She grew up working class with a cab-driver father who'd dreamed of being a singer, too. Her early love of jazz and soul, seemingly inculcated from a young age, exuded from every track she recorded. In a transfixing film of an early audition she made at a record label, she is a unexpectedly demure presence, warbling winningly as she perches on a piece of generic modernist office furniture.
The road to the emaciated mess wandering down a London street shot by paparazzi just a few years later is unclear. While her initial performances were by all accounts sensations, by the time she was being filmed by a proper camera you can see the toll her lifestyle had taken on her art. Her presence was eerie: a beehive towers over a face heavily made up into almost a cubist set of planes. Her tattooed arms poke out of incongruous babydoll dresses. And there's that glassiness in her eyes, a bit of the automatic in her articulations. Some, perhaps all, of this persona may have been deliberate; perhaps she was showing the audience a simulacrum of the artist as disappearing addict. If so, it was convincing. In any case we can only mourn the child who was born with prodigious gifts but not the personality to use them to create a life worth living for herself.
Back on her first album she larked her way through a track called "October Song." The lilt in her voice was never more reminiscent of Holiday as she sang:
Ava was the morning/ Now she's gone
She's reborn like Sarah Vaughan
At its silkiest, Winehouse's voice was compared to Vaughan's, too. * As the track goes on, it's hard not to hear Winehouse, perhaps, singing to herself:
She spoke until one day she couldn't be heard
She just stopped singing.
But keep listening to "October Song" and you can hear more. "I sing a lullaby of birdland every night," she murmurs, and when the chorus comes along you can hear the melody from the George Shearing classic she's referring to bubbling up. Birdland the jazz club, which the "Lullaby" honored, was named after Charlie Parker, a junkie who, like Amy Winehouse, died too young. Winehouse's song, recorded before she was 20, is hard to listen to at a sad time like now. It reminds us how with just a few words and bits of melody she found in her songs, over and over again, beauty and despair, love and an all-too-portentous decline. She skipped, by turns merrily and bleakly, through the musical decades and the similarly fated lives that formed her.
Correction, July 26, 2011: This article originally misspelled Sarah Vaughan's surname. (Return to corrected sentence.)
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