First Vintage

Amy Winehouse brings her own bottle

Listen to Amy Winehouse and think the Shirelles. Billie Holliday. Nina Simone. Picture a depressive, impassioned woman of color and of size, singing 'bout love and pain with a voice that's been around the block more times than the ice cream man.

Look at Winehouse's Back to Black album cover to get startled by the facts. The singer is a 23-year-old, tatted-out Jewish waif from North London wearing a dress that wouldn't fit half of Dinah Washington's boobs. An “Explicit Lyrics” sticker shows she's got a mouth on her, too — a kisser most mothers would stuff full of Ivory Soap to keep it from spewing lines like Kept his dick wet/ with his same old safe bet.

This girl is one surprise after another.

Less shocking for someone named Winehouse: She's widely reported to be a drunken trainwreck. There's enough evidence of that in the music: The album's first single, “Rehab,” is more than a little autobiographical, coming as a response to requests by her former management company to quit the sauce (They tried to make me to go to rehab, but I said no, no, no).

Live shows are infamously booze-drenched, with reports of Winehouse canceling gigs just hours after being spotted in the supermarket liquor aisle, leaving one performance mid-song to vomit, and slurring through a televised duet with Charlotte Church. Tabloids catalog every make-up/breakup and track her drastic weight loss. At least one blogger dubbed her “the female Pete Doherty,” and, in a depressingly amusing twist, even her father — who “thinks I'm fine,” sings Winehouse on “Rehab” — is now worried, telling the Sunday Mirror, “I'm not ruling out rehab. Amy needs a break.”

But Winehouse is no Pete Doherty. (C'mon, would anybody really be bummed if there were no more Babyshambles records?) No, she's more like the British, soul-singing Lindsay Lohan — a legitimately talented chick who, if she chilled on the partying and kept her mug out of the tabloids, could have a real career.

Winehouse has started strong out of the gate, winning the British Grammy for Best Female Solo Act in the U.K., where Back to Black is triple-platinum. Entertainment Weekly, Mojo, Billboard, and the New York Times, offered glowing praise, and Winehouse's swelling fanbase includes everyone from Jay-Z and Bruce Willis to Elton John and the cast of Grey's Anatomy. In the wake of her hotly praised showcases at SXSW, radio stations are catching on quick.

“”Rehab' could be the “Crazy' of this spring. It's got the same kind of momentum,” says Garett Michaels, program director for San Diego's KBZT-Radio, which recently added “Rehab” after being the first alternative station to put the Gnarls Barkley single in rotation.

One could argue that this portends one-hit wonderdom for Winehouse, especially if you lump her in with a novelty act like Lily Allen, who broke around the same time. But with a reported vocal range of five octaves, a knack for droll phrasing, and the balls to say what's on her mind, Winehouse could also be a very interesting artist to watch for years to come … provided she's coherent enough to write songs broader than a Tanqueray habit.

Los Angeles-based booking agent Natasha Bishop was “blown out of the water” by Winehouse at SXSW, where the singer's on-stage admission of being “a little bit drunk” whipped the crowd into a lather. But Bishop wonders if Winehouse can get it together enough to capitalize on the buzz. “To have a long-lasting career in the music industry, you need to take this seriously,” Bishop says. “Next month there will be another act with just as much talent and momentum that everyone will jump on. If Winehouse is a trainwreck, people will jump off and she'll derail.”

So here's a dare, Amy. Show up the tabloids and the skeptics by being more than just another She-Doherty. Do what you do best — surprise us.

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