Reverse Engineering Influences: Amy Winehouse

For this project, I chose the song “Stronger Than Me” by Amy Winehouse. I knew and admired Winehouse’s music when I was younger, but it was not until I recently watched the documentary “Amy” that I gained respect for her talent. She possessed a rare gift of singing and songwriting at such a young age. I chose this particular song because it questions the gender roles in love. It makes you wonder how masculinity is defined in a relationship, or how femininity should be embraced. With its R&B and Jazz vibe, the chorus embodies a smooth melody through the harmony and guitar sounds in the background.

Biography 

Amy Winehouse was born in London, England on September 14, 1983. Her father worked as a cab driver while her mother was employed as a pharmacist. Winehouse grew up listening to a wide range of music, specifically jazz, because much of her family grew up as professional jazz musicians. She developed her love of music by listening to James Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, and TLC. Her signature sound of soul, R&B, and jazz music can be traced back to the various musical artists she grew up listening to.

Musical Career

Amy made her breakthrough in the music scene with her debut album “Frank” in 2003. The album’s blend of jazz, pop, soul, and hip-hop was critically acclaimed worldwide and led her to win the British Female Solo Act and British Urban Act. In particular, the song “Stronger Than Me” won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song.

Her lyrical capability matched her instrumental talent. She started writing music to represent herself and her personal experiences. She felt that no other music at the time was genuine or heartfelt. She developed as a jazz, soul, and gospel singer during each of her albums following “Frank”. During an interview in “Amy”, Tony Bennett stated that her talent should have been compared to the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Prominent Work 

Winehouse’s most prominent work was her album “Back to Black” which debuted in 2006. The album became famous in both the United Kingdom and the United States, with the song “Rehab” landing on the Top 10 songs on Billboard music charts for several months.

 

Musical Influences 

Amy had many musical influences that shaped her vivid sound that so many were drawn to. Her jazz influences were Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Tony Bennett. Her R&B and hip-hop influences were TLC and Salt-N-Pepa.

 

Sarah Vaughan 

Sarah was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 27, 1924. Her music career began at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, and progressed when she won a talent competition in Harlem’s Apollo Theater. After establishing her prominence as a jazz vocalist, she joined Billy Eckstine orchestra where she learned a new jazz technique known as bebop. Vaughan soon incorporated pop music into her musical style and was known for her vibrato style jazz, scatting talent, and three octave vocal range defined by her wide range. Her most prominent work included “Misty”, released in 1964, and “Send In The Clowns”, which was released in 1981. Vaughan shaped her own musical style after the well-respected and talented Louis Armstrong.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ-9IBZaydQ

Louis Armstrong

Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 in a poverty stricken town. He began his career as an instrumentalist before becoming a renowned jazz soloist. His most distinguishable musical style was his extended solo, which was non-existent before he entered the jazz scene. Armstrong was cited as the first vocalist to use “scatting”, which would define a new style of jazz music and artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. His musical style was defined by syncopation and improvisation, both of which made you deeply content and move to his music. Aside from shaping the style and form of jazz music, Armstrong’s most prominent works were ensembles such as “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven”. Armstrong’s musical influences were the jazz ensembles that defined the genre before he entered it.

 

Traditional Jazz

Before Louis Armstrong, jazz in the 1920’s was polyphonic. It was ensemble music that was defined by multiple tunes playing at one time. The melody was characterized by the cornet and trumpet playing the lead while the clarinet and trombone followed. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band were famous for this ensemble style music, and were one of the first bands to record jazz. Kid Ory’s Sunshine band was the first black ensemble band to record jazz music, and cornet player Joe “King” Oliver defined their sessions with his acoustic recordings. Joe Oliver would soon take Louis Armstrong under his wing and allow him to join the band. It was at this time that Louis introduced scatting and soloist performances. Jazz music would be changed forever by the highly imaginative and improvised talents that Louis Armstrong delivered in the Kid Ory’s Sunshine Band.

Connections Between Artists

Much like Sarah Vaughan, Amy Winehouse was a powerful, strong female jazz vocalist who had a wide range of musical talents. She understood and believed in the music so much that it became a part of her. Sarah Vaughan was nicknamed “sassy”, which resembles Amy’s free spirit and edgy personality. They both wanted to create music and thrived in front of live audiences. Jazz music was never meant to be performed in front of crowds, and Amy’s fame ultimately forced into a position where she had to do so. Amy’s music has such passion and soul behind it, while her chorus’s remain in your head long after the song is over. She also picks up her scatting skills from listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong. In most of her songs, Amy composes acoustic versions of her record label music and improvises them with completely different melodies and rhythms. Dubbed as the “inventor” of scatting, Louis paved the way for vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to exercise their talents. If Louis had not changed the composition of jazz music from ensemble to soloist, artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Amy Winehouse would perhaps not have been able to showcase their talents.

Final Thoughts

Amy Winehouse was a powerful talent who died far too young. The fame, drugs, and and alcohol took her to a deep and dark place that she could not escape from. However, had it not been for her emotional distress, the world would have never been exposed to a masterpiece such as “Back to Black”. Most of the information on the internet pertaining to Amy focuses on her behavioral rather than her musical attributes. After discovering her musical influences, I am able to witness a new side of her. She was an old soul stuck in a young body, plagued with the downfalls of fame and public greed. I appreciate the jazz elements in her music more than I could have before. I would have never noticed that the scatting in her music was influenced by the inventor of scatting, Louis Armstrong. Jazz music has had a developmental history marked by influential artists from every generation. Unfortunately, Amy was only able to contribute to that history for a very short period. Her music and story should continue to inspire others to focus on the simple pleasures in life.

Works Cited

http://www.biography.com/people/sarah-vaughan-9516405#synopsis

 

http://www.lifetimetv.co.uk/biography/biography-amy-winehouse

 

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/jul/22/amy-winehouse-her-own-words

 

http://www.biography.com/people/amy-winehouse-244469#attempted-comeback

 

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/sarah-vaughan-about-sarah-vaughan/723/

 

http://www.traditional-jazz.com/mainpages/louis.htm

 

http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/archive/armstrong_singer.html

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