This week, incredibly, marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of legendary chanteuse Amy Winehouse at age 27. While Winehouse only released two studio albums during her lifetime — 2003’s Frank and her 2006 U.S. breakthrough Back to Black, which won five Grammy Awards — her massive influence is still felt today. But one of her most iconic recordings is actually a song that appeared on neither of those albums: 2007’s “Valerie.” In fact, Winehouse’s version of “Valerie” is so notable, and so thoroughly her own, that many fans have forgotten — or never even knew — that it’s a cover.
Mark Ronson, who co-produced Back to Black and went on to score hits like “Uptown Funk” and the Oscar-winning A Star Is Born ballad “Shallow,” enjoyed his first major success with “Valerie,” off his all-star covers collection Version. That album, Ronson’s second, featured Daniel Merriweather singing the Smiths’ “Stop Me,” Phantom Planet covering Radiohead’s “Just,” Robbie Williams doing “The Only One I Know” by the Charlatans U.K., and Lily Allen’s crooning Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God.” But it was Winehouse’s torchy, skronky remake of Liverpool indie band the Zutons’ “Valerie” that was Version’s breakout track.
Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment back when he was promoting his Uptown Special album, Ronson explained that the “Valerie” cover really was a happy accident and last-minute decision. “The thing is, I didn’t even know ‘Valerie’ before Amy played it for me,” he confessed, even though the Zutons’ version had been a No. 9 hit in Britain. Ronson wasn’t even convinced that cutting “Valerie” was a great idea. He was convinced, that however, his new friend and muse needed to be on his own album.
“I was just finishing up my album Version, and Back to Black had just come out. And you know, we’d spent a long time working on [Back to Black] together and we’d become good friends, and I wanted to have her on Version. I wanted to have something on my record with this person that I really thought was awesome,” Ronson reminisced. “So, we were in the studio, and I said, ‘Do you know any, like, indie-band sort of songs?’ Because that was the theme, the link, on Version — Kaiser Chiefs and those kinds of rock bands. And Amy said, ‘Yeah, I like this song by the Zutons. They play it down at my local’ — her pub.”
When Winehouse played the Zutons’ original “Valerie” for him — just five minutes before they recorded her remake in a New York studio — Ronson was actually unimpressed. “The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Um, OK.’ I wasn’t particularly… I didn’t get it, you know?” he admitted. “Obviously she did, because she’d sung it in the shower and she knew the ins and outs of that song, and she knew what a great song it was.” Still, Ronson agreed to record it right then and there, with the musicians who’d given Back to Black its distinctively sexy swing and swagger. And it turned out to be a historic session in more ways than one.
“The really lovely thing about that session was she had never met the musicians from the Dap-Kings, the people that had played on her record, because we wrote and arranged the [Back to Black] songs that she wrote, and I arranged the songs while she was in New York, and then she had to go back to London, and then we tracked it with the band,” Ronson explained. “So, I took her out to Brooklyn, and it was the first time she had met all these people. … You know, no one knew if [Back to Black] was going to be successful at that point, but it was exciting and it was a great piece of music, and all the musicians loved it.”
When Winehouse, Ronson, and the Dap-Kings all convened in the same Brooklyn studio on Dec. 6, 2006 — less than two months after Back to Black’s release — they got along brilliantly, and the “Valerie” session came together immediately. “She was just there in the room. We listened to the Zutons’ song, quickly wrote a little chord chart, and everyone played it,” Ronson marveled.
But he still felt they hadn’t quite captured the right vibe. "We played this kind of like downtempo, mellow version of it. And then, as everyone’s packing up their guitars and literally slamming the cases shut, I was like, ‘Ah! Could we just try one way where it’s just like… I know it’s dumb, but where it’s like, bonk-chk-a-bonk, like an oversimplified version?’ Everyone was like, ‘Ugh, Jesus Christ!’ and took their guitars out. We played it — they probably did two takes, and it was great — and that’s the version, the one that people know.”
This commercially released Northern-soulful version was inspired by the Jam’s 1982 mod hit “Town Called Malice,” but Ronson later decided that Winehouse’s other, Curtis Mayfield-inspired take from that session, now known as the “'68 Version,” was one of her all-time greatest vocals. That recording was included on the posthumous 2011 compilation Lioness: Hidden Treasures.
Ronson and Winehouse’s uptempo “Valerie” was a smash in 2007. It spent 39 total weeks in British top 20 and peaked at No. 2, and it was the U.K.’s ninth-biggest-selling single of that year. A third version — a jazzy, acoustic rendition that Winehouse performed on BBC Radio 1’s “Live Lounge” show — also went to No. 37 in Britain. Sadly, “Valerie” became what Rolling Stone called Winehouse’s only “notable recording” after Back to Black, because she died from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011, and never got a chance to follow up that landmark album. When Bruno Mars, who would later collaborate with Ronson on “Uptown Funk,” paid tribute to Winehouse at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards about a month after her passing, “Valerie” was the song he performed.
"It was one of those things where there are so many reasons where it could not have existed,” Ronson told Yahoo Entertainment, as he reflected on the famous recording. “But I’m glad it does.”
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