Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
How “Rehab” came to be, which song Nas inspired and other behind-the-scenes facts about singer-songwriter’s 2006 smash
Amy Winehouse‘s second – and final – album came out in the U.K. 10 years ago this month. Back to Black, which features Winehouse’s whiskey-soaked voice and arrestingly precise lyrics over taut R&B inspired by the days of Stax and Motown, has only grown in stature, its portrait of love’s hardest moments still resonant a decade after its release and five years after Winehouse’s untimely death. Here are 10 compelling facts about the album and the frenzy that surrounded it.
1. Winehouse turned to girl groups and other Sixties sounds to escape the jazz influences on her debut Frank.
“I’m not a jazz girl any more,” Winehouse told the British paper The Sun in 2006. “These songs [on Back to Black] are more accessible than the tracks on Frank, as jazz is quite elitist. People didn’t get it. I’ve been listening to ’60s bands and girl groups and it came out in the writing onBack to Black.” She cited the Velvelettes (mistaken for the Velvet Underground by the British tabloid) and the Shangri-Las as two of the groups who influenced her writing, adding, “There’s a lot of bands which are ’60s-influenced at the moment, but I guess I’m the only girl doing it.”
2. Mark Ronson wrote the music for Back to Black‘s title track the night after he met Winehouse.
Ronson and Winehouse shared a publishing company, which encouraged a meeting between the two. (Before she met him, “I thought he was just some big hip-hop beats geezer,” Winehouse recalled to The Irish Times in 2006, but she later told The Sun that he was “the coolest man out there.”) “It was in New York, March 2006, in the studio I used to have on Mercer Street,” Ronson recalled to Mojo in 2010. “She told me she presumed I was some old guy with a beard – like Rick Rubin. I just thought, ‘Let’s talk about music, see what she likes.’ She said she liked to go out to bars and clubs and play snooker with her boyfriend and listen to the Shangri-Las. So she played me some of those records, which turned into a crash course in girl-group productions. … I told her that I had nothing to play her right now but if she let me work on something overnight she could come back tomorrow. So I came up with this little piano riff, which became the verse chords to ‘Back to Black.’ Behind it I just put a kick drum and a tambourine and tons of reverb.” Winehouse approved, and over the next two weeks, the pair “fleshed out five or six songs.”
3. Winehouse came up with the “Rehab” hook while walking down the street with Ronson.
“One day [Ronson and Winehouse] decided to take a quick stroll around the neighborhood because Amy wanted to buy [her then-boyfriend] Alex Clare a present,” Winehouse’s father, Mitch, recalled in his 2012 memoirAmy, My Daughter. “On the way back Amy began telling Mark about being with Blake [Fielder-Civil, her ex], 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.'” Later, Ronson would help transform its music into the upbeat yet sullen homage to girl groups that became Winehouse’s U.S. breakthrough.
4. Ronson “borrowed” soul band the Dap-Kings from singer Sharon Jones for extended periods of time.
“We were using every computer trick in the book to make it sound old,” Ronson told The New York Times in 2007. But once Brooklyn-based R&B revivalists the Dap-Kings entered the studio to flesh out Winehouse and Ronson’s Sixties-inspired sound, “it just sounded a million times better,” he said. “We were just sitting here minding our own business, doing our little 45s and albums, and all of a sudden they were like, ‘I want your sound,'” Sharon Jones – who fronted the Dap-Kings before and after Winehouse borrowed them, and still plays with them today – told the The Times in 2007. Jones was sidelined during her band’s gigs with Winehouse, which put her in an awkward position, which she outlined to the Times thusly: “First, I feel kind of angry about it … [but] if it took Amy to get the Dap-Kings heard, then it’s a good thing. I say it’s great. Thank you.”
5. Two classic R&B cuts appear on Back to Black.
While the Dap-Kings do most of the heavy lifting music-wise, and Winehouse has sole writing credits on most of its songs, Ronson also made use of two vintage soul sides: “Tears Dry on Their Own” incorporates the Marvin Gaye–Tami Terrell smash “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” written by the hitmaking duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, while “He Can Only Hold Her” interpolates the Icemen’s 1966 track “My Girl (She’s a Fox).” Jimi Hendrix played guitar on the original version of that track, the result of sessions he recorded with the saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood.
6. The “Mr. Jones” in “Me and Mr. Jones” is Nas.
Winehouse was a longtime admirer of the Queens-born MC Nas; the Franktrack “In My Bed” sampled a version of the “Made You Look” instrumental. But the tart-tongued Back to Black track hinged on missing a Nas show, a fact hidden in a title that played off the classic Billy Paul soul side from 1972. “I don’t really remember if Salaam, who was really close to her, who introduced us, if he told me about it or not,” Nas told XXL in 2011. “But, I heard a lot about it before I even heard the song.” Clues to the identity of “Mr. Jones” abound throughout the song, but the key one comes at the end: “Mr. Destiny, nine and 14” refers to Nas’ daughter Destiny and the birthdate the two share – September 14.
7. Winehouse road-tested her songs in her father’s cab.
“She was very much in control, and she was a perfectionist, redoing phrases and even words to the nth degree,” Mitch Winehouse, a London taxi driver, wrote in Amy, My Daughter. That extended to her trying to recapture the atmosphere in which most people would listen to her music: “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.”
8. Winehouse was involved with singer Alex Clare during the promotional run-up to Back to Black‘s release, although her ex-turned-husband Blake Fielder-Civil was frequently mentioned in the album’s press.
Interviews with Winehouse during the period around Back to Black‘s October 2006 U.K. release cite “Alex,” a boyfriend who isn’t too keen on the idea of Winehouse and Fielder-Civil, the professed inspiration for many of the songs on Back to Black, hanging out. “‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ is a track about the break-up with Blake, my ex,” she told The Sun in 2006. “Most of these songs are about him. I shouldn’t have been in a relationship with him because he was already involved with someone else – a bit too close to home. The song is about when we split up and saying to myself: ‘Yes, you’re sad but you’ll get over it.’ And I did. I still talk to Blake and, once we got over the initial pain, it was fine. I believe you can be mates with your ex. … I’m still really close to him as a friend and nothing more, though Alex, my boyfriend now, doesn’t like me seeing him. Which is understandable, I guess.” Clare would go on to have a hit with the glitchy “Too Close” in 2012.
9. Winehouse’s U.S. debut show was a star-studded affair.
Back to Black came out in the United States in March 2007, and Winehouse had a coming-out party of sorts when she played a pair of shows at the intimate New York City venue Joe’s Pub. Among those in attendance: Jay-Z, Mos Def, Dr. John and Nona Hendry.
10. Winehouse wanted to follow up the heartbroken Back to Blackwith an album of love songs.
“I want to do an album of winsome, pining songs,” Winehouse told The Irish Times in 2006. “I like that idea. I don’t want to do another record of ‘screw you’ songs. … I am a very romantic person. I don’t mean romantic in a flowers and chocolates kind of way. It’s more like if it’s raining, I’ll go up to the window and press my nose against the glass and sigh at how beautiful it all looks.”