Eva Cassidy's Gift
In death, a unique singer touches listeners who never heard her live
By Joan Anderman, Globe Correspondent, 01/31/99
One Sunday morning last November, a CD caught Fred Taylor's eye. On the cover was a fuzzy photograph of a young woman with her blond hair pulled back in a haphazard braid, smiling sideways for the camera, water shimmering in the background - not the cool, glossy product the jazz impresario is accustomed to. ''The girl was this country, wholesome type, and I thought `What the devil is this?''' Taylor recalls. ''So I put it on, and I'm getting dressed, and this voice comes on. And I just stopped cold in my tracks. I listened to cut after cut and each one was more incredible than the one before. I was flipping out. My first thought was, `I've got to get her into the club.'''
The club is Scullers, the Boston jazz venue where Taylor is entertainment director. As luck would have it, that particular CD was sitting on top of one of the enormous piles of new records sent to Taylor each week by promoters, agents, and record companies. He reached for the liner notes to learn more about the stunning singer. And that, Taylor says, is when his heart fell into his stomach. Eva Cassidy had died two years earlier of melanoma, at the age of 33.
''I nearly broke into tears. I think I was listening to her sing `Autumn Leaves' at the time, which can do it.'' Even now Taylor's eyes grow misty speaking about Cassidy, a Washington, D.C., singer whose ''Songbird'' CD was released posthumously, in April 1998, on the Blix Street label out of Los Angeles. ''I've been excited about different artists. I've seen great talent and I've helped develop it. But nothing has ever really gotten under my skin like this. And I felt that way before I knew what had happened. ... That just made it much more intense.''
Taylor decided on the spot to do something wildly out of character for a music-industry type. With no business interest or financial stake in her career, Taylor took it upon himself to become Cassidy's unofficial ambassador. ''I felt, and feel, so strongly that this shouldn't go unnoticed. So I dedicated myself to spreading the word. The day after I heard it, Monday, the calls started coming in, and if it was anybody with any musical sensibility at all I said, `Hey, by the way ...' And I'd do this `by the way' thing with everybody who called.''
Taylor soon became more concerted in his efforts to raise awareness about Cassidy, and set out to get ''Songbird'' to the right person in Boston radio. Enter Robin Young, a close acquaintance who hosts the morning show on WBOS-FM (92.9) and specializes in feature stories.
''I got this threatening phone call from Freddy,'' Young recalls, ''basically saying, `If you don't listen to this cassette. ...' He didn't tell me the story. I just popped the cassette in. Then I read the literature. I called him that night, and told him I was going to put it on the radio the next day.'' That November morning she played Cassidy's cover of Sting's ''Fields of Gold,'' announcing beforehand only that it was a tape that a friend had given her. Not 30 seconds went by, Young says, before the phone lines lit up.
''People wanted to know who she was, and where they could get it,'' Young says. ''I talked to Bill Straw,'' president of Blix Street Records, ''who said they had about 40 calls that day. The next day he got a call from Amazon.com, who had sold out of it. Bill said to me `What are you doing?' I said `Really, nothing. Just playing it.'''
Young continued to play the single; by the second week she had aired a much-expanded feature about Cassidy. E-mail started arriving, and area record stores started calling the station, wondering where they could find the CD. Borders Records in Burlington was getting so many requests that it put ''Songbird'' on the WBOS listening post. Hundreds of calls were jamming the phone lines at Blix Street.
Groundswell of interest
And Cassidy's sudden popularity is not, evidently, a phenomenon limited to Boston, though this area is leading the global groundswell of interest. Last week ''Fields of Gold'' was the most-requested track on KFOG, San Francisco's AAA radio station. The single is climbing the charts in Australia, and the CD has exploded in England, where it topped year-end Top 10 lists.
It's not unusual for an established artist's album sales to accelerate following his or her death, especially an untimely one. But for an unknown to have her career take off posthumously is rare indeed. One might conjecture that Eva Cassidy succumbed to cancer just as her star was beginning to rise. When she performed at Washington's Blues Alley in July 1996 to promote her first solo record, ''Live at Blues Alley,'' Cassidy was already walking with a cane - though the soreness in her hip was still a mystery. The next month she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It's impossible to calibrate exactly how the tragic circumstances surrounding the release of ''Songbird'' contribute to the emotional pull of the music. But there's no denying Cassidy's musical gifts: an astonishingly broad interpretive range, her natural feel for phrasing, and the clean, clear beauty of her voice. ''They way she does `Cheek to Cheek,' I'll put that up against the great jazz vocalists of all time,'' says Taylor. ''And she rewrote `Over the Rainbow.' She totally reinvented it.''
Indeed, Cassidy's subtle, but striking, innovations with familiar tunes were more than merely imaginative. With an intense purity of tone matched by an equally intense purity of emotion, Cassidy gave songs new life, even as hers was slipping away. Many thought she was black, so soulful was her way with a melody. But she sang jazz, gospel, folk, and pop with equal finesse, moving with ease from ''Autumn Leaves'' to Pete Seeger's ''Oh, Had I a Golden Thread'' to Curtis Mayfield's ''People Get Ready'' and sounding for all the world as if she were, by turns, a jazz diva, an earnest folk singer, and a fiery soul screamer.
And that, by all accounts, was Cassidy's curse as well as her blessing. An expansive musician whose love of song far exceeded her professional ambition, Cassidy refused to narrow her focus in order to make herself more marketable in an industry that's rigorously dedicated to stylistic niches. Plenty of record labels came calling; none had a clue what to do with a young woman who sounded like Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Krall rolled into one. ''She had a magnificent voice. The problem was she could sing a telephone directory, but she didn't have a musical point of view,'' says Bruce Lundvall, president of Jazz and Classics for Capitol Records, who considered signing her to the Blue Note label in 1994. Instead, Lundvall paired Cassidy with Pieces of a Dream, a Philadelphia pop-jazz unit, in the spring of 1994, trying to find some way to develop her as an artist. But the union was misguided and, following two singles and a tour, ultimately unsuccessful. ''I have to admit I'm guilty of passing on a brilliant career. We couldn't figure out what she was, and I blame myself. I talked to her on her deathbed and told her I'd made a terrible mistake. She said `God bless you.' She never harbored resentment.''
Painfully shy and thoroughly uncompromising, Cassidy spent the bulk of her brief professional life playing for a loyal following in Washington nightclubs, painting and gardening - her other two passions - by day. She met Chris Biondo, a D.C.-area engineer and bassist, in 1986, when she wound up in his studio singing vocals on a friend's record. Biondo subsequently became her mentor, booking agent, producer, and lover. At the time, when record companies expressed interest and Cassidy (who was working in a nursery) balked at the idea of whittling down her musical identity, Biondo was aghast. ''I wanted to choke her and say, `You idiot, it's a job, and you may as well have one that involves singing,''' he says. ''But looking back I think she was right. What's happening right now, the way she's reaching people, is a result of her pure approach to music. She knew something all along, that you do something because you love it, not to please someone else.''
In 1991, Biondo introduced Cassidy to Chuck Brown, a middle-aged, black, hard-rock veteran who was the godfather of Washington's go-go scene. Against all odds, Brown and Cassidy found in each other kindred musical spirits. ''She was the inspiration of my life,'' says Brown. ''For years I'd been dreaming about singing some blues and jazz with a lady. I had been afraid until I heard that sweet, beautiful, golden voice.'' The pair became a popular duo performing classic American songs; they recorded a CD, ''The Other Side,'' which was self-released in 1992. Cassidy released ''Live at Blues Alley'' in June 1996. She died four months later. It was many more months before Brown could bring himself to play music again. ''I couldn't even go into the studio, look at her picture on the wall, sing in the sound booth we sang in,'' he says in a low voice. ''It was like being hit with a bolt of lightning.''
Bill Straw of Blix Street Records (best known for the Celtic artist Mary Black) was given a copy of ''Live at Blues Alley'' in October 1996, when Cassidy was in the last weeks of her life. ''I knew how good she was, immediately,'' Straw recalls. ''And I knew she wasn't going to be around to enjoy it. I was in a kind of shock. You don't even think about business at a time like that. It didn't occur to me to go back and meet her. I knew there wasn't time. But I knew if it was handled properly her music would be heard.''
About six months after her death, Straw flew out to meet Cassidy's parents in Montgomery County, Md. They talked over dinner, and Hugh and Barbara Cassidy played some of their daughter's music that Straw hadn't heard. Straw also watched a videotape of the tribute concert friends organized for Cassidy that past September, only weeks before her death. She'd had a blood transfusion that day, and had to be carried from the car into the club, and settled on a stool onstage. ''She had a scarf covering her head'' (Cassidy's hair fell out during chemotherapy). ''They handed her a guitar, and she actually apologized for her lungs not being stronger. Then she literally floated out `What a Wonderful World.' It was extraordinary.''
Barbara Cassidy says that the remarkable spirit her daughter displayed that night remained with her until the end. ''She was so loved. It was like she was enveloped in a bubble of love from her family and friends. She also met three other young people her own age who had cancer, and they gave each other enormous strength.'' Her one regret, Mrs. Cassidy says, is that they chose to treat Eva's cancer with aggressive therapies. ''At the time she was diagnosed the doctor said if we didn't do anything she'd only have four months to live. So she made the decision to go ahead. She didn't even have the four months.''
Straw and the Cassidys agreed that night to put together a new album. ''Bruce Lundvall at Blue Note was distraught,'' says Straw. ''He wanted to put out some kind of posthumous record but his staff, by all accounts, talked him out of it, persuading him that he needed to focus on artists with a future. That's when I realized that it wasn't a job for a major label, that they just wouldn't do it. I thought we were ideally set up to do it. The fact is, we don't have to get the same response to have it work out economically. And I feel totally privileged to be involved.''
''Songbird'' is an anthology of tracks from ''Live at Blues Alley'' and songs from ''Eva by Heart,'' a posthumous collection put together by Biondo. As for future releases, Straw says there are some outtakes from the Blues Alley live sessions, and some impeccable voice-guitar demos. He's bandied about the idea of doing a series of genre albums: blues, gospel, and jazz, perhaps. BBC Radio 2 is planning a 30-minute special. But, as Biondo states succinctly, and with immeasurable sadness, ''Eva is a finite musical entity. I don't think there's any way her music will be widely heard. And yet her records generate more tears, and more emotion, than a lot of records that outsell hers. It's because Eva is 100 percent real. And that fuzzes your heart up.''
Biondo is still overwhelmed by the loss. He considers Cassidy ''the definitive singer who's graced our planet,'' and calls himself the bearer of her cross. He has dinner with Cassidy's mother every year on Eva's birthday, at Eva's favorite restaurant. He keeps a notebook full of e-mail and newspaper clippings about Cassidy, a chronicle of her legacy.
And thanks to people like Fred Taylor and Robin Young, Cassidy's legacy won't go unnoticed. Taylor is still dreaming up ways to spread the word; he's set his sights on putting together a documentary about Cassidy's life. Young, who originally framed Cassidy's brief career as a tragedy, has changed her view. ''I remember when we first aired the story, we had a substitute jock who heard it in her car on the way to work,'' Young explains. ''She came bursting into the studio while I was still on the air and said, `No, no, you're wrong about this. It was a miracle that her voice was recorded at all. It's not a loss. It's a gift.'''
This story ran on page N01 of the Boston Globe on 01/31/99.