After the tragic death of Amy Winehouse last year, her father, Mitch, agreed to write a memoir about his daughter’s brief life. In this exclusive excerpt from Amy, My Daughter, he recounts when Amy switched representation from 19 Management to Metropolis Music, her first meeting with producer Mark Ronson and their early work on the tunes that would form her blockbuster album, Back to Black. “You know, they tried to make me go to rehab, and I told them no, no, no,” she told Ronson during a walk in New York, talking about her family. “That’s quite gimmicky,” he said. “We should turn that into a song.”
Leaving 19 was a tough decision but it turned out to be the right one. In the end, Amy’s relationship with Raye Cosbert and Metropolis became, in my view, one of the most successful artist/manager partnerings in the music business. Very quickly, Raye set up meetings with Lucian Grainge at Universal, and Guy Moot at EMI. Raye’s energy was just what Amy’s career needed – like a kick up the arse. For some time Guy Moot had wanted Amy to get together with the talented young Mark Ronson, a producer/arranger/songwriter/DJ. In March 2006, a few months after she’d signed with Metropolis, Raye encouraged her to meet Mark in New York so the two of them could ‘hook up’. She knew very little about him before she walked into his studio on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village, and on first seeing him, she said, ‘Oh, the engineer’s here.’ Later she told him that she’d thought he would be an older Jewish guy with a big beard. That meeting was a bit like an awkward first date. Amy played Mark some Shangri-Las tracks, which had the real retro sound that she was into, and she told him that was the sort of music she wanted to make for the new album. Mark knew some of the tracks Amy mentioned but otherwise she gave him a crash course in Sixties jukebox, girl-group pop music. She’d done the same for me when I’d stumbled over a pile of old vinyl records – the Ronettes, the Chiffons, the Crystals – that she’d bought from a stall in Camden Market. That had been where she’d developed her love of Sixties makeup and the beehive hairdo.
They met again the following day, by which time Mark had come up with a piano riff that became the verse chords to “Back to Black.” Behind the piano, he put a kick drum, a tambourine and “tons of reverb.” Amy loved it, and it was the first song she recorded for the new album.
Amy was supposed to be flying home a few days later, but she was so taken with Mark that she called me to say she was going to stay in New York to carry on working with him. Her trip lasted another two weeks and proved very fruitful, with Amy and Mark fleshing out five or six songs. Amy would play Mark a song on her guitar, write the chords down for him and leave him to work out the arrangements. A lot of her songs were to do with Blake [Fielder-Civil], which did not escape Mark’s attention. She told Mark that writing songs about him was cathartic and that “Back to Black” summed up what had happened when their relationship had ended: Blake had gone back to his ex and Amy to black, or drinking and hard times. It was some of her most inspired writing because, for better or worse, she’d lived it.
Mark and Amy inspired each other musically, each bringing out fresh ideas in the other. One day they decided to take a quick stroll around the neighbourhood because Amy wanted to buy Alex Clare a present. On the way back Amy began telling Mark about being with Blake, then not being with Blake and being with Alex instead. She told him about the time at my house after she’d been in hospital when everyone had been going on at her about her drinking. “You know they tried to make me go to rehab, and I told them, no, no, no.”
“That’s quite gimmicky,” Mark replied. “It sounds hooky. You should go back to the studio and we should turn that into a song.”
Of course, Amy had written that line in one of her books ages ago. She’d told me before she was planning to write a song about what had happened that day, but that was the moment “Rehab” came to life.
Amy had also been working on a tune for the “hook,” but when she played it to Mark later that day it started out as a slow blues shuffle – it was like a twelve-bar blues progression. Mark suggested that she should think about doing a Sixties girl-group sound, as she liked them so much. He also thought it would be fun to put in the Beatles-style E minor and A minor chords, which would give it a jangly feel. Amy was unaccustomed to this style – most of the songs she was writing were based around jazz chords – but it worked and that day she wrote “Rehab” in just three hours.
If you had sat Amy down with a pen and paper every day, she wouldn’t have written a song. But every now and then, something or someone turned the light on in her head and she wrote something brilliant. During that time it happened over and over again.
The sessions in the studio became very intense and tiring, especially for Mark, who would sometimes work a double shift and then fall asleep. He would wake up with his head in Amy’s lap and she would be stroking his hair, as if he was a four-year-old. Mark was a few years older than Amy, but he told me he found her very motherly and kind.
This was a very productive period for Amy. She’d already written “Wake Up Alone,” “Love Is a Losing Game” and “You Know I’m No Good” when we were on holiday in Spain, so the new album was taking shape. Before she’d met Mark, Amy had been in Miami, working with Salaam Remi on a few tracks. Her unexpected burst of creativity in New York prompted her to call him. She told him how excited she was about what she was doing with Mark, and Salaam was very encouraging. Jokingly, she said to him, “So you’d better step up.” Later she went back to Miami to work some more with Salaam, who did a fantastic job on the tracks he produced for the album.
When Amy returned to London she told me excitedly about some of the Hispanic women she’d seen in Miami, and how she wanted to blend their look – thick eyebrows, heavy eye-liner, bright red lipstick – with her passion for the Sixties “beehive.”
By then, Mark had all he needed to cut the music tracks with the band, the Dap-Kings, at the Daptone Recording Studios in Brooklyn. Shortly after that my mother passed away and Amy, along with the rest of the family, was in pieces. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, in June 2006, that Amy added the last touches to Back to Black, recording the vocals at the Power House Studios in west London. I went along that day to see her at work – the first time I’d been with her while she was recording. I hadn’t heard anything that she’d been doing for the new album, so it was amazing to listen to it for the first time. The sound was so clear and so basic: they’d stripped everything back to produce something so like the records of the early sixties. Amy did the vocals for Back to Black over the already-recorded band tracks, and I stood in the booth with Raye, Salaam and one or two others while she sang.
It was fascinating to watch her: she was very much in control, and she was a perfectionist, redoing phrases and even words to the nth degree. When she wanted to listen to what she’d sung, she’d get them to put it on a CD, then play it in my taxi outside, because she wanted to know how most people would hear her music, which would not be through professional studio systems. In the end, Back to Black was made in just five months.
Excerpted from the book Amy, My Daughter by Mitch Winehouse, out June 26th, with permission from It Books.