Six years after the untimely death of Amy Winehouse, her father Mitch talks about her life, her music and the charity his family have set up in her name, to help those beset by similar life-threatening personal issues
When he was first thrust into the glare of the spotlight over a decade ago, Mitch Winehouse looked as if he positively relished the attention. Still, he was a down to earth, working class cabbie whose daughter had won the hearts of millions of people all over the world, so nobody really begrudged him his 15 minutes of fame.
Amy Winehouse was the finest female singer to emerge from these shores since the sixties, yet as time went on, she gradually became as famous for her episodic personal life as she was for her remarkable voice and superb songwriting.
Five years after the release of her multi-million selling second album, Back To Black, which had entered the American charts at No. 7, the highest-ever position for a British female artist, she tragically passed away at the age of 27, and her family were left to pick up the pieces. When Asif Kapadia’s documentary film, Amy came out in 2015, there seemed to be a palpable shift in the way a lot of people perceived Mitch, who is portrayed as greedy, self-serving and uncaring. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on Mitch Winehouse, but is he more sinned against than sinning?
Before we meet, I have already decided that we should avoid the thorny issue of the film (which went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary feature) so that we can focus solely on the life of his daughter and his work with the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which was established not long after her death.
But literally two minutes after we have sat down for lunch in a private dining room at the back of Boisdale Belgravia, the elephant in the room comes charging into full view. Over the course of the next couple of hours, Mitch keeps returning to the subject of Kapadia’s film, however hard I try to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. It’s as if he simply cannot help scratching away at the scab of this painful wound, even though it still clearly upsets him.
The family had already been approached several times about the idea of making a documentary on Amy’s life, from her childhood through to her rise to fame and her descent into addiction, which led to her tragic death in 2011. Each proposal sounded trashy, so the Winehouse family had always refused to participate. When Kapadia’s name was mentioned, Mitch watched his award-winning 2010 film, Senna (a biopic about the life of the Brazilian motor racing champion) and was immediately convinced that they had finally found the right man for the job.
“At the time, we thought we were in good hands, so we agreed to cooperate,” he explains. “Once they realised that most of her close friends wouldn’t talk to them, they decided to do something different. They interviewed me, and I’m saying Amy didn’t need to go to rehab …at that time. Later on is a different story. They edited out the crucial bit where I said ‘at that time.’ People were going – Why is he saying she didn’t need to go to rehab? They stitched us up, no question. Their agenda was to make us look as bad as possible.
“They portray Amy as being weak and easily manipulated. Even when she was ill, she was never weak. Her husband, Blake, had introduced her to heroin, so they made him the villain; they insinuated that her mother was also weak and that if I’d been a better father, she would have been OK. I always knew Blake was a wrong ‘un, but he was just an addict doing the things that addicts do. He didn’t kill Amy. What happened was just a dreadful accident. The Foundation made money out of the film, but I was so upset that I thought – Stick your money up your arse. Then I realised that would simply be taking money away from the Foundation. No, we’ll have the money.”
How does he answer the accusations that he simply did not do enough to shield Amy from the drug-fuelled lifestyle that she seemed to be drowning in at the height of her troubles? “I did what any father would do and tried to protect my daughter from these drug dealers,” Mitch replies without missing a beat. “There’s only so much you can do, because addicts are devious. I stood outside her house in Camden, and she still managed to get drugs. The dealers were catapulting drugs over the wall into the garden.”
The Amy Winehouse Foundation funds a number of projects including addiction education for schools, support for young addicts in rehab, children’s hospices, music courses for disadvantaged young people and a recovery house for women who have beaten addiction.
“The people we deal with are struggling with all different kinds of issues, but the outcomes of our programmes are incredible. We recently had a young girl who’d tried to commit suicide six times. The last time, she jumped off a bridge and broke all the bones in her legs. She came to us, and for the first two weeks she never even spoke. Then she started picking up a guitar and writing a few songs. She actually performed at our fundraising gala last year. This is somebody who’d tried to kill herself several times and couldn’t even look people in the eye to talk to them. It’s astonishing, and it makes me think that we should be doing more.”
Looking back, does he believe that Amy would still be alive today had she had the sort of support the Foundation provides? “I thought that if I shouted loud enough, or I cried or pretended to have heart attacks – which I did – then this behaviour would stop. Of course, what I understand now is that the necessity to stop has got to come from the person themselves. In Amy’s case, if she’d had the education that we impart to the kids, maybe things would have turned out different.”
After winning a scholarship to the Sylvia Young Theatre School when she was 12, she sang with the National Youth Orchestra and performed her songs at jazz clubs and family parties. One of her friends in the music business spotted something special in her and gave her free studio time so that she could cut some demos, which led to her signing a deal with Island Records when she was 18. The following year, she released her debut album, Frank, which won her rapturous reviews and a Mercury Music Prize nomination, yet Mitch is the first to admit that he didn’t see his daughter’s success coming.
“She was in a school production of Annie, and I remember turning to my wife and saying – Thank God she can act and dance, ‘cos she can’t sing,” he chuckles. “I thought she was terrible. The following year, she said she wanted to go to Sylvia Young, but I said no, because she was naughty at school. She was supposed to be doing a maths lesson, and she’d be singing Fly Me To The Moon. Eventually, I said she could go if she was good for the next year at school. In the interim period, she’d applied herself. I asked her how she got the audition, and she said: ‘Well, I wasn’t going to wait for you, so I just sent the application form in myself.’ What was I going to do?”
Mitch Winehouse is fully aware that he would never have been given the opportunity to enjoy a late blossoming career as a swing singer had his daughter not become a star, yet with two surprisingly accomplished albums under his belt, he has built a reputation as a class act. “My dad’s like the karaoke Sinatra,” Amy gushed. “He could be a lounge singer, he’s that good.”
“I was actually a professional singer when I was young, but I was so good that I wasn’t earning any money at all,” Mitch grins. “That’s why I became a taxi driver. I had record companies trying to sign me, but at that point, nobody was interested in a 25-year-old crooner, and they wanted me to record more contemporary material, which I wasn’t going to do. I’m not Frank Sinatra, but people enjoy it and it makes me feel good. I’m not naïve, so I know I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to release albums and to sing at these big shows if it wasn’t for Amy, but all the money I make from music goes to the Foundation.
“We all miss Amy terribly, but her legacy lives on. Tony Bennett puts her up there with Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, which makes me feel incredibly proud. It’s just a shame that she’s not here to see what people think of her now. Actually, I believe she is here spiritually. I’m a great believer in life after death. I’m not Joan of Arc, but I talk to her in my head all the time. I can actually hear her laughing now.”
This year’s Amy Winehouse Foundation Gala is taking place at The Dorchester on 5th October, where you can expect a fabulous evening of entertainment, special guests and gourmet food. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase tickets or tables.