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Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse performs during the Rock in Rio music festival in Arganda del Rey, on the outskirts of Madrid, in this July 2008 file photo. The singer died Saturday. (AP file photo)

I opted not to try to see Amy Winehouse when she played South By Southwest in 2007. The line was already around the block hours before she was to perform and I figured there would be many more opportunities to see her.

Well, I was wrong. Winehouse died this weekend, leaving behind a great album, "Back to Black," that opened the floodgates for the latest round of British blue-eyed soul to wash up on American shores.

She was, without question, a fine singer and, when she was on her game, a superb performer.

Here's how my friend Hector Saldana described the SXSW performance in the San Antonio Express News:

"Her big, jazzy voice and vintage, horn-driven '60s soul and R&B groove evoked Dusty Springfield, Billie Holiday, Etta James, the young Gladys Knight and the great girl groups like the Supremes and, particularly, Martha and the Vandellas.

"But she is remarkably fresh, cute and could strike the same nerve that Gnarls Barkley hit with 'Crazy.' In fact, the title track of her new disc evokes singer Cee Lo Green. She's got that much vocal power. And her groovy band is a modern version of Motown's Funk Brothers."

"Back to Black" had just been released at the time of the SXSW show. A little less than a year later, she'd picked up five Grammy Awards, deserved industry recognition of her talent, which made classic sounds new again.

Winehouse was 23 when she played Austin. She never made another album. There is talk that demos of new songs are around, and you can be sure that eventually anything that can be released will be. But those can't possibly measure up to "Back to Black" any more than did her uncertain, jazz-inflected debut album, "Frank."

When Winehouse was found dead on Saturday, instant speculation was that she had died from a drug overdose or something related to the drug and alcohol abuse she struggled with. The autopsy proved inconclusive, leaving the final determination of her cause of death to toxicology reports that won't be available for a month to six weeks.

By that time, attention to Winehouse will have faded and the official announcement will be nothing more than a blip on the pop culture radar.

There's nothing to dispute the fact that Winehouse was an addict who had been in treatment. She reportedly had emphysema resulting from smoking cigarettes and drugs.

So even if drugs weren't the immediate cause of her passing, they were a contributor. That, as English folk musician Billy Bragg noted in a tweet early this week, is what she really had in common with the members of the "27" club.

True, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain were all talented, culturally vital rock musicians. But they were also, to a person, drug and alcohol abusers. The drugs killed some and helped others on their way to death.

That's the only truth here. No matter how they are glamorized or explained away, drugs and, for some, alcohol lead only, as recovering addict Russell Brand said this week, to "jail, mental institutions or death."

It's sad when any young person dies. It's made even more so when that person has the gift, the genius like that of Winehouse. It's worse to know that the passing was pushed by drugs and alcohol, making hers and the rest of the "27" club avoidable and all the more tragic.

When I got the news Winehouse had died -- via a news service push to my iPhone -- I listened to "Back to Black" all the way through and remembered what a great talent she was. RIP Amy; you will be missed.


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