The music tastes of Amy Winehouse were eclectic, especially for a young woman in early 2000s Britain. Like much of the population, Winehouse had been raised on the 2 Tone ska revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but she also found her comfort zone in the jazz songs of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Winehouse liked everything that wasn’t mainstream pop, which made her an odd mainstream pop star when Back to Black was released in 2006.
By that point, Winehouse had become infatuated with 1960s girl groups and Motown. It was another atypical genre to become obsessed with, especially considering how the rest of the world was in the midst of the garage rock revival, pop-rap fusions, and the last embers of the boy band movement. Winehouse managed to make classic recording techniques and throwback styles sound incredibly modern, but if you looked just below the surface, Winehouse was going completely retro.
There’s the intro to ‘He Can Only Hold Her’, which directly lifts from the Jimi Hendrix-led intro of The Icemen’s early ’60s soul hit ‘(My Girl) She’s a Fox’. The piano intro on ‘Back to Black’ is a near-identical reworking of The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. Winehouse was unafraid to channel the sounds of the past, but one of her choice covers extended further back than perhaps even she realised.
One of Winehouse’s go-to covers in her live show was a rendition of The Specials’ ‘Monkey Man’, which was included on the band’s debut self-titled studio album. Just like The Specials, Winehouse played ‘Monkey Man’ in an uptempo ska fashion. The song was recorded by Winehouse and her band around the same time she was finishing the sessions for Back to Black, and the cover later appeared as both the B-side to the single ‘You Know I’m No Good’ and on the deluxe version of Back to Black.
Winehouse cited The Specials as one of her biggest influences, and her version of ‘Monkey Man’ is radically faithful to their version. But ‘Monkey Man’ wasn’t a Specials song: it was first written and recorded by Toots Hibbert and his backing band The Maytals in 1969. Toots & the Maytals’ original version of ‘Monkey Man’ was more explicitly reggae and wound up being the title track to their 1970 album Monkey Man.
Although all versions of the song retain the same form, the original version is much slower and more languid. Toots Hibbert actually re-recorded the song in a rock arrangement with No Doubt just a few years before Winehouse recorded her own version, which was included on the 2004 album True Love. The history of ‘Monkey Man’ is convoluted, but since her death, the song is now increasingly becoming associated with Winehouse and her spirited performance.
Check out the evolution of ‘Monkey Man’ down below.