It was a little over 10 years ago this summer that producer Mark Ronson had in his hands demo copies of “You Know I’m No Good” and “Rehab,” two standout tracks that would gain classic status on Amy Winehouse’s 2006 release “Back to Black.”
The British performer was as famous for her soulful voice as for the addiction that took her life in July 2011. Now two soul sisters who sing together regularly in Philly’s York Street Hustle, Allison Polans and Imani Roach, have organized an Amy Winehouse tribute show.
The idea took root when the two were listening to Winehouse in a car together last year. It has taken months to pull together — because assembling a 13-piece all-star band from several circles of talent across the city can take time.
On Friday night at World Café Live in Philadelphia, the ensemble will perform “Back to Black” in its entirety along with some B-sides. A chunk of the proceeds will benefit the Amy Winehouse Foundation, which uses music therapy and education to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are facing drug and alcohol abuse.
That support is important to Polans and Roach.
‘Music kind of saved my life’
“We would not be doing this tribute if we had not been exposed to music as children,” says Roach, a Boston transplant who’s been singing with York Street for almost four years. “I had very strict parents. School would’ve been an incredibly negative experience without music. Creative kids are often social outsiders, so certainly music kind of saved my life, as did art and everything creative I’ve done since.”
Polans says that, through the Foundation, a UK-based charity with a State-side chapter, “[Winehouse’s] struggles are now helping other people.”
“All she wanted to do was make music,” says Polans. “It’s so intense what she went through. It’s even hard to put into words,”.
“Being on stage wasn’t necessarily healthy for her. That’s something I think about all the time,” says Roach. “Being on stage is a really vulnerable thing. Some people eat it up and have a persona that’s theatrical. Some people separate themselves from that persona. It’s a complicated thing to be a woman on stage.”
“We’re so quick to judge people,” says Polans jumping in.
“We wanted to make this tribute as beautiful as possible and be as true to her legacy as possible,” explains Roach.
Put aside all the histrionics and sordid intrigue surrounding her demise, and we’re left with absolutely gut-wrenching recordings to cherish forever.
An all-star ensemble
At a garage on Federal Street in South Philly on Monday night, an army of tribute experts joins Polans and Roach: Ryan Williams singing backup; a horn section led by Vince Tampio, including Thor Espanez and Mike Kania; guitars by Drew Parker, Brendan McGeehan, and Nate Gonzalez (who also handles some keys); Alec Meltzer on drums; and virtuoso keys from Dan Finn. And that doesn’t even eclipse the vocal powerhouses they’ve recruited. Polans and Roach approached Ginger Coyle, Martha Stuckey, and Ginghy Miles to each tackle two “Back to Black” tracks and at least one B-side. It’s going to be two sets of big, beautiful, full covers, gloriously rendered by a big band.
For a Winehouse show, nothing less would be adequate.
Listening to Coyle sing “You Know I’m No Good,” Polans taking on the title track, Roach handling “Just Friends,” each backed by a full band — it becomes clear that these songs are legitimately classic. They demand keys and horns and a jazz-capable drummer and an electric guitar and a funky bassline. There’s no artifice or trickery.
But as horn player Tampio says, the performance is a celebration of Winehouse and her pipes. And all of the singers are of a certain age.
“Most of the women that are singing in the tribute would be about her age,” says Roach. “She would have been 32, 33 this fall, and the youngest singer is 29. She came into our lives at an important moment.”
“In addition to the fact that her voice is strong, raw, and luscious,” says Polans, “it does something to me. I feel very inspired by her, that she’s totally out there with herself. A lot of the original versions are slower and jazzy, but they became this classic R&B soul sound.”
“She had an incredible amount of range,” Roach adds. “That’s the benefit of having five different singers. We all come from different backgrounds.”
Stuckey is taking on one of the most challenging B-sides, “Take the Box,” which stretches any singer’s abilities to the max. (But anyone who’s ever seen her belt it as the leader of Red 40 & The Last Groovement would not question her capacity for the task.)
If anything, this show will also bring to the fore the magic of her full catalogue. Some tracks from “Frank” (2003), like “What Is It About Men,” explore her darker, depressive, but brutally honest storytelling streak. “Best Friend” mines her playful, feminine, and coy tendencies.
Philadelphia, music city
Thankfully, Polans and Roach say Philadelphia is no 2006 London. They’re not threatened by any music scene. “I feel like there’s something so special in Philadelphia in the way that people support each other and are genuinely excited for each other in the work they create,” Polans notes. For the show, she says, they’re “bringing a lot of scenes together that we might not have had the chance to do before.”
“It’s a pretty wonderful place to be a musician, actually,” Roach says. She, her co-curator and several members of the band have direct connections to music’s therapeutic power. It creates “an incredible connection to memory,” says the singer. “A lot of our most complicated emotions are not best expressed verbally.”
There may even be some tears from the hordes of fans (at the time of publication, the show is 99.9% sold out). But like Roach says, the music will speak for itself of the legend that Amy Winehouse was and is.