Riding high: But Duffy hasn't come from nowhere, as her promoters would have us believe
Voice from heaven, family from hell ... The dangerous world that singer Duffy left behindLast updated at 23:00pm on 29th March 2008)
The soulful voice with its breathtaking range and husky promise of passion is instantly familiar.
Add the Motown-style arrangement and lyrics about tortured love, and this year's biggest-selling artist could easily be mistaken for the legendary Dusty Springfield.
But the No 1 hit song Mercy comes from the lips of Duffy, a 23-year-old former shop worker from Wales.
In a matter of months, she has eclipsed Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen to become Britain's most popular solo female star.
Her debut album, Rockferry, has been at the top of the charts for the past month, while the single Mercy, based on her relationship with music producer Mark Durston, was No 1 for five weeks.
Duffy has already performed three times on the hugely influential TV show Later. . . With Jools Holland and she will be one of the headline acts at this summer's V Festival.
Duffy's music manages to appeal both to the internet generation - she has 21,753 friends on social networking site MySpace - and older people who grew up listening to Motown and soul music from the Sixties.
In doing so, she has placed herself at the front of an astonishing wave of talented young British singers who have taken black American music, made it their own - and become international stars in the process.
From Amy Winehouse to Adele, Joss Stone and Leona Lewis - who last week became the first British female solo artist to reach No 1 in America since Kim Wilde in 1987 - one of the secrets of these artists' success is how much their music sounds like the divas of the Sixties and Seventies.
"One thing that unites all of these girls today is the inspiration of earlier styles of black American music," says veteran radio DJ Paul Gambaccini.
"It's a phenomenon that dates back to the Sixties and The Beatles and Rolling Stones."
So far this year, Duffy is in a league of her own. Although she has yet to break America, she is outselling Leona Lewis in the British album and download charts.
But despite her cool image and artless manner, Duffy has not exploded on to the scene from nowhere, as her handlers would have us believe.
And while she may not have been overtly manufactured, she has been carefully groomed for stardom by the co-founder of the record label Rough Trade and the public relations company that looks after Madonna, Elton John and James Blunt.
Both have ruthlessly protected her image, dropping her first name Aimee - to distance her from the more notorious Amy Winehouse - and glossing over previous appearances on a reality TV series.
They have even ordered Aimee's friends and family not to speak publicly about her.
Now The Mail on Sunday has uncovered the real story of Duffy's background.
It's an extraordinary tale encompassing infidelity, a custody battle and a bizarre murder plot.
But what is even more surprising is how fate seems to have decreed that everything in Duffy's life - from her troubled family to her powerful voice - should echo the lives of so many of her peers and the stars who inspired them.
Aimee Ann Duffy was born on June 23, 1984, and grew up in the tiny coastal village of Nefyn, North Wales - population 2,550.
Welsh was her first language - she barely spoke a word of English.
Her mother Joyce, who worked in a factory, had married at 19 to Allan Evans, a young storeman who lived in the nearby town of Colwyn Bay.
But within a few years their relationship disintegrated.
Joyce moved back to Nefyn to work as a hotel waitress and soon caught the eye of the hotel's interim manager, John Duffy.
They married in March 1977 and settled down to domestic life in the village.
"People tell me she was a bit of heartbreaker," Duffy has said of her mother.
"Great figure, really good dresser, always wore pearls. A dolly bird."
This striking image of her mother, echoing stars such as Dusty Springfield and Diana Ross, clearly stayed with Duffy, who would later sport a beehive hairdo and miniskirt of her own.
Within three years, Joyce and John had a daughter Kelly, now 28. Aimee and her twin sister Katy were born four years later.
Duffy says Nefyn was an idyllic place to grow up: "It was amazing. It was safe, friendly - you could stay out all hours, playing on the beach.
"The only downside is that I didn't grow up very worldly."
She wanted to be a singer from an early age.
By the age of seven she had been kicked out of her school choir for being "too rough around the edges", so she contented herself with honing her talents in a less salubrious setting - the school lavatories.
"My voice was too big. I didn't fit into a team of vocals and there was nowhere else I could practise singing," she says.
But with no record collection of her own, and with the nearest record shop a bus ride away, her early interest in music was inspired by her father's videotape of Sixties TV show Ready Steady Go!
"I remember the first time I saw Mick Jagger, I thought, 'He's cool.'
"The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Walker Brothers, Sandie Shaw and Millie singing My Boy Lollipop - I thought it was the sexiest, most exciting thing ever, and I played the tape again and again until it disintegrated."
Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse were also heavily influenced by their parents' taste in music from the Sixties. Joss, from Devon, shared the isolated background that allowed the youngsters to ignore the latest pop-music trends.
However in 1993, Duffy's idyll was shattered by the breakdown of her parents' marriage.
"Because they ran a pub, my mum and dad would do alternate shifts," she recalled.
"We rarely saw them together but we had a great relationship with them both.
"The pub was really a smoky, working men's club with leather seats and a snooker table, but I felt proud my parents ran it.
"They tried to separate when I was six but I cried so much that they stayed together.
"That was very cruel of me, really, but my mum is a lovely woman and she didn't want to hurt us.
"They finally separated when I was nine. As kids, we weren't really aware of the emotional side of it but I guess there was quite an upheaval.
"I'm not someone who takes the scars with me. It happened and I've learned how to live with it.
"Of course, it was a big thing in the town at the time - everybody talking about it - but I think my mum did the right thing in leaving. I remember my dad being very upset."
It was an awful time for Duffy, but those experiences helped to shape her music, just as troubled lives helped shape the work of some of the great black American singing stars.
It is unclear when Joyce rekindled her relationship with former childhood sweetheart Philip Smith.
They had known each other in their youth but Joyce's mother had disapproved of their friendship and Philip later left the area.
Now an agricultural merchant, he had moved back to the nearby village of Morfa Nefyn from his home in Letterstone, Pembrokeshire, to renovate his father's bungalow.
His 18-year marriage to a former waitress, Dawn, was on the rocks amid allegations of infidelity on both sides.
Joyce was smitten. Within a month of Philip's acrimonious divorce in September 1994, she had moved with her three children to Letterstone, an English-speaking area, which proved something of a culture shock for Duffy, with her limited knowledge of the language.
After a bitter battle, Philip was eventually given custody of his own four children in June 1995.
Philip and Joyce married at Haverfordwest register office in April 1996, setting up home with their combined family of seven children.
Duffy was only 12, but her favourite singers were Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, and she was already modelling her singing style on their distinctive sound.
However, within a year the family's peace had been shattered.
They were given police protection and bundled into a safe house after Dawn offered £3,000 to a man called Robert Rees to kill Philip.
Duffy's mother gave evidence in court for the prosecution.
During the trial in 1998 at Cardiff Crown Court, Philip claimed that Dawn concocted the murder plot after receiving a demand from the Child Support Agency to provide maintenance for their children.
Dawn had been given a piece of land as part of the couple's divorce settlement, but when she later decided to sell it for more than £30,000, Philip wanted the children to be awarded some of the profits.
The court heard that Dawn asked Rees: "Do you fancy doing a job for me? I want you to kill Phil.
"I've got a new Mercedes and it's really cool. But he's trying to muck everything up and take it all away from me.
"I want you to shoot him."
Rees went straight to the police, who arrested Dawn and her new husband, Marc Watson.
Dawn was eventually convicted of soliciting to murder and sentenced to three and a half years in June 1998.
Watson, an organic chemist whom she married in October 1994, was cleared of the charge.
Alcoholic Dawn died in 2002, 18 months after she was released from jail, when she choked on a roast pork dinner. She was 45.
"Dawn had agreed to pay about £3,000 to a local man, Robert Rees, to shoot me dead," Philip, now a 54-year-old director of Pembrokeshire Paints and Coatings, said at the time.
"She had told him to 'just blow his head off'. But thankfully, he went straight to the police.
"We were taken to a safe house under police guard for the rest of the night until the police arrested Dawn and her husband.
"I felt so ill. I was in shock. I couldn't absorb the news and I was very frightened.
"Deep down I was terrified that Dawn might have hired someone else to finish off the job.
"Even when we were in the safe house I didn't sleep a wink - I jumped at every noise and I longed for daylight."
It was against this traumatic backdrop that Duffy did her GCSEs.
After she left school, she returned to Nefyn, where she helped her father John at the social club he manages.
She still hankered after a career as a singer - and now she had the perfect environment to hone her skills.
She spent hours singing on a karaoke machine, making tapes and posting them to record companies in the hope she would be discovered.
In the tradition of Motown stars, she formed a series of bands and worked for virtually nothing as she learned her trade.
She had also inherited her mother's talent for attracting men.
"I was such a terror," Duffy admitted. "When you're young and you're female and you have a band, you have like five boyfriends in that band.
"But I'd have about five bands going on, and each band wouldn't know about the other.
"I knew none of them would work out but I would keep them on the go for enjoyment's sake."
She later went to college in Dolgellau, North Wales, where she studied for her A-levels, met long-term boyfriend Mark Durston and was elected president of the students' union.
Her close friend Heidi Williams, 24, who works in a local Spar shop, witnessed her burgeoning career and the toll it would take on Duffy's relationship with Durston.
"Aimee used to spend all her spare time sat at a big wooden table in the kitchen writing her songs, then she would perform them for us in the evening," she said.
"she put her heart and soul into her music and the result was awesome.
"Mark was Aimee's first love and the inspiration for so many of her songs. She was completely in love with the guy and believed they'd always be together.
"But by the time Aimee was in her early 20s, things were starting to happen for her and she had to put more and more of her energy into launching her career, and I think they perhaps started to grow apart.
"But they're still friends and I think they're still in touch."
When she was 19, Duffy auditioned for Wawffactor, the Welsh version of X Factor, but was narrowly beaten by winner Lisa Pedrig.
Leona Lewis, who is now her arch-rival, found fame with the English version of the hit TV show.
Duffy went on to study at Chester University, singing hits from the Sixties and Seventies at the local jazz and blues club Alexander's in her spare time.
She left university in the middle of the course after a tutor advised her to pursue her music dream.
She returned to Nefyn and was working in a ladies' clothing store in Pwllheli when she got her lucky break after a chance meeting with two former musicians.
They introduced her to Jeanette Lee and Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records, a label whose acts include The Strokes and Arcade Fire.
In turn, Jeanette introduced Duffy to Suede's ex-guitar player Bernard Butler.
It was a partnership very similar to that of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson - she provided the lyrics and big voice, he the chords and arrangement skills.
The result was Rockferry, the song after which her album is named.
The album's fusion of soul and R&B was a massive hit - particularly with younger fans who thought Duffy, along with Amy, Joss and the others, had found a new source of inspiration for great music.
Some fans even assumed Duffy must be black and from the American Deep South.
But to music insiders, the trend of white British singers adopting the styles of black American music is nothing new.
Even some of the most successful British bands started out in the belief that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
The most famous examples are The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who were heavily influenced by the early rhythm and blues of black musicians such as Chuck Berry.
And they were not alone. Paul Gambaccini points out: "David Bowie did an R&B tour and the riff from his song Fame is straight out of James Brown.
"And Bryan Ferry looked back in a similar way with These Foolish Things, even as far as the jazz era."
But one mystery remains: why is the revival of traditional soul being led by a gang of young British girls?
Gambaccini believes it is partly due to the fact that the American radio scene is far more fragmented than than it is in Britain.
"It has become more defined since the deregulation of radio, which started in the early years of the Reagan administration," he says.
"In the Sixties, the most that a channel owner had was eight stations, but now a couple of owners have more than 100 and in the early years of this Bush administration Clear Channel Radio had 1,400."
This has resulted in many radio stations playing specific genres rather than a wide range of music styles.
In other words, young people in America don't get to hear as many of the classic hits as their British counterparts.
There is, however, a somewhat more cynical way of looking at Duffy's success.
Peter Robinson, editor of music website popjustice.com, said: "The songs are great and she has a brilliant voice but in terms of marketing, Duffy's had a very good job done on her.
"She has been put together with certain producers and songwriters to create a certain sound and had pictures taken of her that reinforce the sound.
"She has the same public relations people as Madonna and we hear all about how she's from Wales, but we don't hear about how she was on the Welsh version of X Factor and how she's been in development for the past three or four years.
"Amy Winehouse has had a massive success with her album Back To Black. When one artist is successful at something in particular, all record labels - sometimes even the same one that has the original artist - want to cash in.
"And if two million people love a particular album, they'll also want to hear something similar. It's what helps build genres."
Record promoter Allan James, who helped launch Kim Wilde's career, says: "It all started with Norah Jones, whose debut album was released in 2003. It just took off and made the record companies reassess their views of jazz and blues.
"Instead of thinking it was all in the past, they started producing records and developing artists that had crossover appeal.
"So along came Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble and a whole host of female artists such as Joss Stone, Katie Melua, Amy Winehouse, Adele and now Duffy.
"Much of what they do harks back to something from the past, which some of the older record buyers may remember as children.
"These female artists are making sophisticated pop music and, rather than being manufactured, they are being developed as acts.
"They all have talent but time and money is being spent on them. For instance, Adele and Duffy both signed record contracts well before their albums were released."
While Leona Lewis celebrates her remarkable success in America, it seems only a matter of time before Duffy attempts to make a similar breakthrough.
And when she does, the white girl from Wales will give the Americans an inspiring lesson on their black musical heritage.
Duffy with Kylie at Later with Jools Holland performance:
Soul sisters: Duffy, performing on TV last month, and Dusty Springfield pictured in 1965:
Major talent: Duffy's debut album Rockferry has topped the charts for the past month.
Murder plot: Dawn Watson, above, was jailed over her plan to hire a hitman to kill Duffy's stepfather Philip Smith, below