a taxi driver and a pharmacist who was raised in the London suburb of Southgate, Winehouse was bored at school and rebelled against her teachers because she was only interested in one subject: music.

'...this dream to be very famous'

At the age of 12, Amy competed confidently at the prestigious Sylvia Young Theater School. In her application, she wrote: "I would say that my school life and school reports are filled with 'could do betters' and 'does not work to her full potential.' I want to go somewhere where I am stretched right to my limits and perhaps even beyond. To sing in lessons without being told to shut up … But mostly I have this dream to be very famous. To work on stage. It's a lifelong ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just…forget their troubles for five minutes."

Read more: 10 soul greats who came before Adele 

The headmistress was amazed by Amy's talent: "It is hard to overstate just how much she struck me as unique, both as a composer and performer, from the moment she first came through the doors at the age of 13, sporting the same distinctive hairstyle that she has now.

Her abilities could put her in the same league as Judy Garland or Ella Fitzgerald. She could be one of the greats," Sylvia Young remembered years later. Amy was overjoyed when she was inducted into London's well-known talent factory.

Amy Winehouse Bildergalerie Festival
She dreamed of fame from a very young ageImage: Getty Images/M. Cardy

Early debut

Amy Winehouse was only 19 when she signed her first record deal. A year later, her debut album "Frank" was released in 2004 and immediately reached number 3 on the British charts. Not only did Amy sing, she also wrote about her life. On Frank she processed the relationship with her ex-boyfriend.

Amy was a white woman with a black soul voice, the critics enthused. She herself was inspired by the 1960s, calling Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald her role models. The idiosyncratic singer also adapted a sixties fashion aesthetic with trademark beehive hairstyle and thick eyeliner.

But her mega success was coupled with increasing discomfort on stage and a fear of performing in front of large audiences. Perhaps to compensate, she began to roam the clubs and bars after concerts and drowned the pressure to perform in alcohol.

Read more:  Beehive hairstyle inventor dies, aged 98

Struggling with success

On one of her pub crawls, Amy met the heroin-addicted Blake Fielder-Civil and instantly fell for him. With her new lover she plunged more and more often into drug and alcohol excesses. When he left her after a few months, Winehouse was devastated and sang about their tumultuous relationship on the album Back To Black. The album earned her five Grammy awards and finally made her a world star.

But it was the song "Rehab" — about the unsuccessful attempt by her father and her manager to put Winehouse in a rehabilitation clinic — that dominated the charts. She wrote the song in a couple of hours and it became an anthem for a generation of young tortured souls.

A man and women look into each other's eyes
Singer Amy Winehouse kisses fiance Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007Image: Getty Images/M. Buckner

Tragic ending

Eighteen months after the split, Blake Fielder-Civil knocked on Winehouse's door again. The two married, but the relationship was fraught. They divorced around two years later in 2009.

Winehouse's career was concurrently stalling. She often staggered drunk on stage and her once powerful voice sounded weak and hollow. Audiences booed her. Concerts were stopped and whole tours were canceled — for "health reasons," said her management. But everyone knew that Amy Winehouse had a massive alcohol problem.

On July 23, 2011, her bodyguard found her dead in her London apartment. The cause of death was alcohol poisoning.

"She could bring songs to life like no other," wrote an English journalist after her death. "But she was unable to live her own life."

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