Apart from during a short stint as a substitute teacher in the early 70s, and the insincere fawnings of various shop assistants and waiters over the years, only two people have called me ‘Sir’ to my face during my professional career. One was legendary performer Eartha Kitt, who was brought to London to replicate one of her 1950s hits for an advertising campaign in the mid 90s. She was charm personified and insisted on calling me sir throughout the recording session as I produced her vocals and told her how to sing her own song! The other was Amy Winehouse.
I first met Amy when she was 16 years old. I had started a jamming session with my colleague Patrick Alan, who had been Michael Jackson’s choreographer (and was one of the most spectacular dancers in the Smooth Criminal video alongside his old pal Jeffrey Daniel). Patrick was at the time the lead singer of The Drifters, having been brought in by the legendary Johnny Moore, and he had previously started jamming nights in Los Angeles and New York where artists like Tupac Shakur had cut their performing teeth in front of appreciative and knowledgeable audiences. I had been a veteran of jam sessions in the jazz, rock, blues and folk scenes since the late 1960s and rued the fact that the opportunities for young performers to appear on stage with well established artists were no longer there. In my youth it was relatively easy to get on stage with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Kevin Ayers and just jam along. If you knew what you were doing you would be invited back, or told of other similar sessions. The Al Stewart Monday nights at the legendary Marquee Club in the late 60s/early 70s were a great example of this phenomenon as were the nightly happenings at my favourite haunt, The Speakeasy. It was not uncommon to find yourself trading licks with the likes of Hendrix, Elton John and Van Morrison, and many future relationships were born out of these spontaneous sessions.
Thus in 1999 we began our Monday nights at the 10 Room which ran for seven glorious years and hosted many legendary nights. I will talk in more detail about these sessions in a later post, but one of our earliest ‘patrons’ was this extraordinary young North London girl who insisted on calling me ‘sir’. She was never shy of getting up on stage after the likes of Chaka Khan and Lionel Richie, although most weeks she would be happy to hang out with her friends and listen to the music. And many of these friends and musicians would be alongside her for her entire career, as members of her band and backing singers – she was extraordinarily loyal to those she grew up with. She once said to me, at the height of her fame and notoriety ‘I never wanted all this – I just wanted to make music with my friends.’ At the time she was deep into the darkness that blighted her life and I could only say ‘you CAN still do that’ as I hugged her frail body.
It had all been so different when we first met. When she got up to sing with us we must have presented a formidable challenge to a performer of that age. There was a mixture of widely experienced session players and singers onstage mixed in with a precocious selection of ‘new kids on the block’. But Amy often eschewed the cover versions of soul classics backed by four or five back up singers favoured by other guests. It would be her and me up front, interacting on a jazz standard from the catalogue of Dinah Washington, Etta James or Billie Holiday. Even when her first album came out she would never perform any of her own songs, although the 10 Room Band provided the accompaniment on the album and on Back To Black. And she would always deliver a performance to remember. (It almost beggars belief that Amy and Joss Stone would perform on the same night but they did!) Occasionally we’d go and sit on the stairs and talk about music and writing – and yes sometimes I would tell her to go home the worst for wear. Then suddenly she was a worldwide megastar, and almost as suddenly she was gone. I was in conversation with the brilliant young actor Benedict Cumberbatch when I received a text from Patrick – Amy’s gone! After we had confirmed the news, we talked about the vicissitudes of fame and how it had affected Amy. I recalled the last time we played together at the Berkeley Square Ball in front of Kate Middleton and an audience who gasped in amazement when an emaciated Amy staggered on stage and was willed through a Motown classic with the help of her dear friend Zalon and the loyal guys in the band who would have done anything for her. It felt like a homecoming for her and we were so glad when she went off into rehab and got healthy again and seemed ready to make a new start – sadly it was a false dawn.
So what made her so special – how did we know she was something else? We just did – everyone knew it, even when she was clearly off her game. She had something then, something that the whole world recognized and responded to – and it’s very rare that you can stand alongside and be a part of that. I have been lucky, it has happened to me over and over again during my career – and Amy stands up there alongside Bob Marley, Hendrix, Muddy Waters and Van Morrison among others. I love this photo of us making music together that was captured by Harrison Funk, and the one of her smiling, obviously enjoying herself. This is the Amy I want to remember.
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Posted in: Music History 101