“I first met Amy when she was 16, her hand was bleeding over the payment,” so says the man who became one of Amy Winehouse’s dearest confidants. Every generation has its hellraisers, but rarely do you find a female one. And in the case of Amy Winehouse, very few people get to see their vulnerable side – the side that is revealed when the mask is off. One man quietly tells us about Amy Winehouse’s more delicate side, just after a new film about her has been premiered at Cannes. The film is already whipping up controversy for the way it depicts many of the people in her life. One man has stayed out of the gossip, and prefers it that way. The man who acted like a long lost uncle to the singer who died prematurely just a few years ago.
Sam Shaker is owner of one of Soho’s longest surviving music restaurants, a one-time friend of the real Ronnie Scott, and other cultural legends that have walked or stumbled the sacred streets of Europe’s Creative Square Mile. Sam is the proprietor of Jazz After Dark Club on Greek Street and a trained fine artist. His venue has outlasted many great names that made the area, such as Raymond’s Review Bar, Madame Jo Jo’s and The Marquee Club. But no Soho legacy has left such a lasting impression on Sam as Amy Winehouse. At her request, he painted more than 30 canvasses of the singer.
In addition to running the club for almost three decades, Sam is a graduate of the prestigious Leonardo De Vinci art school in Milan, Italy, and like many artists, makes a moderate income out of his work. “I prefer not to commercialise it,” he says. “When I first met Amy she’d cut her hand on a broken wine glass. There was no way I’d let someone bleed,so I had to invite her in to mend her wound. That’s when she saw the band set-up at the back of the restaurant. It’s always there set up ready to play,amps, drum kit, mic stand. She pleaded with me to sing. So I invited her back to sing one night and she had the audience whooping. After that she’d keep coming back, even until the week she died.
Years before Amy hit the charts, the front pages or the pavement, she’d make late visit visits to the bar for spontaneous performances. It was,as they say, the start of a beautiful friendship. Others like Kevin Spacey, Kate Moss and Pete Doherty were also regulars, with the Libertines playing at the venue virtually every single night before their glory days. “I set up her very own VIP room at the back,” says Shaker. That room is more like a secret play den, adorned with some paintings of Amy. There’s one of her depicted as a crooner in crime to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, who requested a duo with the singer. “It was the same VIP room I offered to Ronnie Scott when he would come with his girlfriends of the time, with a curtain you can pull across to conceal it. She’d come hereso often I said I’d let her have her own key to the restaurant. But she told me ‘no’. ‘I’ll only lose it. I lose everything.’
Sam started painting her after Kate Moss asked him to do a portrait. “Amy asked me why I wasn’t painting her as well. She became a kind of muse and would often give me comments on how to improve the portraits. People say a lot of things about Amy, that she was a drunkard, that she was an upstart. I saw her as something else, a person with a big soul, the soul of an artist” As the legend about Amy grew to fever pitch, the singer would still visit Sam’s bijous venue as her own private oasis. But with marauding crowds and paparazzi still following her, on occasion I had to act like her body guard to steer her through the crowds to her restaurant. “Many times my son Omar and I had to yank her to get her through all the people chasing her, once inside she was safe.” Alexander James