When Amy Winehouse passed away from as-yet unknown causes on July 23, the trauma registered across music communities and genre barriers. Rap websites chronicled her duets with Ghostface Killah and Mos Def. Green Day and M.I.A. recorded tributes. And nearly everyone returned to the album that brought her to our attention, 2006's Back to Black.
When the album first surfaced, some listeners struggled to tune out the deafening, industry-fueled hype surrounding it, and as a result, may have underestimated its powers. It is now clear that Back to Black is an incredible piece of music. Perhaps we've reached that verdict out of sadness over her untimely demise, or an awareness of how her years-long spiral into drug and alcohol abuse imprinted her literally blood-soaked image into our minds. Only time will tell us if Winehouse the paparazzi casualty will recede beneath Winehouse the retro-soul prodigy, much as we have come to forget the tabloid follies of Kurt Cobain and many others. We shouldn't lose an appreciation of her music.
Back to Black introduced "retro soul" to the mainstream. A wellspring of '60s-inflected soul, funk and pop music had emerged in the late '90s and simmered in the underground for years through recordings by Miles Tackett's Breakestra, Connie Price & the Keystones, and the Whitehead Brothers. One of its most important practitioners is Daptone Records and its owner, New York musician and producer Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann). Much as James Murphy and DFA Records revived disco and post-punk for the new millennium, Roth and his Brooklyn-based Daptone Records issued new interpretations of classic 1960s idioms from Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, the Sugarman Three, The Budos Band and many others. When Salaam Remi, who produced Winehouse's 2003 debut, Frank, joined forces with Mark Ronson for Back to Black, Ronson recruited Roth's Dap-Kings as the session band.
Back to Black is the sum of its references, and there are many of them. Remi made his name working with The Fugees, and then producing Nas' 2000s material like God's Son and its classic single, the Incredible Bongo Band-sampling " Made You Look." So there's a heavy hip-hop influence that extends beyond Winehouse's lyrical shout-outs to Slick Rick and Nas. Her vocals are reminiscent of Lauryn Hill, particularly on "Just Friends." "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a virtual rewrite of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." She adopted a beehive hairdo and the rebellious attitude of '60s girl groups like the Ronettes. Finally, Ronson and Remi's commercial sensibilities finessed what could have been an esoteric retro-soul excursion into a shimmering, radio-friendly gem reminiscent of U.K. pop in the early '80s, including singles like Mari Wilson's "Just What I Always Wanted,"Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know," and JoBoxers' "Just Got Lucky." (The Pipettes, whose 2006 self-titled debut predated Back to Black by a few months, deserve mention here.) Yet the breadth of musical knowledge that Winehouse and her collaborators brought to the album made it less ephemeral than a mere pop hit.
After Back to Black became an international sensation, veteran soul singer Sharon Jones often pointed out that the Dap-Kings were her band long before Ronson recruited them. It's true that Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' albums, particularly 2004's Naturally, were landmarks. Arguably, though, Winehouse's Back to Black was the tipping point that made retro-soul a stylistic choice as ubiquitous as Auto-Tuned R&B or Beach Boys-esque indie pop. However, neither Adele, nor Duffy, nor any of the other U.K. bluebirds who have followed Winehouse possess her sense of danger, nor her snarling, brutally honest attitude. That voice which could sound as thin as a razor's edge on "Rehab" and "Me & Mr. Jones" and as deep and sorrowful as a crying river on "Love Is a Losing Game" and "Wake Up Alone" is what made Back to Black a classic release.