“I’ve been told I was gifted with a lovely voice and I guess my dad’s to blame for that,” Amy Winehouse wrote in her application essay to the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School in London. “Although unlike my dad and his background and ancestors, I want to do something with these talents I’ve been ‘blessed’ with.”
Winehouse’s words are pasted around the room at the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new exhibit Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. The institute’s Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin plucked sentences from her essay to highlight the artist’s ambition, hunger, and tenacity — traits not always remembered about the troubled musician.
Precisely placed around the room are her things: a traditional Jewish cookbook her brother gifted, her favorite grey gingham Arrogant Cat dress, a suitcase full of family photographs, a smattering of humorous refrigerator magnets, a “terrible” guitar she shared with her brother.
All items meaningless during the singer’s life, and all items invaluable after her passing. Even more striking is Winehouse’s class photo, where she sits right center amongst her peers, the only student hunched forward and staring into the lens.
But perhaps most interesting for the music omnivore is Winehouse’s array of LPs and CDs. The latter are neatly arranged in a metal suitcase on a table top, and her vinyl is stacked on a shelf underneath.
The collection is, above all else, eclectic and utterly normal. The singer saved music that you might suspect —Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Carole King, for example — but she also stocked an array of the sort of albums you might blush about keeping one day after you’ve grown.
“You would expect that Amy would listen to soul music and of course Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald — all of these different artists that had an influence on her, but then, The Mickey Mouse Club was surprising to me,” Galpin told CBS SF. “Also in the vinyl section, Mary J. Blige is right there. I was really surprised, because she would say in interviews sometimes that she doesn’t listen to current and contemporary music that much. But she would.”
There, wedged among a CD box set of The Drifters, George Michael, and some of the jazz greats sits Lauryn Hill. Biz Markie. Nas. Even Adam Sandler’s spoken word Stan & Judy’s Kid is in there.
Atop all of them laid a mix CD hand scribbled with “Ayyymeeeeeee“. Galpin said that the CJM curators didn’t listen to it, nor do they know what is on it, but chances are, it’s just as much a hodgepodge of music as her collection. Winehouse even kept a mix tape of the songs that calmed her down, called the “Chill-Out” playlist. On it were hits and odd picks from soul singers and jazz titans, but also cheeky numbers from The Mickey Mouse Club, and even The Offspring. The mixtape’s playlist now serves as the soundtrack for the gallery exhibit.
“This tape was from when she was 13 or 14 but as [Winehouse’s brother, who lent items to the exhibit] says, she would still listen to [it] when she was 20 until she died,” Galpin stated.
This gamut of genres, contrary to what she sometimes claimed in interviews, played in her ear as a budding musician, and probably had more of an impact in her writing than she tended to let on.
“When you listen to her music you can hear all the beats, the rhythm, the background vocals, that remind you especially of the girl groups — the Ronettes, the Supremes — from that time,” Galpin said. “The main difference to me is that her lyrics are very personal, very autobiographical. That’s something that is more contemporary.”
See the Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum July 23 through November 1, 2015.
Alyssa Pereira is a music writer, web producer, and pop culture blogger for CBS stations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Find her on Twitter at Alyssa Pereira