Drug-haunted pop diva Amy Winehouse Dies at 27

Posted July 24, 2011, at 3:49 p.m.

Amy Winehouse, the Grammy Award-winning pop singer-songwriter whose sultry and profane compositions reflected — and ultimately were overshadowed by — a turbulent personal life and struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, was found dead Saturday at her apartment in London. She was 27.

Police sources confirmed her death, but the cause was not immediately available.

The British-born performer’s train-wreck-style public behavior often threatened to eclipse her talent. Although she received high-profile engagements, such as Nelson Mandela’s 90th-birthday concert at London’s Hyde Park in 2008, she routinely canceled or missed engagements, whether from bad health or bad manners.

In June, Winehouse canceled a tour when she shouted “Hello, Athens!” to an audience of 20,000 in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. She appeared to be so inebriated that backup singers had to sing her songs when she proved incapable. She was ultimately booed off the stage.

Winehouse often said living dangerously generated her creativity, and she was often photographed half-dressed, wild-eyed and disheveled. The English tabloids reported she had suffered brain damage from excessive use of drugs and alcohol.

“It sounds like such a wank thing to say,” Winehouse once said, “but I need to get some headaches goin’ to write about.”

Her reckless life often called to mind the doomed pop stars of earlier generations, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain – all of whom also died at the age of 27.

She had a fondness for jazz-inflected vocals and 1960s pop, but she roughed up the style to include hip-hop slang and an infusion of profanity. Her music often focused on drinking, drug-taking and chronic infidelity.

Her song “Rehab” mirrored her life through its defiant lyrics: “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no.” The bouncy song, styled after the early Motown sound and 1960s girl groups, became a ubiquitous hit in 2007.

Amid the chaos and turmoil of her personal life, Winehouse won five Grammy Awards in 2008, including best new artist. She also won for song of the year and best female pop vocal performance for “Rehab,” as well as record of the year and best pop vocal album for her CD “Back to Black.”

Music critic Chuck Arnold wrote of “Back to Black” in People magazine that Winehouse “turns a righteous girl-group groove into a rebellious bad-girl anthem, as if Courtney Love has crashed Martha and the Vandellas.”

She was supported by a first-rate production team in her recordings, but she did not always appear first-rate in live performance.

New York Times music reviewer Jon Pareles wrote of her May 2007 appearance at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, “Her voice glints with possibility: tart, smoky, ready to flirt or sob, and capable of the jazzy timing of a Dinah Washington or the declamation of soul singers like Martha Reeves and Carla Thomas.

“What she doesn’t have, and may not want, is the kind of focus the older singers brought to their songs,” he wrote, adding that her performance “switched between confession and indifference. “

Winehouse was barely out of her teens when she reached the top of the music charts in England with her debut disc, “Frank” (2003). The album was released in the United States in 2006.

Although the title alluded to singer Frank Sinatra, it could also have been a reference to Winehouse’s libido-charged lyrics, such as the provocatively titled, “åExpletiveå-Me Pumps.” In interviews, her candid remarks often alluded to a promiscuous sex life.

Not all of her songs were racy or lustful, however. “October Song” eulogized her dead canary, which she buried in a Chanel sunglasses box. In addition to her original songs, her debut album included two jazz standards, “There Is No Greater Love,” in which she channeled another drug-haunted singer, Billie Holiday, and “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Another of her original songs, “Stronge r Than Me,” won the Ivor Novello Award, for best contemporary song, from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters.

In May 2007, Ms. Winehouse flew to Miami and secretly marry her boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil, an admitted heroin and crack user. As her records shot up the charts that year, her professional success gave way to a series of personal drug- and alcohol-related mishaps, many also involving her new husband, that were covered relentlessly in the British press.

The incidents included a canceled U.S. tour, a five-day stay in rehab with Fielder-Civil, a marijuana bust while touring in Norway, and her husband’s incarceration in November 2007 for attacking a pub owner and attempted bribery.

Most explosively, the London Sun newspaper posted a grainy video on its Web site in January 2008, about a month before she received her Grammy Awards , allegedly showing Ms. Winehouse smoking a crack pipe and talking about taking ecstasy and valium.

Her father, Mitch Winehouse, told reporters that his daughter — once plump but later skeletally thin— had an eating disorder. He said his daughter and Fielder-Civil were heroin addicts who deliberately cut themselves as a distraction from the pain of drug withdrawal.

Throughout 2008, the singer’s appearances were infrequent and fueled speculation about her health. She canceled more appearances and was booed at two British festivals when she arrived late.

Mitch Winehouse announced to the press that his daughter had emphysema and might soon need to use an oxygen mask if she didn’t quit smoking crack cocaine and cigarettes. A spokesman for the singer later confirmed the diagnosis and said she was being treated with nicotine patches.

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