Dave McCabe, singer, songwriter, Zutons version

When the Zutons were touring in Florida, I met a makeup artist called Valerie Star. We became quite friendly. When we got back home to the UK and the rehearsal room, I started playing the riff. Then I got in a taxi to my mum’s and, by the end of the 15-minute drive I had the whole song in my head. Once I’d arrived, I wrote down everything I remembered. Then, when I picked up a guitar, it all came together in about five minutes.

Valerie had just been done for driving under the influence and had legal bills, hence: “Did you have to go to jail? Put your house up for sale? Did you get a good lawyer?” It’s a postcard to her, really, hoping that she’s OK. I didn’t think too much about it. Things come pretty spontaneously when you’re writing.

When I played it to the band, they all went: “Oh, that’s good.” I thought: “It is, isn’t it?” We scrapped the original middle eight as it was a bit Guns N’ Roses and instead went for a breakdown in the middle, but we knew it was a really catchy song.

We’d been playing live a lot, so the producer Stephen Street recorded us playing it in the studio. He suggested the arpeggio guitar at the beginning and he also suggested changing the song’s key from E to E flat, which sounded better.

Alan Wills at our label Deltasonic said we should change the line about ginger hair – “I’ve missed your ginger hair and the way you like to dress.” But Joe Fearon, the head of A&R, said: “Are you messing? That’s the whole point of the song!” I agreed – who writes about ginger hair in a positive way? It stayed. One of the first times we played it live was at South by Southwest in Texas and Valerie turned up. I said: “I’ve written a song about you.”

It kind of immortalises her. I’m not sure how I’d feel if someone wrote a song about me called Dave, but I think of the song as a gift from God. When I first heard the Mark Ronson/Amy Winehouse version I told them: “I don’t think it’s going to do very well, because we just had a massive hit with it and lightning doesn’t strike twice.” But it did.

Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse perform at the Brit awards in 2008 Photograph: Arnold Slater/Rex Features

Mark Ronson, producer, Amy Winehouse version

I’d almost finished my own album, Version, when I worked on Back to Black with Amy. I felt such a bond with her and said: “I’d love it if there’s any way for you to be on my record.” Much of Back to Black was made in New York, but she hadn’t actually met the Dap-Kings, who played on it. When she first saw the album booklet, she called and said: “What? There’s a guy called Binky Griptite playing on my album!” I’m like: “Yeah. He’s the guitar-player.” So she came to New York in quite a celebratory mood to meet these guys who brought her music to life. While we were all together, I suggested cutting one more song for Version.

Valerie was a song Amy loved whenever they played it at her local. We cut a slowed-down version that got the cool, Stonesy swagger. But just as we were packing up, I said: “Guys, you’ll want to kill me, but could we do just another version with a Motown backbeat?”

I’d only known the Dap-Kings for a month and was a bit intimidated because they all looked like Levon Helm from the Band in their flannel shirts – and I thought they thought I was a poser DJ. But they agreed to unpack their instruments and we cut the version that became a hit. Everything was so last minute that back in England we were still cutting the strings while Tom Elmhirst was upstairs mixing it. Amy wasn’t in the video because she’d gone back to her old ways a bit, so we had a contingency plan of using Amy lookalikes in case she didn’t show up.

I haven’t seen the biopic but I don’t need a movie to trigger my memories. The day we cut Valerie, Amy was in her ballet shoes and I remember her walking down the middle of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn looking so carefree and peaceful. It was just before Back to Black came out and her life got crazy.

Valerie is the one song Amy sings that’s devoid of the pain and torment in her own music, which is why it’s such a beloved piece of her. You can forget the sadness and tragedy and just celebrate her voice.

The Zutons’ new album The Big Decider and the Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black are out now.



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