Amy Winehouse and the Spell of the Blues

The talented British soul singer lived her art. Now she joins a sad, elite group with her death at age 27.

We are all singing the blues today. Earlier today, the singer-songwriter Amy Jade Winehouse, 27, was found dead in her London home. Eerily, the “Rehab” songstress goes down in rock-and-roll history as another casualty of the 27 Club, which includes Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and several others — blues and rock singers who died before their time. 

As legend goes, iconic bluesman Robert Johnson had dreams of being a great musician. He took his guitar to a crossroads near a Mississippi plantation, and the devil tuned his guitar in exchange for his soul. The Mississippi native was soon known as King of the Delta Blues. In 1938, at the age of 27, Johnson died of strychnine poisoning, and the devil has supposedly carried out the 27 Club curse ever since. 

Granted, this could be folklore gone wrong or good marketing from the estate of Johnson (on May 8, 2011, he would have been 100 years old), who didn’t become famous until decades after his death. However, the legend lives on today with Winehouse.

I remember the first time I heard Winehouse, back in 2006. I was listening to a black radio station in New York and heard the beginning notes of “Rehab.” At first I thought, “Lauryn Hill finally has a new song?” But before the chorus hit, I realized this wasn’t Miss Hill but an artist I’d never heard. She had a natural soul, an emotive sound that channeled sadness, salvation and even glimmers of happiness.

I did my research and was shocked to discover a strangely attractive London singer with a pitch-black, massive bouffant singing contemporary blues with a commercial edge. Like the rest of the country, I jumped on the Winehouse bandwagon. 

Her second album, Back to Black (true Amy fans know her first album was the jazz-influenced 2003’s Frank), was an epic monsoon fed by the turmoils of love. It blew in with a ferocity I hadn’t quite heard since Mary J. Blige’s My Life. Citing Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles as influences, Winehouse was mainstream without trying and coined the next big thing.

She was praised for her soul, and while we sometimes give white singers the side eye who get that “soulful” label, Winehouse deserved it. This wasn’t another white singer who pushed out wild riffs and runs, poorly mimicking R&B vocal acrobatics. In truth, Winehouse could shake your whole universe in just two notes, something many of today’s R&B singers haven’t mastered.