Remembering Amy Winehouse
White, Evelyn C., Herizons
Wearing open-toed pumps and a belted, form-fitting dress, the brown-skinned woman stares directly into the camera. One hand on her hip, the other angles jauntily across the mantle of the fireplace upon which she leans. In the aftermath of the tragic death of singer Amy Winehouse at age 27, I've found a deep resonance in the image that is included in Black Britain: A Photographic History (2007) by Paul Gilroy.
Taken in 1955, when the subject was 18, the photo captures the poise, charm and self-confidence of Dame Shirley Bassey The Welsh-born daughter of a Nigerian father and an English mother, Bassey achieved international fame in 1964 with her soaring, soulful, signature delivery of the title song of the James Bond film Goldfinger. Now 74, Bassey remains a revered vocalist.
Indeed, writing in the liner notes for Shirley Bassey: The Remix Album . . . Diamonds Are Forever (EMI Records, 2000), DJ Spinna, a Brooklyn-born hip-hop artist who participated in the project, put it this way: "I could have never imagined that one day I would be given the opportunity to remix such a living legend. When I first heard the . . . original recording tape, I almost passed out."
A singer of indisputable talents, Winehouse acknowledged the influence of Motown, girl group, jazz and rhythm and blues singers on her career. To be sure, one can hear traces of Etta James, Esther Phillips and Sarah Vaughan in the masterful contralto phrasing on her Grammy-winning release Back to Black. With its brash lyrics and syncopated licks, her smash hit "Rehab" exudes the pioneering bravura of "Hit the Road Jack" (1961) by Ray Charles.
Still, I can't help but wonder if Winehouse's fate might have been different had she (and her handlers) trained her heavily lined eyes on singers closer to home, such as the long-reigning Bassey or Helen Folasade Adu, better known as Sade.
Reputedly overwhelmed by the demands of stardom, Sade (born in Nigeria and raised in England) effectively retreated from the public after the success of her 1984 album Diamond Life, which showcased the then-heard-everywhere "Smooth Operator. …