Live At the Apollo is a great example of a style of soul music that has been all but forgotten by today’s mainstream American R&B artist. In Britain, on the other hand vintage American soul music still influences new generations of artist, even if over here, we’re obsessed with what Nicki Minaj or Beyonce are doing.
Once again, it took an English pop artist to make Americans remember their own rich musical heritage. In this case it was Amy Winehouse, arguably the greatest British female vocalist of her generation. Her short life was filled with musical influences from Sinatra to Santana.
Her tragic demise came as a result of drug and alcohol abuse, two vices that enhanced her sense of the blues and came through in her work as genuine authenticity. Despite Winehouse’s struggles and the tragic events that led to her death, she had a sense of humor that would often come through in her songs in the form of a crazy streak. That drunkard indifference gave some songs like “Rehab” a modern edge that made for an interesting counter to the retro styled arrangements of producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi.
“Rehab” might have sounded rather lighthearted in its approach to a serious problem, but many Americans like myself who were exposed to Winehouse for the first time through this single had no ideal she really had gone through rehab before and was dealing with a serious substance abuse problem.
These struggles added weight to the swagger of “You Know I’m No Good”. The songs hip hop styled drum line and back alley nature made it the ideal theme for Showtime’s Diary of a Call Girl. Much of Back to Black had a slight grittyness to it. That grit no doubt came from the Dap-Kings, an American R&B band who’s specialized sound backed Sharon Jones.
The Dap-Kings alone could have upped Winehouse’s street cred, but she went further with well written songs that would echo her influences. One of those songs “Tears Dry on their Own” paid homage to the Motown hits “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.
Although the arrangements of Back to Black were very ’60s like, the songs many of which were co-written with Mark Ronson were very modern in subject matter. Winehouse’s appeal transcended to segmented pop charts and would cover alternative rock and R&B as well. Her diverse appeal was reflected in the boatload of awards Back to Black collected. Winehouse set a record for the number of Grammy awards won by a British female artist in one year.
Back to Black has the distinction of being the last studio album from Winehouse, but there was so much unreleased material in the form of b-sides and eventually remixes that there would be at least two albums after Back to Black.
The last of these releases Lioness: Hidden Treasures was released on the year of her death 2011. It gathered up two new songs intended to be on a follow-up to Back to Black and others that went back to the time before her debut Frank.
Amy Winehouse’s short career is marked by her enormous potential. Her contribution to the revival of retro soul music in the mainstream was noteworthy. While American soul artists who get inspiration from the past seldom go beyond the ’70s, their narrow focus might have limited their appeal.
While they have gained critical acclaim, they have been unable to advance the genre commercially in the same way Winehouse did by reaching out to both the rock and the R&B community across a multi-generational span. Some might attribute this to racism, but I feel her appeal came from reaching back further to the point where R&B and soul formed the basic foundations of rock. So few artist are coming from that period in early rock n roll, that to actually hear it done well was bound to be sucessful.