Amy Winehouse would have turned 30 years old tomorrow.
It's been two years since her tragic passing, but she's lived on through her music and the efforts of her family. A music aficionado and singer himself, her father Mitch Winehouse, helped steer Amy's path to musical greatness from her childhood up until one of her final projects with Tony Bennett. From 2003's Frank to her Grammy-award winning Back to Black, Amy's influence on the music world, and fellow artists, will be remembered forever.
Following her death, her family established the Amy Winehouse Foundation, founded in her memory to support young people in need—a passion of Amy's. In honor of Amy's birthday, we spoke with Mitch Winehouse about Amy's childhood, the demons in Back to Black, and what her family and friends are doing to help her work live on.
Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
How did you initially introduce Amy to music as a child?
I suppose we were no different from a lot of families. There was always people playing music and dancing. When my kids were growing up, it wasn’t quite like that. Obviously there was TV, there were lots of distractions. But we tried to keep that vibe going, we sang a lot at home. It was a nice environment for the kids to grow up in. It was full of family: my mom, my aunties, my grandparents, and it was a nice environment for my son Alex to grow up into. I was always singing—literally when I would talk, I would sing.
When Amy was growing up she liked sort of contemporary artists, like Salt-n-Pepa. She started listening to all kinds [of music] like James Taylor and Carole King, and of course The Beatles. And also the jazz Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. There was so much music in the house, and all different kinds of music too.
What artists did Amy love growing up?
While she was growing up she liked sort of contemporary artists, like Salt-n-Pepa. She started listening to all kinds [of music] like James Taylor and Carole King, and of course, The Beatles. And also jazz like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. There was so much music in the house, and all different kinds of music too. My son listened to grunge. Amy had a very eclectic taste in music.
I know you were a Sinatra fan and you played a lot of Sinatra, too. Was that the inspiration behind her naming the album Frank?
You know what, I’m still not sure. That’s the truth. I don’t know whether she was being frank, per se. I kept meaning to ask her but it always slipped my mind. I’m a singer too and I was a singer then, although not particularly a successful one, I’m probably more successful now than I was then. So there was just singing and lots of music in the house and we’d always sing together. It was nice.
What artists heavily influenced her sound?
I hear, and this might just be me, a lot of Dinah Washington in her voice. I compare her to Dinah and Ella. I can hear a lot of that. Sarah Vaughn was obviously brilliantly technically, but she sang like an opera singer, and Dinah Washington, more than Ella, was very freestyle and Amy became very much like that.
In terms of her songwriting, you can’t really compare her to anybody, she was one-of-a-kind. I have to say there were lots of influences. As she got older she started listening to Donnie Hathaway and the girl groups of the '60s, which influenced Back to Black. She was listening to all kinds of music all the time.
When did you know there was something special about your daughter, musically?
I remember when she was 8 or 9 thinking, "Wow she has a powerful voice." And she was going through this stage when she was younger where she had lots of gigs for dancing and for acting. She did some pretty advanced acting.
When she was 11 or 12 she said, "I’m singing at the school concert." My wife and I went to see her and the song was in the wrong key and she didn’t make a good job of it at all. I remember saying to Jane, "Thank God she can act and dance," because at that point it was apparent that she couldn’t sing.
Then, the following year, she said “I’m singing in the school concert again." I said to Jane, "Oh God she’s singing again." We went to see her, we can’t not go and see her. Obviously, we went. And now all of a sudden, she can sing. She sung the Alanis Morrisette song “Ironic.”
Frank is just an incredible album, and far more meaningful to me than Back to Black. You know a lot of Back to Black was written out of despair. She wasn’t in the best place when she wrote that album, she wasn’t well. So I find it difficult to listen to Back to Black.
At that point, even though Amy was a great singer, there were probably four or five better singers than her in the school at that age. It was really when she applied herself at the theater school she went to, that’s when she really came to the front and they noticed her singing talent.
I remember when she got her management deal. She was working on the first album, Frank, and they sent us the first six demos. They weren’t even finished songs. These were demos, and I go, "Wow!" It was just brilliant. Six of the songs off of Frank and they were just terrific.
Even at that point I didn’t think she was going to be a massive star, but I’m thinking now she’s definitely going to be making a CD. Frank is just an incredible album, and far more meaningful to me than Back to Black. You know a lot of Back to Black was written out of despair. She wasn’t in the best place when she wrote that album, she wasn’t well. So I find it difficult to listen to Back to Black.
I remember we went to Spain and we stayed at my wife’s father’s place and she was writing Back to Black. She wrote two or three songs. I used to hear her around the swimming pool at 3 a.m., strumming the guitar and writing chords down to whatever song she was writing. She would do these things on her own time and I would speak to her about the lyrics on some of the songs.
Some of [the songs] on Frank were a bit racy. I mean, one of the songs was, “The only time you hold my hand is to get the angle right.” And I said Amy, “Does that mean what I think it means?” And she’d say, “Dad, I don’t wanna talk about it.” She’d be embarrassed. I look back on it now and it's quite funny. Just to sort of get a rise from her, I’d sing the song back to her: “The only time you hold my hand is to get the angle right." It was great watching this process because a lot of it was done. When did she do this stuff? She’d do it in the middle of the night. She did it when it suited her. When she put her mind to it she was quick.
We spoke to the people who recorded on Frank and on Back to Black and she did it all on one take. She said, “Fine, done, thank you.” When she knew what she wanted to do she was very quick.
What do you think her impact has been on music as a whole?
Her impact has been enormous, not only on music. Before Amy came on the scene, there were very few British singers. Well there were in the '60s, but not for many years after. Amy made people sit up and take notice that there was great talent in the U.K.
People like Adele, who has won six Grammys, will be the first to say that she couldn’t have done it without Amy. Amy was groundbreaking in a lot of things she did. You’ve only got to listen to the kids that are coming out now to hear the influence that Amy had on these people. Her impact was quite incredible. Out of 25 million albums sold, that was practically from two albums.
People like Adele, who has won six Grammys, will be the first to say that she couldn’t have done it without Amy. Amy was groundbreaking in a lot of things she did.
One thing that I’ve always loved about her music is that it had this timeless feel to it. Like you said, she only wrote a little under 30 songs. How do you think that will be remembered over time?
I wasn’t there for all of it even though I saw her most days. Today, people write songs about 2013. They write about 2012. Now they’re thinking about what’s going to be the sound of 2015 or 2016. With Amy, that stuff never bothered her. She’d write a song and if it sounded like it was a song out of the '40s, great. If it sounded like a song in two years time, terrific. If it sounded like a girls song, if it sounded like a Sherrelle's song, terrific. This stuff never bothered her. She just wanted to write songs. She had enough faith in her own talent to understand that people are going to like it.
What is your favorite song of hers and why?
My favorite of her songs is "Body and Soul" because she won the Grammy with Tony Bennett. She was so excited. She’d phone me 10 times a day, saying "They’ve given me six songs to choose." I asked her which she chose, and she said “Body and Soul.” I said, "Why’d you choose “Body and Soul?" and she said, "I chose it because it’s your favorite song dad." I asked her if she knew the words, and she said, "Dad, you’ve been singing this song to me for 25 years. Of course I know the words." So that is my favorite song.
Obviously she never wrote it, but the performance was just breathtaking. There's other songs that’s she’s written where she sounded better, but they had such a fantastic rapport, her and Tony, and the pain in her voice. When Tony Bennett’s singing that song, he’s singing it from his soul, and she did the same. It was just an incredible performance. I think she sang other songs better than that, but I think that was her best performance, in terms of the emotion. Incredibly, her last recording was with Tony Bennett.
I love Sinatra, but I think Tony Bennett is the greatest. It’s my daughter. I’ve spoken to Tony Bennett many times, and he tells me about how great he got along with Amy. Lady Gaga, too, because she does "The Lady is a Tramp" on that same album, and she was fantastic with him. He’s got this great rapport with them. He said that Amy is one of the top five female vocalists of all time. In no particular order, he said Ella, Amy, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn. That’s coming from Tony Bennett.
I don’t want to stop the sounds of Back to Black, but I made it very clear that Back to Black wasn’t a great album for me. It sold 20 million and is still selling. I know what went into that album. It nearly killed her, and it took her years to recover from that.
Are you still able to listen to her music now?
I've got to be honest, I don’t want to stop the sounds of Back to Black, but I made it very clear that Back to Black wasn’t a great album for me. It sold 20 million and is still selling. I know what went into that album. It nearly killed her, and it took her years to recover from that. It wasn’t the album itself, but everything that went into it: a damaging relationship and everything else.
If I’m in a restaurant and "Rehab" comes on, or "Back to Black," I won’t run out of the restaurant like I used to do. I used to have to leave the restaurant. Now, I’m okay with that. I couldn’t put it in the CD terminal and say let’s listen to Amy tonight, I can’t do that with Frank either. I find it very difficult, but I loved Frank. I think it’s a great tune, and I love listening to Amy with some of the jazz bands that she’s done. I was so busy running after her and being her dad, and doing some things wrong and screwing other things up, and being in the midst of it all and doing my best. But sometimes my best wasn’t good enough.
Amy would walk through the West End of London and we’d go down Wardour Street, she’d go down to the chicken shop where she knows the lady who runs it. She’ll go, "Hows your son?" and she knew everything about these people. That was great about her. She really was interested in other people, and really, that’s how everybody should be. And she never lost that.
She was just a normal North London, Jewish kid who had this incredible talent. A lot of the time she never harnessed it, which was fine. No one was beating her over the head saying, "You need to write another album." Everyone was cool with that. She didn’t want to harness it, and she didn't harness it.
Two or three times in her life a light came on in her head and she thought, "Well I’m going write an album now." And this light would shine for two or three weeks, and it would go off again. That’s basically why there were only two albums. She really didn’t feel the necessity to record album after album. That’s perhaps why she will kind of reign supreme, if that's the right word.
You talked about the Tony Bennett record. How do you feel about some of her work that has been re-released posthumously, like "Cherry Wine" with Nas?
I was worried about that album. We said that the family wanted to put this album out, though we were concerned because it had to be the same standard as Back to Black and Frank. We listened to "Cherry Wine" and this is only five months after Amy passed away, so we were very emotional. After we calmed down a little bit and we were able to listen to it, it was beautiful and there’s some stuff on the album that was just superb. I’m proud of that album, and obviously Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi put it together. It was terrific and I’m happy with it, but I can’t imagine there will be any more albums like that because the material is not there.