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'She did it well' - Jamaican musician reflects on time spent working with Amy Winehouse

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

Amy Winehouse was not yet a paparazzi darling when she travelled to Teaneck, New Jersey in 2002 to record songs for Frank, her debut album for Island Records. One of the musicians who worked with her on that project was veteran Jamaican session guitarist, Earl'Chinna' Smith.

Winehouse was found dead in her London apartment on July 23. Her well-documented addiction to alcohol and hard drugs triggered speculation that years of substance abuse killed her, but an autopsy early last week was inconclusive.

Smith remembers Winehouse as a focused 19-year-old during the Teaneck sessions which were conducted by Gordon 'Commissioner Gordon' Williams, an ace engineer/producer who won two Grammy Awards for his work on Lauryn Hill's 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

"She reminded mi a little bit a Sarah Vaughnan, some Billie Holiday, an' she did it well," Smith recalled. "The thing that help was dat she was musical cause she played guitar an' was confident about her thing," he added. "She knew what she wanted."

Biggest recording assignment

Smith, bassist Chris Meredith and drummer Wilburn Squiddly Cole were the Jamaican musicians who worked with Winehouse in New Jersey. At the time, they were members of the Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers band and had also played on Miseducation.

The London-born Winehouse was a prodigy who worked as a guitarist and singer in stage productions. Working with Williams and company was her biggest recording assignment to date.

Smith had been making hit records for over 30 years, starting with Augustus Pablo s 1972 instrumental Java. He was a member of the Soul Syndicate band which played on numerous hit songs by Dennis Brown (Westbound Train, Cassandra) and Johnny Clarke (Rock With Me Baby, Move Outa Babylon).

He also played on Bob Marley s Rastaman Vibration album and produced Mutabaruka s debut album, Check It!

Smith said he was struck by Winehouse s eclectic musical tastes. She had a passion for sounds from the 1950s and 1960s, particularly jazz and blues and even tried a little reggae on Moody's Mood For Love, one of the songs from Frank.

Their culinary tastes were also similar.

"She loved to go out an' eat. She loved Thai food, I love it too," Smith recalled. He stressed that there was no drug use.

"I surprise when I hear bout dat whole movements cause all our time was spent making music.'

A blend of jazz and soul, Frank was released by Island in October 2003 with additional production by Salaam Remi, Jimmy Hogarth and Matt Rowe.

Smith is credited as co-writer on three of its songs: Know You Now, What Is It About Men and Brother.

The album was not a big seller, peaking at number 57 on Billboard Magazine's pop chart. It went as high as number 13 on the British national chart.

Frank set the pace for Winehouse's more commercial 2006 follow-up, Back to Black, which won five Grammys in 2007. It contained the international hit, Rehab, and made Winehouse a superstar.

Winehouse had expressed a desire to do some reggae for her next album. She visited Jamaica and St Lucia last year and recorded several songs.

Her flamboyant lifestyle made her a tabloid regular in Britain and the United States. Like other troubled rock stars, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, Winehouse was only 27 years old when she died.