“She was the last real individualist around.”
So said Bob Dylan of Amy Winehouse, in an interview published last week to publicize Dylan’s new album.
What Dylan’s attempted to do on his new release, to find “the essence of life” in the torch ballads and pop compositions of the Great American Songbook, was second nature to Winehouse. (One of her strongest latter-day performances was a duet with Tony Bennett on ‘Body and Soul‘.)
Her voice was certainly individualistic – like Dylan’s own, it’s instantly recognizable. It’s hard to think of another 21st century singer whose vocal performances had the same smooth snap and kick.
Or the same intimacy. Like the jazz legend Billie Holiday, who Winehouse is often compared to, the Londoner was never more powerful than when she delivered a love song to a simple accompaniment.
“I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.”
So says Dylan of the 1940s and ’50s standards he sings on his new album. It’s an observation that applies to a number of Winehouse songs too, not least her composition ‘Love Is A Losing Game’.
The ballad is one I’ve listened to a hundred times, but it’s never sounded better than the first time I heard it, a decade ago, on a TV broadcast of the 2007 Mercury Music Prize award ceremony.
Winehouse’s album ‘Rehab’, though nominated, didn’t win that night (the nod went to the Klaxons – reinforcing the advice that no-one should ever pay heed to a music critic). But her three-minute live performance will be what the evening is remembered for.
She took to the stage just a month after an alleged drug overdose, the start of a drugs-and-recovery narrative that would continue until her tragic death, less than four years later.
‘Love Is A Losing Game’ was well-known at the time, having been released a year earlier on Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ album, but the rapt silence and rapturous applause that night gives some indication of what it was like to see it performed in the flesh.
Below, through, and above it all, of course, is her voice. Intimate, declamatory, wistful, surging – not individual but unique.