Deep 10: Amy Winehouse's Back To Black
The sound. The look. The songs. The drama. Together, they were all part of the musical phenomenon that was 2006's Back To Black, the second album from Amy Winehouse. The British neo-soul singer teamed with producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi to create a release that irresistibly combined masterful jazz-inflected vocals, deeply personal lyrics and retro-R&B grooves. Five of the album's tracks were released as singles, but it was the first, "Rehab," that almost singlehandedly transformed Winehouse from a popular singer to a worldwide celebrity, and the song's slyly humorous acknowledgment of personal demons firmly established her iconoclastic legend.
Back To Black earned the diminutive Winehouse a massive night at the milestone 50th GRAMMY Awards. She garnered Best New Artist honors, the album was named Best Pop Vocal Album and "Rehab" earned wins for Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. (Back To Black was also nominated for Album Of The Year, but lost out to Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters).
Sadly, Back To Black was Winehouse's final album: She died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at age 27. However, her music and legacy endure, evidenced by the success of the riveting 2015 documentary, Amy. Here are 10 lesser-known facts you might not know about Back To Black, an album that remains unique and compelling:
1. Ronson, then an unestablished producer, and Winehouse sparked an immediate connection.
"I didn't really know anything about her until she showed up," Ronson said in a deleted scene from the documentary Amy. "I just asked her what kind of record she wanted to make. And she played me things like the Shangri-Las that I wasn't really familiar with. … She was instantly so cool. I liked her in the first five minutes." Overnight, Ronson created a demo for "Back To Black." Upon hearing it the next day, Winehouse was "over the moon" with what she heard. Ronson would ultimately produce six of the album's tracks and earn Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical honors at the 50th GRAMMY Awards.
2. Back To Black is quite literally a break-up album.
Winehouse wrote the songs for the album in the months following an acrimonious parting with then-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil. In Amy, she is heard explaining that she needed to create "something good out of something bad." She and Fielder-Civil later reconciled and married in 2007. (The couple divorced in 2009.)
3. "Rehab" is indeed autobiographical.
In 2005 Winehouse's manager Nick Shymansky pleaded with her to check into a rehab facility, and she said she would if her father thought it was a good idea. Arrangements were made, but Mitch Winehouse told his daughter he didn't think she needed treatment. When Amy Winehouse relayed this story to producer Ronson a year later, adding a 'No, no, no' for emphasis, he encouraged her to put it all in a song.
4. "Rehab" gives shout outs to two of Winehouse's musical heroes.
The lyrics to the song contain the lines "I'd rather be at home with Ray" and "There's nothing you can teach me that I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway," references to artists Winehouse held in high regard. "Ray" is the inimitable Ray Charles and "Mr. Hathaway" is Donny Hathaway, the soul singer whose hits include the 1972 GRAMMY-winning duet with Roberta Flack, "Where Is The Love." In performance, Winehouse sometimes substituted "Blake" for "Ray," in reference to Fielder-Civil.
5. "Tears Dry On Their Own" is built on top of a Motown classic.
Producer Remi thought the album needed something up-tempo and suggested that Winehouse set her slower, sadder conception of this song against a backing track based on the Nick Ashford/Valerie Simpson classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," which was originally recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell for the Tamla/Motown label and was later a solo hit for Diana Ross.
6. You can actually watch footage of Winehouse recording the album's title track.
It's rare to have cameras capture the magic moment when a hit comes to life in a studio, but a friend of Winehouse's backing band happened to be shooting random footage in the New York studio where she was recording, and filmed her singing a devastating take of "Back To Black." (When finished, Winehouse says, "Ooh, it's a bit upsetting at the end, isn't it?"). The footage can be seen in Amy.
7. Winehouse didn't meet her backing band until the album was finished.
Six of Back To Black's 11 songs, including "Rehab," were given a retro feel courtesy of musical backing by members of the Dap-Kings, a New York-based funk/soul band who backed vocalist Sharon Jones. Ronson worked with Winehouse and the Dap-Kings separately in London and New York, and the singer didn't meet the band until promotions for the album began. The Dap-Kings did play live engagements with Winehouse, including her first U.S. tour and TV appearances on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and "Late Show With David Letterman."
8. Winehouse was scheduled to perform live on the 50th GRAMMY Awards in Los Angeles.
Winehouse was invited to perform onstage at Staples Center in Los Angeles for the 50th GRAMMY telecast, but the U.S. government initially denied her a work visa to make the trip. By the time that decision was reversed, it was too late to make travel plans. Instead, Winehouse and her band set up in a London theater and performed "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good" via satellite.
9. Winehouse received a GRAMMY from a personal idol with whom she would win a posthumous GRAMMY.
An avid Tony Bennett fan, Winehouse was stunned and delighted when it was Bennett who announced "Rehab" as the Record Of The Year winner. Winehouse's last recording was a duet with Bennett, a cover of the standard "Body And Soul" for Bennett's Duets II album. Winehouse died on July 23, 2011, before the release of Duets II. The song netted Bennett and Winehouse a GRAMMY for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for 2011.
10. Back To Black put Amy Winehouse in the GRAMMY history books.
Winehouse's five wins for 2007 set a record at the time for the most GRAMMYs won by a female British artist. Adele has since broken the record, earning six GRAMMYs for 2011.
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis, Elvis: My Best Man, and Running With The Champ: My Forty-Year Friendship With Muhammad Ali.)