As we lose one more great talent to drugs and mayhem, I don't want to make any clever jokes, and for now I don't even want to mourn. I just want to laud, applaud and pay homage to the “Red, White and Blues” Amy Winehouse became the 21st century queen of, albeit for too short a time. In my mind, she is the most significant songstress to come out of the UK in three decades; and what I loved about her music from the first chord I ever heard, was how she took the timeless musical languages of Swing and Rhythm & Blues, and gave them her own unique mod reinterpretation, while retaining the amazing soulfulness they inherently embody. In this she was magnificent - and more importantly, the latest manifestation of a Blues Brittania legacy that forever changed all notions of modern music from the moment it began. It's a story not many know, but is certainly one of the best tales ever told, and I think a fitting farewell to her. And it starts like this: Once upon a time, in the 1950s, Britain’s youth, as Eric Burdon of ‘The Animals’ so beautifully puts it, “reached into the trashcan of American society to bring out culture”. Yes indeed - British kids in post-war Britain discovered the old Blues that the US had ignored for half a century, created their own blues wave in the 60s through incredible bands and musicians like Taste, Savoy Brown, The Bluesbreakers, Cream and Peter Green, transformed their Blues into what became Rock and then re-exported it to America to for the first time in history awaken interest in the Blues in mainstream America. It was the Brits that discovered the works and resuscitated the careers of all the great bluesmen and used the Blues to birth Rock through bands like Cream, the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who. And original Blues legends like Son House that hadn’t played in thirty years and were slowly dying as forgotten old retired postmen in America, suddenly in their 70s were filling British arenas - looked for, found, brought back to life by British musicians and managers! Amazing!
In an interview, I watched the great BB King relate with tears in his eyes his joy at finally playing in front of white American audiences that had ignored him for two decades - An interest that was all inspired by the British Blueswave that had just hit the country. Indeed, the British contribution to the latter 20th century’s musical explosion was tantamount to birthing an entirely new musical discourse. So it's ironic that such a warm gift could be bestowed by a people most of us think of as cold. But as one music journo so perfectly described it, "Blues was the only force capable of thawing the emotional permafrost of post-WWII austerity Britain”.
Britain and the Blues saving each other. Beautiful!
In America, in early 1966, Jimmi Hendrix was playing to twelve people in smoky bars. A month after his English manager discovered him he was the toast of London and in six months, the biggest star in the world. This is how it hapopened: The Blues Jimi Hendrix grew up with and landed up playing as a young man in his early 20s, across the Atlantic inspired a flowering of British blues, whose additions and reinterpretations like the use of feedback through the amps, upping of tempo and a definitive rhythm section of bass and drums growling in the background, all sculpted new grooves into the face of the new Brit Blues that Hendrix then landed up listening to on imported records in funky NY record shops, which in turn encouraged his own exploration of those ideas, thus taking them to a whole other level - then being discovered by Chas Chandler, being taken to London, given the credence and support he deserved, and then rocketing back to America to definitively ignite it’s Rock and Blues fire quite literally with his seminal, gob-smackingly brilliant, insanely musical, guitar-burning, epic performance at the 1967 Monterrey Pop Festival in front of a crowd of thousands.
On the night Chas Chandler discovered Hendrix, his audience was 20.
Today, as a bluesman myself, in my heart I know that just like Hendrix's tragic loss at the same age for the same basic reasons, Amy Winehouse's passing is a veritable musical tragedy. Who knows what more she would have created? But what she did give us, more than just its own individual brilliance, is ultimately another superb stepping stone on the great pathway of Britain's magnificently culture-changing contribution to the music of our modern age.
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