There will never be another musician like Amy Winehouse. When the British singer came on the scene in 2003, she was a brash jazz chanteuse giving old music a modern makeover. She embraced ’60s soul and girl group pop for 2006’s triumphant Back to Black, the album that would make her a global superstar. Sadly, Winehouse wrestled with bulimia and substance abuse throughout her life. After years of being hounded by the press, she died on July 23, 2011, at the age of 27. Here are 15 facts about her incredible life.
1. Amy Winehouse made her recording debut as a rapper.
Inspired by the pioneering female rap group Salt-N-Pepa, Winehouse and her childhood friend Juliette Ashby formed a hip-hop duo called Sweet ‘n’ Sour. ("I was sour, of course," Winehouse told The Guardian.) Ashby’s stepfather, Alan Glass, got the girls into a studio, where they recorded three tunes: “Glam Chicks,” “Boys… Who Needs Them,” and “Spinderella,” named for Salt-N-Pepa’s iconic DJ.
2. Jazz was in Amy Winehouse’s blood.
Winehouse may have started out rapping, but she was destined to dabble in jazz. Her paternal grandmother was a singer who dated British saxophonist Ronnie Scott. What’s more, several of her uncles on her mother’s side were professional jazz musicians. Finally, there was her father, Mitch, a cab driver and wannabe crooner who loved singing Frank Sinatra tunes around the house. In 2010, after his daughter rose to fame, Mitch released his debut album, Rush of Love.
3. Amy Winehouse sang with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.
In June 2000, at the age of 16, Winehouse made her debut with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Her first gig was at the Rayners Hotel, where the ensemble had a residency. Winehouse learned four songs on the subway ride to the show and wowed the audience with her performance. "I can honestly say, she had the best jazz voice of any young singer I had ever heard," NYJO founder Bill Ashton said of the singer.
4. Amy Winehouse’s first manager had a Spice Girls connection.
At 19, Winehouse signed with manager Nick Godwyn of 19 Entertainment. The company was founded by Simon Fuller, the man responsible for creating Pop Idol (the show that inspired American Idol) and managing the Spice Girls. Winehouse “wasn’t someone who wanted to be a pop star,” Godwyn has said. She wound up firing him in 2006.
5. Don’t call Amy Winehouse a one-album wonder.
Winehouse broke through in the U.S. with her 2006 sophomore album, Back to Black. By the time that LP dropped, she’d already become pretty famous in her home country. That was thanks to her 2003 debut, Frank, which went Top 5 in the UK, got shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, and earned Winehouse a prestigious Ivor Novello Award. Frank wasn’t released in America until 2007.
6. Frankly, Amy Winehouse didn’t love Frank.
In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, Winehouse lambasted the folks at Universal/Island for what she believed was their mishandling of her debut album, Frank. In addition to making her include songs and mixes that she hated, the label evidently botched the marketing and promotion. “I've never heard the album from start to finish,” Winehouse said. “I don't have it in my house.” She added that she was “only 80 percent behind this album.”
7. They really did try to make Amy Winehouse go to rehab.
Winehouse will forever be known for 2006’s “Rehab,” which features the sassy, defiant lyric, “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no.” The “they” included manager Nick Shymansky, who indeed wanted Winehouse to seek treatment in 2005 for her excessive drinking. Winehouse admitted she was being “quite self-destructive” but chalked it up to heartbreak, not alcoholism. Her father evidently agreed, allowing her to postpone addressing her substance abuse issues. She finally went to rehab for the first time in 2008.
8. Amy Winehouse’s “Me and Mr. Jones” is about Nas.
A standout track on Back to Black, “Me and Mr. Jones” opens with Winehouse lamenting a Slick Rick concert she was forced to miss. In the song’s bridge, she insists that she won’t be kept from seeing Mr. Jones, a.k.a. Nasir Jones, a.k.a. hip-hop legend Nas. Winehouse may have been referring to a Nas show at London’s Brixton Academy in March 2005. It’s unclear whether Winehouse attended the gig, but she’d have been better off staying home. The show was halted by gunfire in the crowd.
9. Amy Winehouse broke a Grammy record in 2008.
In February 2008, Winehouse became the first British female artist to win five Grammys at one ceremony. Her wins included Record of the Year and Song of the Year (both for “Rehab”), plus Best New Artist. Her record stood until 2012, when Adele picked up six Grammys.
10. Amy Winehouse was a legit guitarist.
Everyone remembers Winehouse as a singularly talented singer and songwriter, but she could also play a pretty mean guitar. She started out surreptitiously borrowing her brother’s red Fender Stratocaster when she was 11 or 12 and eventually bought an acoustic of her own. The self-taught player soon learned enough chords to accompany herself and write songs. “While I’m not even probably an adequate guitarist, I’m still a distinctive guitarist,” she said in a 2004 interview with Fender. “I sound different.”
11. Amy Winehouse had 14 known tattoos.
One of the most striking things about Winehouse’s punk-Ronette look was her wealth of old-school tattoos. Among her most famous pieces were the topless pin-up girl on her left arm, the “Daddy’s Girl” inscription (with horseshoe) on her left arm, the “Hello Sailor” anchor on her belly, and the word “Blake’s” (for her ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil) on her chest.
12. Amy Winehouse was a big ska fan.
Not in the Reel Big Fish kind of way. Winehouse was heavily influenced by The Specials, a multiracial U.K. ska band that sang about racism, unemployment, youth violence, and other pressing social issues in the late ’70s. During sessions for Back to Black, Winehouse recorded covers of the Specials tunes “Monkey Man” (originally by Toots and the Maytals) and “Hey Little Rich Girl.” In 2009, she joined the newly reunited band onstage at the V Fest.
13. Amy Winehouse’s final recording was a duet with Tony Bennett.
Winehouse was understandably nervous when she entered the studio to record “Body & Soul” with Tony Bennett for the iconic singer’s Duets II album. But after Bennett offered some words of encouragement and started talking about Dinah Washington—one of Winehouse's idols—the whole session changed. Winehouse gave a terrific performance and made a lasting impression on her duet partner. “She took the spirit of jazz and made it shine in new ways, for a new generation,” Bennett wrote in his 2016 memoir. “She had the voice of an angel: a being that works on a plane higher than the one most of us inhabit down here.”
14. Bulimia likely played a role in Amy Winehouse’s death.
An autopsy performed after Winehouse’s death in July 2011 revealed that the singer had more than five times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood. Drinking was clearly a factor in her death, but so was the eating disorder she’d battled since her teens. “She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia,” her brother Alex told Observer Magazine.
15. Amy Winehouse’s final demos were destroyed.
A few weeks before her death in July 2011, Winehouse finished writing songs for what would have been her third album. She even booked studio time with producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson for later in the year. Demos from this period will likely never see the light of day, as Universal Music U.K. boss David Joseph destroyed the recordings. “It was a moral thing,” Joseph told Billboard. "Taking a stem or a vocal is not something that would ever happen on my watch. It now can’t happen on anyone else’s.”