Amy Winehouse, Curtis Mayfield, Daptone Records, Donny Hathaway, Duets, Frank Sinatra, James Bond, John Barry, Lioness, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, Mark Ronson, Nas, NME, Salaam Remi, Tony Bennett, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
Released in December 2011, four months after the death of Amy Winehouse, Lioness: Hidden Treasures – which takes its name from the singer’s independent record label – is not the third album that fans have longed for since the award-winning Back to Black (2006), but a collection of covers, demos and alternate versions spanning her meteoric career.
Overseen by Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, who produced much of her work, the project has the blessing of Winehouse’s family. A percentage of sales will be paid directly to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity dedicated to young people at risk of drug abuse.
The album opens with a cover of the 1963 hit, ‘Our Day Will Come’. Envisioned as an ‘easy listening’ track by its composers, it was first recorded by R&B outfit Ruby & the Romantics. The song has been covered many times, by artists including Julie London, Billy Fury, The Supremes, The Carpenters and Cher.
Amy’s ska-tinged interpretation is faithful to the original. Recorded in 2002, during her first sessions with Salaam Remi, her vocal is sweet and wistful – which, in retrospect, seems poignant.
The second track gives a rare glimpse into what was to be her next album. ‘Between the Cheats’ was recorded in 2008 with Salaam Remi. That week, Amy had abandoned plans for a James Bond theme as too restrictive (instead of letting her compose a song and fitting it around the film’s concept, its producers expected her to follow their own guidelines, even specifying the chords.)
Her collaboration with Mark Ronson on the Bond project fell apart. Their relationship was often somewhat volatile, but Ronson’s high profile led to their temporary rift being misreported as due to Amy being ‘unfit for work’.
This was unfair, as you will hear from the track she recorded days later with Salaam Remi. ‘Between the Cheats’ was written while Amy was still married (to Blake Fielder-Civil), and despite many obstacles – Blake was then on remand, awaiting trial on a charge of serious assault – the song suggests that Amy was blissfully devoted.
‘I would die before I’d divorce you,’ she begins. ‘I’d take a thousand thumps for my love.’ The latter line reveals the sometimes brutal nature of that love. But the violence is not one-sided: ‘’Cause you kiss a lucky horseshoe,’ she continues, ‘Stuck it in my boxing glove.’
As in the earlier ‘Love is a Losing Game’, gambling is a metaphor. Though starry-eyed, Amy depicts both herself and Blake as ‘cheats’. The NME describes the track as ‘lush doo-wop drenched in male backing vocals,’ and it washes over the listener in a dreamy, lovelorn swoon.
‘Tears Dry’ is the demo of Winehouse’s biggest hits, ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’. Amy’s vocal is more low-key in this take, and the pace is leisurely. ‘This was how she’d normally write,’ Remi commented, ‘on an acoustic guitar at 85 bpm.’
A sample from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1966 duet, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, was later added – making the final cut a perfect union of vintage Motown and millennial Brit Pop.
‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, composed by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, became the first song by an all-girl group to reach No 1 in the US when it was recorded by The Shirelles in 1960. Amy’s cover first appeared in 2004, on the soundtrack to Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
Pitched between the jazz vibe of 2003’s Frank and the soulful Back to Black, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ was the first indicator of how strong an influence the girl group sound would be on Amy’s later career.
‘The way she turns those different phrases and melodies is so clever,’ Mark Ronson told the NME. ‘She was a jazz singer at heart so had that thing of never singing a melody the same way twice.’ When production on Lioness: Hidden Treasures commenced, Ronson decided to add ‘a big John Barry treatment,’ referring to the Bond theme composer of the 1960s.
Ronson’s bombastic version is a tribute to Amy, but unlike the earlier recording, it offsets her sweet, rueful vocal. ‘I forgot how much better she makes me until I started working on the arrangement for this song,’ he wrote in the album’s sleeve notes. ‘I just wish she was still here to tell me to “turn the harp down, it sounds like fucking Mariah Carey!”’
After a brief drum roll, ‘Like Smoke’ takes us directly to Amy singing what was the first verse of a new composition. Her vocal is lush – and more verses were written, though sadly she only recorded one.
‘I never wanted you to be my man/I just need your company,’ Amy sings. ‘Don’t want to get dependent on/Your time, or who you spend it on/Or lose the way you love me.’ She seemed to be edging towards a new maturity, but this was precarious: ‘Like smoke, I hang around in the unbalance…’
Nas brings the song up to date, with references to the global recession and Occupy Wall Street, and on a more personal note, the death of his friend. ‘Why did God take away the homie/I can’t stand it,’ he muses, adding, ‘I’m a firm believer that we all meet up in eternity.’
He recalls Amy’s down-to-earth manner: ‘She said my man u needs to laugh sometime/Classifies me as a bore, I told her have some wine.’ There is also a dash of her playful wit: ‘You colder than penguin pussy…’
Finally, Nas claims, ‘You know how Amy and me are straight players,’ turning ‘Between the Cheats’ on its head. As Salaam Remi reflects, ‘Like Smoke’ is ‘finally Amy doing a song with Nas who she’d wanted to do a song with for years.’
‘Valerie’, a hit for The Zutons in 2006, was covered by Amy in 2007 for Mark Ronson’s album, Version. His final arrangement sampled The Supremes’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and spent 19 weeks in the UK Top 20, peaking at No 2.
However, both Amy and Mark preferred their looser, original recording, made during her first visit to Daptone Studios. ‘When we started the song it had a kind of ‘60s Curtis Mayfield arrangement,’ he told the NME. ‘It’s a little more jazz tempo and it’s super soulful.’
‘She had been in England,’ Ronson wrote of the trip, ‘and had never seen the place nor met these brilliant musicians who had played on her songs. There was a joyous feeling in the room and I thought we should cut a tune…’
The first song that Amy performed for Remi, back in 2002, was a cover of bossa nova classic ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. Written about a pretty teenager, Helô Pineiro, it became a worldwide hit for Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto and her musical partner, Stan Getz, back in 1964.
In contrast to their cool, laidback interpretation, Amy’s version is exuberant. It more closely resembles Frank Sinatra’s 1967 cover, with Antonio Carlos Brohim. Amy’s innocent, yet passionate vocals are bridged in scat (replacing Brohim’s Portuguese segment.)
Sinatra is mentioned in the next track, ‘Half Time’, recorded during the sessions for Frank (a title he may have partly inspired.) ‘The lyric goes back to “halftime”, like she would be learning in music class,’ Remi explained.
‘Amy lived music,’ he wrote, ‘and was always writing, talking and thinking about music.’ It could also be said that music was her most enduring love. ‘Half Time’ has a soft, womblike mood (‘Simple sweet guitar, humbled by the bass/So when the beat kicks in/Everything falls into place’.)
Perhaps Amy was most herself in music (‘My lyrics revealing/Some natural vibe’.) And yet, this act of devotion was not accomplished without a struggle (‘The tune tears me apart/And I swallow it whole’.)
Throughout her career, Amy remained a musician first, celebrity second. (‘And when Frank Sinatra sings/It’s too much to take’.) She loved to perform favourite songs, as a release from her own, more intimate compositions. (‘So I sing the standard shit/It pacifies my ache’.)
‘Most of Amy’s songs started with a guitar and a vocal and a basic beat, if there was any beat at all,’ Salaam Remi recalled. ‘So it was really about her being able to express herself lyrically and then find the chords she wanted to use and then get it arranged after.’
Typically for Amy, ‘Wake Up Alone’ was initially recorded in a single take. This stripped-down demo allows the listener to focus on her raw, desolate vocal. ‘Wake Up Alone’ is one of Amy’s finest songs, with each line conveying itself dramatically.
The pathos of ‘I stay up, clean the house; at least I’m not drinking’, and the poetic imagery of ‘Pour myself over him/Moon spilling in’ reveal Amy’s uncanny ability for unveiling emotion, which set her apart from many other blues singers.
‘Best Friends’ dates from the Frank era. Amy’s sassy sarcasm is characteristic of her youthful style. Though it was not released at the time, she often played ‘Best Friends’ as a live opener (much to the annoyance of her best friend.)
The lilting, acoustic arrangement of the original put Amy’s caustic teasing in a soft, light-hearted context, and it is a barbed, yet tender take on teenage friendship.
However, Salaam Remi’s reworking, ‘Best Friends, Right?’, is faster, busier. Unfortunately, much of the guarded softness of Amy’s original performance is thus submerged.
‘Body and Soul’, a duet with Tony Bennett from early 2011, was recorded for the jazz veteran’s Duets 2 album, featuring collaborations with artists from Norah Jones to Aretha Franklin. Amy had long admired Bennett, who presented her with a Grammy in 2008.
‘Of all the contemporary artists I’ve worked with, she was the most natural jazz voice,’ he said. When Amy died suddenly just months later, he was deeply shocked, admitting, ‘I’ve also had a moment of insecurity and darkness and was able to pull out of it.’
Since 1930, ‘Body and Soul’ has become a standard, sung by Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and interpreted by great musicians like John Coltrane. Despite the ravages that drug abuse had inflicted on Amy’s voice since Back to Black, she still outshines her experienced partner.
However, the confines of a duet don’t give Amy much room to manoeuvre. This ‘Body and Soul’ has plenty of warmth and showmanship, but it’s not among her best work.
Lioness: Hidden Treasures closes with ‘A Song for You’, written by Leon Russell in 1971. It has become a modern classic, but the version that influenced Amy most was recorded by one of her idols, Donny Hathaway.
Salaam Remi’s production replicates the opening to Hathaway’s version. ‘It was a time when I wish I’d had video cameras in my eyes,’ he recalls of the day in 2009 when Amy laid down her vocal. ‘It was like somebody singing a song at a funeral where you’re just barely holding yourself together.’
‘She was really emotional as she read the lyrics,’ Remi wrote. ‘You can really hear and feel the emotion in her vocal. I just sat and listened…’
Amy’s vocal is broken, slurred – and yet, no track on this album is more devastating. I cannot hear the lines ‘And when my life is over/Remember, remember…’ without reliving the tragedy of her passing, and the world’s loss.
The bold production style – which at other stages in Amy’s career, threatened to upstage her – only the highlights her indomitable spirit, while her vocal imperfections remind us how close she came to mastering her art.
The track ends with Amy talking about Donny Hathaway in the studio. ‘He couldn’t contain himself, you know?’ she says, and this could also be said of her.
Inevitably, Lioness: Hidden Treasures is a little disappointing, if also a testament to her enduring gifts. Only three unreleased, original compositions are featured, one of which is ten years old. Some critics have sniped that Amy wasted her final years. Many misunderstand her R&B sensibilities.
But it’s remarkable that in less than a decade, Amy achieved as much as she did – especially considering that she was only nineteen years old when her début album was released, and the years of private turmoil and public scrutiny that followed the runaway success of Back to Black.
Salaam Remi has said that all the songs for her planned third album were written, though not recorded. For Amy, songwriting was the foundation of her work. Performance came easily as long as she was confident in her material. As yet, it’s unclear whether more will surface in future.
‘I will probably never again get to create something as singularly magical as the stuff we made on Back to Black,’ Mark Ronson wrote. ‘It’s something that I accepted even before we lost her. Sometimes the stars align, and things just happen…But I think of her all the time and how she never compromised herself in her music and her daily life.’
‘I was in London and I didn’t go to see her,’ Remi told the NME of Amy’s final weekend. ‘I was waiting ‘til Sunday and she passed on Saturday. Why didn’t I go? I didn’t even talk to her. So I feel the same way with the music…having these things in my hard drive. And her family not knowing, because it made them feel better. And the world not knowing. Why should I be sitting on it? Because what if something happened to me?’
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