How addiction took the singer’s life, and the great new LP she left behind
by: David Browne
Amy Winehouse performs in Balado,Kinrosshire, Scotland on July 13th, 2008
Photo: Ross Gilmore/Redferns
In the spring of 2009, Amy Winehouse and producer Salaam Remi were working in the new studio she’d built in the attic of her house in London’s Camden district. Playing guitar and singing into a small hand-held mic, Winehouse unleashed a devastating version of “A Song for You,” Leon Russell’s pained ballad about an entertainer’s regrets. As she sang, Winehouse began to cry. “It’s as if she was literally singing about herself,” Remi recalls. “She was really putting herself into it.”
That recording is the emotional finale of Lioness: Hidden Treasures (out December 6th), a career-spanning set of unreleased tracks and alternate takes compiled by Remi; Winehouse’s other key producer, Mark Ronson; and her family over a few weeks in October.
News of the album came less than a week after an October 26th hearing at a coroner’s court in Camden that finally determined the cause of the singer’s death. As Winehouse’s parents, Mitch and Janis, sat quietly in the chapel-like courtroom, deputy coroner Suzanne Greenaway declared that Winehouse had died on July 23rd of “misadventure” – a British legal term for accidental causes. A pathologist testified that the amount of alcohol found in Winehouse’s just-over-five-foot body was five times over the legal driving limit, roughly equivalent to 12 drinks.
The inquest revealed tragic new details about Winehouse’s last days. According to her personal physician, Cristina Romete, Winehouse had been sober for most of July but resumed drinking on July 20th. Romete last met with Winehouse at 7 p.m. the night before she died. “She was calm, she was coherent,” Romete recalled. “She was tipsy, I would say, but she didn’t slur her words and was able to hold a full conversation.” Although Winehouse had seen a psychologist, Romete testified that Winehouse “was opposed to any sort of therapy… She had her own views and was very determined to do everything her own way.”
One reason Winehouse had tried to stop drinking was a catastrophic show in Belgrade on June 18th. During the first date of a planned European tour, the singer slurred her words, forgot lyrics and eventually slumped, crying, to the stage. “Amy felt she had let everyone down in Serbia and was very sorry about it,” says a source close to the Winehouse family. “It brought about a period of abstention from alcohol.”
Her live-in security guard, Andrew Morris, confirmed that on the night of her death, Winehouse was listening to music and watching TV at home. He checked on her at 2 a.m., when he went to bed, and again at 10 a.m. and found her still asleep. But at 3 p.m., Winehouse wasn’t breathing. Paramedics were called to the scene, where they declared the singer dead. Three empty vodka bottles were found in her room.
During the hearing, Mitch Winehouse spoke only once, to confirm his daughter’s name and address. Later, the family issued a statement: “It is some relief to finally find out what happened to Amy. We understand there was alcohol in her system when she passed away – it is likely a buildup of alcohol in her system over a number of days. The court heard that Amy was battling hard to conquer her problems with alcohol and it is a source of great pain to us that she could not win in time.”
Due to her struggles with drugs and alcohol, Winehouse had finished only two songs for the planned follow-up to Back to Black, though she left behind many more incomplete tracks over the years. On Lioness, those two tunes reveal the direction Winehouse was headed musically. Recorded in 2008, the doo-wop harmonies on “Between the Cheats,” about her then-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, refine her blend of retro and modern pop. “Like Smoke” features her close friend Nas, who added his verses after Winehouse’s death, rapping, “Why did God take away the homey?” and “I’m a firm believer that we all meet up in eternity.”
When the album was first being assembled, expectations from Winehouse’s label, Universal, and family were low. “Mitch first said to me, ‘I might have to leave the room after a couple of songs,'” Remi says. “He was expecting to hear a train wreck. Same with her label. But when they listened, they said, ‘Hold on, something is happening here.'”
Indeed, the album is surprisingly cohesive, polished with background vocals and strings added after her death. An 18-year-old Winehouse displays her early command of slippery, jazz-derived phrasing on the bossa nova classic “The Girl From Ipanema,” from 2002. Other highlights include a midtempo early take of Back to Black’s “Tears Dry,” a 2004 version of the Brill Building standard “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and a reggae overhaul of Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come” that reveals Winehouse’s debt to Lauryn Hill. Since Winehouse had talked of cutting a jazz album with Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, he was called in to add a drum part to the Frank outtake “Halftime.”
The disc also includes Winehouse’s last known recording, a duet with Tony Bennett on the jazz standard “Body and Soul,” cut in London last March. “She got right into the jazz groove, and the record came out beautiful,” Bennett says. “I wanted to talk her out of the drugs, but I never had a chance.”
A few days before she died, Winehouse chatted with Remi via Skype, making plans to attend the wedding of Winehouse’s former manager Nick Shymansky. “She was really excited,” he says. “It was all jokes and talking about what she was going to wear.”
Remi never saw her again. “Some kid will pick up an Amy album and say, ‘This is really inspiring,’ the way she looked up to people like Billie Holiday,” he says. “She was inspired by people who passed away before she was born, and she will inspire people who weren’t born yet.”