‘Back to Black’ and The Music That Made Amy Winehouse

As the Amy Winehouse biopic arrives in theaters, here are 10 songs that helped shape her sound.

Amy Winehouse performing at Lollapalooza in Grant Park on August 5, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois. Daniel Boczarski/Redferns

More than 15 years from her stunning international breakthrough in 2007, the story of Amy Winehouse is a tragic music tale for the ages. Her distinctive contralto cut through pop radio airwaves on “Rehab,” a vintage soul throwback that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and netted three of the six Grammy Awards she’d win (including Song and Record of the Year). But it also shed a light on the darker aspects of her life, including the struggle with substance abuse that led to her death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, only 27 years old.

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This week, the latest posthumous portrait of Winehouse arrives in theaters: the biopic Back to Black, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Fifty Shades of Grey) and starring Marisa Abela as the singer. The film’s release is a good time to remind prospective viewers of how singular Winehouse was: a synthesizer of decades of pop, soul, and jazz traditions whose brief but pivotal discography bridged a gap between past masters and future imitators.

These 10 songs were cited by Winehouse, her family, collaborators and critics as foundational to her one-of-a-kind career.

Frank Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon”

When publishing his memoir in 2012, Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse cited this pop standard—introduced in 1954 by Kaye Ballard, made popular in 1960 by Peggy Lee, and immortalized by Sinatra in 1964 as NASA got serious about the Apollo missions to the moon’s surface—as a childhood favorite of his rebellious daughter. “Whenever she got chastised at school, she would always sing [it] before she went up to the headmistress to be told off,” he said. “It cheered her up.”

Carole King, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”

Amy was attracted to singer-songwriters as much as she was to vocal jazz and soul interpreters. When her mother Janis published a memoir in 2014, she noted Amy was inspired to write by Carole King. The pair would spend weekends listening to albums like Tapestry, and Amy’s own take on King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”—originally a Number One hit for The Shirelles in 1960—was released posthumously.

Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue, “Whatta Man”

You’d be mistaken for thinking Amy’s influences solely came from acts who were popular long before she was born. She was keyed into the R&B and rap singles that dominated U.S. radio before crossing over to the other side of the Atlantic, and even formed a pre-teen rap group, Sweet N’ Sour, with childhood friend Juliette Ashby.

Ella Fitzgerald, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”

Though the bold and brassy vocals of The First Lady of Song weren’t Winehouse’s most primary influence as a singer, her take on standards like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” proved very pivotal to young Amy’s career. She sang this song during her successful audition to the Sylvia Young Theatre School, one of the first places she learned to hone her craft.

Sarah Vaughan, “Lullaby of Birdland”

More than Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington, Winehouse’s greatest vocal jazz influence was probably the dynamic Sarah Vaughan, whose versatile instrument was toasted by critics and contemporaries alike. Amy warmed to Vaughan’s work in her late teens, later calling her “one of my favorite singers of all time…she was an instrument”; she namechecked the Divine One in “October Song,” off her 2003 debut Frank, and the BBC’s review of the album noted the similarities in both singers’ scatting abilities.

Nas, “Made You Look”

Amy found an unlikely influence in Queens rapper Nas. His “Made You Look,” off 2002’s God’s Son, was produced by Salaam Remi, who almost immediately joined the sessions for Frank. “There are Nas songs where Amy did ad libs on them that we never put out that were just background that she was just singing on,” Remi later said. “She was really inspired by him.” “In My Bed,” Frank’s first single, shared the same beat as “Made You Look,” built from a sample of the breakbeat classic “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band’s (The Back to Black cut “Me & Mr. Jones” is rumored to be about Nas; two posthumous collaborations were later released.)

The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”

Frank introduced audiences to Winehouse’s unusually assured stage presence – she was all of 20 at the time – but even the girl singing about “Fuck Me Pumps” was only starting to piece together her signature look. By the time Back to Black hit stores, she’d landed on the visual flair that would define her: a beehive hairdo and cat-eye makeup liberally cribbed from the look of The Ronettes in the ‘60s. The visual parallels weren’t lost on Ronnie Spector, either, who told the Village Voice that she confused Amy for herself after seeing a picture in The New York Post. “When I saw that pic, I thought, ‘That’s me!’” she said. “But then I found out, no, it’s Amy! I didn’t have on my glasses.”

The Shangri-Las, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”

The look of girl groups like The Ronettes inspired Winehouse’s visual aesthetic, but the sonic tone of Back to Black—about half of which was produced by an up-and-coming former DJ named Mark Ronson and featured backing by Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings—was particularly inspired by the brassy rock-and-soul style of The Shangri-Las. Winehouse was fond of quoting their “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” during live versions of Back to Black’s title track, and also cited “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” as a song that buoyed her during the end of her tumultuous marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

And of course, no consideration of Back to Black is complete without a thought for the sound of young America that Detroit label Motown proffered from America to England in the ‘60s. The arrangements on the album may skew closer toward Northern soul styles, but the track “Tears Dry on Their Own” expertly interpolated portions of one of the label’s great duets, down to the tapping drumsticks in the intro.

The Zutons, “Valerie”

Back in Black made Amy Winehouse a global superstar (who can forget the century’s most emotional reaction to winning at the Grammy Awards?), but the pressures of fame and increased paparazzi attention threatened her promising future. Her alcohol dependency caused her to blow lyrics in concert, and attempts to entice her back into the studio were futile. Yet she did make one last great track with Ronson, just after the Back to Black sessions for his covers album Version. Working again with The Dap-Kings, she recast The Zutons’ laid-back, year-old indie-rocker “Valerie” as a lively soul rave-up, the most brazen act of thievery by interpretation since Prince got his high-heel boots rocked by Chaka Khan or Sinead O’Connor. “Valerie” is how we want to remember Amy Winehouse: assured but accessible, that smoky voice ringing out to remind us that, contrary to what she may have sung, she was real good.

‘Back to Black’ and The Music That Made Amy Winehouse