— A brief period existed in the spring of 2007 when Amy Winehouse teetered between chanteuse with a cult following, and international superstar. It was right about the time her game-changing album, “Back to Black” was released, and just before the resulting wildfire of fame engulfed her.
Steve Kandell, now editor-in-chief of Spin, interviewed her at a New York hotel right around that time. “We did a cover story,” he said, “but at the time she hadn’t really begun to get her head around why people wanted to talk to her.”
Since then, Winehouse — who was found dead Saturday in her London flat — left a personal and professional maelstrom in her wake. She had issues with addiction and odd, unpredictable behavior. And the deterioration of her life resulted in a disappointing output of music considering the promise that “Back to Black” — her second and final studio album — hinted at.
But she made it OK for artists to dip back into the past, dust off old soulful stylings, and reinvent them for a new generation. “You can definitely say there was a direct line from her to Adele,” Kandell said. “Adele doesn’t have the same kind of baggage. But like Amy Winehouse she’s a throwback, singing soulfully about their lives. They’re not packaged stars. They’re real, they’re human.”
Winehouse bequeathed a complicated legacy. Her many missteps are well-chronicled, and often the tabloid items and cracks from late-night comedians seemed to mute her music.
But she had that burst of creative electricity that comes along once every other blue moon, and which causes music fans to sit up straight.
“She achieved a level of emotional intensity in her music that may be unrivaled in her generation,” said Ann Powers, music critic for National Public Radio. “She did so at a cost — her belief in extremes reinforced her worst tendencies. And at times — especially when she was not in control of her performances — she courted caricature.”
After “Back to Black,” which contained such hit singles as “Rehab,” “You Know I’m No Good” and “Tears Dry On Their Own,” Winehouse was suddenly a trendsetter, even though that particular trend had its origins in girl groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In truth, she was more like a trend re-setter.
“Immediately in her wake, there was this whole rash of signings of artists like her,” Kandell recalled, “throwback artists who could just plain sing. That’s another thing with her: She was also an incredible songwriter. People responded so quickly to that. There was sheer honesty. ‘Rehab’ was not a song someone else wrote, or something that someone at a label put together. It was about her life, and it sounded like it.”
John Hartmann teaches a music business class at Loyola Marymount University in Southern California. The one-time record company executive and manager has worked with acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash, America, Poco and many others.
He said he could see the special nature of Winehouse’s work because he had seen it before. “As a student of that style of music, I recognize its roots,” he said. “It’s deep and rich and solid. I think if you go into all the great genres of music historically none of them have disappeared. If you look at pop as a phenomenon, it’s always a replication of something before it.
“The ability to interpret with grace and talent is as important as the initial song. I always regarded her as a magnificent interpreter of songs because she brought forth the true emotions that that kind of music called for. She was an original because she picked up a long-dormant style and made it her own.”
Hartmann is also no stranger to self-destructive behavior, having witnessed his fill of it during his heyday as a manager.
“I managed some great artists when drugs were more of a fuel than a tool,” he explained. “I saw a lot of great music that was never born because of the abuse of drugs. I’m sad for her. I wish I was her manager and could have sat her in a room and explain how it all works.”
Kandell said that when Winehouse’s career took off she didn’t keep people around her who might have insisted she seek help. Hartmann understands that dynamic all too well and said the key is to keep stars grounded.
“You have to constantly challenge them,” he said of artists. “It’s about not allowing them to believe the myth about themselves.
“Fame is a drug. It’s highly addictive. Unfortunately, too, it comes with a lot of delusion.”
Winehouse’s library consists of only two studio albums, 2003’s “Frank,” which received a great deal of critical acclaim in the U.K., and “Back to Black,” for which she won five Grammys. “Back to Black” was certified five times platinum, and was the best-selling album of 2007.
“I think ‘Back to Black’ is one of those albums, like Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon,’ that touched on such deep emotion that it forms a huge legacy unto itself,” said NPR’s Powers. “And it is obvious that some of pop’s brightest young stars have stepped into the space Winehouse’s addiction, sadly, left open.”
Indeed, the success of “Black to Black” created a pathway for other female artists with original voices, including Duffy, Eliza Doolittle, Rumer and Ellie.
Singer-songwriter Miranda Lee Richards counts herself as an admirer of Winehouse’s music, and added that the sheer quality of Winehouse's voice is often overlooked in her success.
“Her vocal talent transcended any kind of style,” Richards said. “That’s what great artists do. Even when there is a rash of artists doing the same thing, someone like her stands out because of her extraordinary voice.”
Even Lady Gaga gave Winehouse credit for paving the way. She told AOL in a 2009 interview: “I will always have a very deep love for Amy Winehouse. Because of Amy, very strange girls like me go to prom with very good-looking guys. She’s a different kind of woman. I don’t believe that what I do is very digestible, and somehow Amy was the flu for pop music. And everybody got a little bit of the flu and got over it, and fell in love with Amy Winehouse. And now, when more flu comes along, it’s not so unbearable.”
Although it is a painfully obvious point of discussion in circumstances such as these, it is also unavoidable: Because Winehouse has joined that dubious club of young music stars who met their end at the age of 27 — Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain among the most famous — will she be remembered more for her personal excesses, or her music?
“Well, the honest answer here is ‘I don’t know,’” said Steven Hyden, music editor for the pop culture web site A.V. Club. “But looking at the other artists, I think the tragic part of the story is always part of the legacy. If Jim Morrison lived on in obscurity in Paris instead of dying in a bathtub when he was 27, I’m not sure we’d see his face on so many posters and T-shirts like we do today. His death is part of his legend. It’s an old story. The upside is that we remember the music.”
Hyden predicts a similar outcome in regard to Winehouse.
“She’s something of a one-album wonder,” he said. “ ‘Back to Black' is a great record, but it’s been forgotten as Winehouse’s career hit the skids in recent years. If there’s a small silver lining to this tragedy, it’s that people are starting to remember this wonderful music again.”