Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). I can't remember exactly when I first heard Amy Winehouse, but it was before she hit the U.S. The song was Stronger Than Me, and I think I caught the track in 2004, when I was listening to the BBC1 online. At the time, I flipped. It was a mash of jazz instincts, pop smarts and soulful delivery. So I ordered a few copies of Frank, her first CD, from the U.K., and gave them to friends. Yesterday, Winehouse died in London at age 27. What a loss.
Winehouse's appeal rested in her ability to take what she had learned studying singers like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James and Ronnie Spector and fusing them into a new form of English house-soul in the 2000s. Her impact was instant, and later many British artists adapted her r&b vocal sass and did well with it.
When Winehouse finally broke into the U.S. market in 2007 with the CD Back to Black and the prophetically titled hit Rehab, she was a runaway sensation, winning five Grammys in 2008. But by then, the end was already beginning. Visa troubles kept her from attending the Grammys in the U.S., a costly error. And when the camera hit her in London for a live acceptance, she was mystifyingly unintelligible, a terrified pop mess caught in the headlights and twisting her hair. A celebrity disaster before she had even made the celebrity ding cycle of failed marriages, mass adoptions, club dust-ups and cancelled TV shows.
But you sensed there was more going on than just dysfunctional drug dependence. There appeared to be chronic self-doubt, rabid insecurity and bite-the-bit stage fright at work. She was really a club artist, an introvert forced into the harsh light and then blinded by it all. Hers was the kind of success that hits people who wish for one big thing but when that thing springs to life, they are frightened but find that the wish can't be taken back.
Winehouse wound up in and out of rehab, unable or unwilling to parlay her good fortune into a third album or leverage her name-recognition into megastardom. In the meantime, British singer Adele adapted Winehouse's coarse and pained jazz-pop style and filled the vacuum as Winehouse floundered. Upon hearing Adele for the first time, I thought it was Winehouse's next album.
Soon, it became clear that Winehouse was a total wipeout. The final straw came during her most recent concert tour of Eastern Europe, where her disturbingly poor performances and intoxicated stage presence earned her boos, sending her packing back to London and seclusion.
I think only jazz fans can truly understand Amy Winehouse's path of self-destruction. With Winehouse, something wasn't quite right from the start, something that couldn't and wouldn't be controlled. A sensitivity that yellowed when exposed. She was somebody she didn't want to be, and once she realized that persona was non-refundable, she dropped a brick on the gas pedal and hopped in the back seat. As a result, the best and the brightest couldn't manage her or wouldn't. Little by little, she became less dependable and less marketable.
Winehouse seemed to have so much more to record—if she had been with the right producers. What a shame she wound up in the wrong hands—or that stronger hands couldn't reach out to keep her from her own lunacy. Winehouse will be missed—for what she recorded and what she could have been.
If you're unfamiliar with Winehouse, here's an early video of her singing Teach Me Tonight...
Here's an acoustic version of Valerie from Back to Black (2007)...
And here's Me and Mr. Jones from Back to Black...
Billy Taylor. The late pianist who died last December would have been 90 years old today. In tribute, Bret Primack, who was close to Billy, recently produced a touching and powerful mini documentary here...
ITunes' Capitol packages. JazzWax reader Mel House informs me that iTunes has begun offering downloadable sets under the Capitol Vaults Jazz Series. For example, there are sets by Bud Shank and Bob Cooper, Bobby Hackett, Andrew Hill and others.
Jeff Atterton, RIP. When I worked at Sam Goody on Third Avenue and 43d St. in New York over a summer break in the early '70s, I had the pleasure of being schooled by salesmen Harry Lim and Jeff Atterton. Harry had been the famed producer at Keynote Records back in the early '40s. Atterton was an English chap who knew his stuff and was fond of vests and yellow Schwann catalogs. [Undated photo of Milt Gabler, left, and Jeff Atterton]
JazzWax reader Ross Firestone informed me last week of Jeff's passing:
"I think older New York jazz record collectors would like to know that Jeff Atterton recently passed away. For many years, the tall, lanky Englishman was the resident jazz record guru at the Sam Goody store on West 49th Street in Manhattan, an unmistakable presence as soon as you walked through the door. As anyone who ever chatted him up will remember, he had a droll, rather ironic sense of humor about the state of the world and a great passion for jazz, which he seemed to feel made up for everything else that was lacking.
"Jeff was always enormously helpful to the many customers who sought him out, locating obscurities for advanced collectors and steering neophytes toward the good stuff and away from the crap. When Goody went under, Jeff moved over to the King Karol shop on West 42nd Street, which wasn't his kind of place at all, then down to the more congenial J&R jazz record store, located at that time a block behind the main drag that houses the rest of the J&R empire.
"Among Jeff's friends were many of the musicians whose playing he loved. PeeWee Russell gave him some of his oil paintings, which with characteristic generosity Jeff bequeathed to the Institute of Jazz Studies. When I was working on my biography of Benny Goodman Jeff voluntarily set me up for an interview with his old pal Jess Stacy, which was a lovely experience for me and very helpful to my book. He will be missed."
Swing Into Spring. JazzWax reader Rick Dobrydney sent along a link here to a clip of Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald from Swing Into Spring, a TV special in April 1958. The band: Benny Goodman (cl), Harry James, Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton (tp), Lou McGarity, Urbie Green, Eddie Bert (tb), Hymie Schertzer, Walt Levinsky (as), Zoot Sims, Al Klink (ts), Sol Schlinger (bar), Hank Jones (p), Kenny Burrell (g), George Duvivier (b) and Roy Burns (d)...
CD discovery of the week. If you dig male big-band singers in the Sinatra vernacular, trumpeter-vocalist Joe Gransden does a solid job on Live in Concert at Cafe 290: It's a Beautiful Thing (Cafe 290). The band that Gransden leads is ferocious, and his pipes are strong enough to soar above the roaring sections. Many of the songs will be familiar to you: Hello Young Lovers, I Believe in You, One Mint Julep, What Kind of Fool Am I and so on. Some of these arrangements clearly have been transcribed from famed recordings—such as Quincy Jones' I Believe in You and One Mint Julep. All in all, finger-snappin' stuff. You'll find this one at iTunes or here.
Oddball album cover of the week. Poor Julie London. I don't think there was another talented jazz vocalist who was so pathetically exploited by record labels than her. In fact, there are so many covers with London cast as loose, available and worse, it's hard to choose for this feature. But in coming weeks, I will feature others that are even more egregious. For now, let's call this the benchmark.