Amy Winehouse and the Spell of the Blues

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. 

She admitted that drugs had a central role in their marriage, and in the middle of divorce proceedings Winehouse said, "I won't let him divorce me. He's the male version of me and we're perfect for each other." Nonetheless, their divorce was finalized in August 2009. 

As quickly as she was praised for her talent, she was chopped to shreds in the media for her demons. Sadly, she was dubbed Amy Wino and Amy Crackhouse. She lost a stunning amount of weight, and images of her stumbling through the streets of London shoeless and dirty went viral online. Winehouse recently canceled her European tour, not able to sing without slurring her words. She was a woman who was clearly in trouble and recently left a rehab program. One can only imagine what the last moments were like for Winehouse. 


Some are saying they aren't shocked that Winehouse died. But I am. I thought she would conquer her demons and give us an "I made it through the storm" album in the way of Mary J. Blige. Unfortunately, Amy's music was not just a performance or belting out a few notes onstage. How disturbing is it that her breakthrough song, "Rehab," was about insisting upon living and holding on to her addiction? In Amy's "Back to Black" video, she is having a funeral for her heart, and now we mourn for her. But this is the blues. You live by the blues, you die by the blues. 

Clay Cane is a New York City-based journalist. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter


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For any early look at Amy Winehouse, see the 2007 profile that The Root's senior editor, Teresa Wiltz, wrote for the Washington Post (later picked up by other publications), "100-Proof Voice."

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