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On This Day In Music… March 12, 2007: Amy Winehouse Makes Her U.S. Television Debut

Three-and-a-half magical minutes on David Letterman brought Amy to the world – and opened the floodgates for a generation of British female singers.

amy winehouse live
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Amy Winehouse was a virtual unknown in America before March 12, 2007.

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On March 12, 2007, from his show at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater, David Letterman addressed his viewers with the following words: “Our next guest is an acclaimed British singer, who tonight is making her American television debut.”

To (polite, if not enthusiastic) applause, the audience welcomed Amy Winehouse to the stage… and if most Americans had never heard of the Back to Black singer before then, after a typically full-throttle rendition of “Rehab”, they sure as hell did after.

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America may have been slow to recognize Winehouse’s brilliance, but the reverse was true in the U.K. – and by the time she arrived on Letterman she was already a star back home.

Her debut album, Frank, had been released in 2003, and although she was still just 19 at the time, the apparently effortlessly sophisticated blend of jazz, funk and soul, along with her own superbly assured vocal delivery, saw the record receive rave reviews, with the Guardian commenting: “Winehouse sounds as if she has performed a thousand times in smoky jazz clubs. So it comes as some surprise to learn that she is just 19 and was raised in north London,” adding: “Sitting somewhere between Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, Winehouse's sound is at once innocent and sleazy... it's hard not to hear the honesty and soul that resonates throughout this album.”

Frank climbed to No. 13 in the U.K. charts, and bagged her a nomination for the Mercury Prize Album of the Year; its lead single “Stronger Than Me” also won her the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song.

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'Winehouse's sound is at once innocent and sleazy... it's hard not to hear the honesty and soul.'

Her second album, Back to Black, sealed the deal. Released in October 2006, it debuted at No. 3 in the British album charts, eventually climbing to No. 1 in January and going on to become the best-selling album of 2007, the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century (just behind Adele’s 21) and the 12th best-selling album in the U.K. of all time.

The singles “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” had both broken into the British Top 20, peaking at No. 7 and No. 18 respectively, and just one month before her Letterman appearance, Winehouse had been the toast of that year’s BRIT Awards, winning the prizes for Best British Female Solo Artist and Best British Album, and delivering a now iconic performance of “Rehab”.

Not that any of this seemed to impact across the Atlantic. Despite being three-and-a-half years old by the time of her Letterman appearance, Frank had still not even secured an American release – and neither had any of her singles to date. The polite applause for “the acclaimed British singer” really was just that – a cordial reception for an artist few in the audience had even heard of.

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Amy Winehouse won awards for Best British Female Solo Artist and Best British Album at the 2007 BRITs.

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Within seconds of launching into “Rehab”, Amy Winehouse changed all that. In the same theater where the Beatles had blasted a new British sound into the American consciousness, the diminutive north London girl with the beehive and tattoos announced her ascent onto the world stage in stunning style. All of the mesmerizing charisma, artistry and “innocent sleaze” that had captivated British audiences was there, beamed into millions of homes from the nation's biggest late-night talk show. Finally, Amy had arrived in America.

The very next day Back to Black was released in the U.S. – it would go on to peak at No. 2 in the Billboard 200. Frank followed in August; and “Rehab” itself climbed to No. 9 in the Hot 100.

The following February she dominated the Grammy Awards, winning five of the six categories in which she was nominated, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Rehab”, Best Pop Vocal Album for Back to Black, and (somewhat amusingly for British fans who had been following her since 2003) Best New Artist – seeing off a teenage Taylor Swift along the way.

amy winehouse singing
Source: Pat Denton / WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Amy Winehouse dominated the 2008 Grammys, taking home five awards.

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But as with so much else where Winehouse was concerned, her triumph was bittersweet. Her extraordinary talent was beyond question, but the pressures of living in the spotlight that it had brought were beginning to tell. Problems with drug and alcohol addiction as well as a turbulent personal life were generating more headlines than her music – and she was not even present at the Grammys to celebrate her win, after U.S. officials had initially refused her a visa following her treatment at a drug rehab center.

And then tragedy. Just four years after her sparkling, spine-tingling U.S. television debut, Amy Winehouse would be found dead in her London home. She was just 27 years old.

amy winehouse
Source: Nick Pickles/ WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Amy Winehouse created a 'Nirvana moment' for a generation of other British female singers.

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Despite only releasing two studio albums in her short career, Winehouse’s legacy remains immense. Not only for her own music, but for the opportunities she created for a generation of female singers that followed – opportunities that can be traced directly to her March 12 Letterman appearance.

In a 2011 article addressing what they called the “British music invasion”, the New York Daily News declared: “The first ripples came from platinum-selling, Grammy-winning retro-R&B star Amy Winehouse… a juggernaut that brought on a full-scale boom by singers as far afield as Lily Allen, Duffy, Corinne Bailey Rae, V.V. Brown and Adele (who bagged last year's Best New Artist Grammy). Together, all these singers have created the largest showcase for female Brits since Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Sandie Shaw in the '60s.”

The article also quoted Spin music editor Charles Aaron: “Amy Winehouse was the Nirvana moment for all these women,” he said. “They can all be traced back to her in terms of attitude, musical styles or fashion.”


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