‘One of the best singers ever’: remembering Eva Cassidy, 25 years after her death

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On a precocious May time successful 1996, the vocalist Eva Cassidy and her bandmate Chris Biondo drove to a distant mill successful agrarian Virginia to cod copies of the signaling that turned retired to beryllium the past she would ever make. “We picked up a full of astir 1,100 cassettes and CDs,” Biondo recalled. “When we got successful the car, Eva cracked unfastened a container and started getting precise worried. She felt she wasn’t going to beryllium capable to merchantability them all. I’ll ne'er hide her comment: ‘When I’m dormant and they find me, there’s going to beryllium boxes of these successful my basement,’ she said. Her expectations for the grounds could not person been much minimal.”

After all, Cassidy had been performing for astir a decennary by past successful comparative obscurity and, portion she had a fig of meetings with grounds institution executives successful that time, they ne'er went beyond the talking stage. Worse, by the summertime of 96, the 33-year-old was facing thing dire. Over the people of the adjacent fewer months, she would person progressively grim diagnoses of a crab that had already begun to marque quickening contention done her body, robbing her of immoderate accidental of making a people during her clip connected earth. Given that, who could person foreseen that Cassidy’s euphony would 1 time make a sustained catalogue that would merchantability successful the multi-millions, creating illustration hits each implicit the world? “At the time, we conscionable hoped to marque capable wealth to bargain a PA system,” Biondo said.

This week volition people 25 years since Cassidy died of melanoma cancer, conscionable 10 months aft signaling the unrecorded medium she and Biondo had driven retired to prime up that day. The communicative that emerged aboriginal – of a endowment hardly recognized successful her lifetime, who went connected to execute rapturous posthumous acclaim – has go 1 of the astir melodramatic atrocious news/good quality tales successful popular history. But it ne'er would person happened without the stalwart efforts of immoderate dedicated supporters, arsenic good arsenic respective connections that brought her songs to the attraction of much media gatekeepers than usually person recognition successful the tale.

The tiny statement that acceptable things successful motion, Blix Street Records, seemed an improbable motor to powerfulness specified a success. Before making a woody with Eva’s estate, the imprint had achieved humble income with recordings by jazz instrumental bands and Celtic singers, the best-selling of whom was Mary Black. It was different vocalist connected the label, Grace Griffith, a person of Cassidy’s from the Washington DC nine scene, who introduced her euphony to Blix Street main Bill Straw. “We person this fantastic nightingale,’” Griffith told him, Straw recalled. “I’m acrophobic we’re going to suffer her.”

“As soon arsenic her vocal came on, I felt it was extraordinary,” helium said. “By the clip I finished the album, I came to the decision that this was 1 of the champion singers ever.”

Though galore person travel to akin conclusions since, Biondo was 1 of the archetypal to bash so. He met Cassidy successful the wintertime of 1986 when, connected the proposal of a communal friend, she came to sojourn him astatine his tiny location signaling studio. “She was acrophobic to travel wrong due to the fact that she had not done immoderate signaling similar this before,” Biondo said.

Once she began to sing, however, helium was instantly taken with her earthy skill. “A batch of radical instrumentality lessons to larn euphony mentation and however to bash harmonies,” helium said. “She could conscionable bash it. I watched her travel up with three- oregon four-part harmonies retired of nowhere. She would perceive it successful her caput and past sing thing she heard.”

Biondo believes that accomplishment is what freed her to bring truthful overmuch emotion to the songs. “There are a batch of components to idiosyncratic trying to propulsion disconnected a tune,” helium said. “They person to deliberation astir the method parts, astir what the adjacent enactment is and what the phrasing volition be. But due to the fact that those things were truthful earthy to Eva, it allowed her to spell close to the adjacent level, which was to spell wrong the opus and consciousness the lyrics.”

Her accomplishment besides meant she could improvise the tunes astatine will, arsenic good arsenic crook the notes with a sculptor’s care. “She could alteration the melody to thing the set had not heard earlier connected a gig-by-gig basis,” Biondo said.

Then determination was the sheer dependable of her soprano, graced by a code arsenic plush arsenic fleece. “It’s the purity of the code that struck me,” said Rob Burley, who wrote the publication Songbird, astir Cassidy’s life. “The unadorned prime of it shines through.”

Eva Cassidy
Photograph: Courtesy of Blix Records

At times, however, the subtlety of her approach, and the quiescent strength of it, could alert implicit the heads of immoderate audiences. “We ne'er played large which was a occupation for us,” Biondo said. “One time, we played this nine successful confederate Maryland and we were doing ballads, state tunes and the clientele was into Lynyrd Skynyrd, truthful radical were leaving. The feline who had hired america to play said, ‘How astir I wage you and you guys spell home?’ It’s ne'er a bully happening erstwhile idiosyncratic pays you to leave.”

On the different hand, Biondo said Cassidy “thought that was kinda cool,” an cognition that underscores her absorption connected the show alternatively than its reception. “She conscionable liked to spell retired and sing,” helium said. “She didn’t privation anybody to leap up and down.”

Cassidy remained arsenic chill erstwhile it came to meetings with grounds companies. “Maybe fractional a twelve companies came down to speech to her,” Biondo said. “But she ne'er did the kinds of things the radical who deliberation they’re going to get a declaration do, which is to enactment each giddy and marque accelerated friends with the A&R people. I don’t deliberation they were excessively impressed with her enthusiasm level.”

Cassidy’s low-key effect had 2 sources: her introverted character, and her interest that the manufacture mightiness effort to compression her omnivorous philharmonic sensation into a box. When 1 institution enforcement asked Cassidy what benignant of euphony she wanted to record, she told him, “anything but that popular crap,” Burley said. When the prestigious Blue Note Records gave Cassidy’s set a fund of $3,500 to chopped six songs, she covered six antithetic genres. “You could spot that the concern consciousness and who the creator is was going to collide,” Biondo said.

At 1 point, Blue Note tried pairing her with a creaseless jazz set connected the label, Pieces of a Dream, for a fewer songs but the vocalist despised the result. A much pleasing connection came from Apollo Records, tally by civilian rights activistic Percy Sutton, a statement connected to the vaunted Harlem-based theater. “They sent her a declaration which meant she could person discontinue her time occupation (in a works nursery) and gotten a yearly salary,” Biondi said. “That was a imagination travel true.”

Unfortunately, earlier Cassidy could sign, the institution folded. That’s the full crushed Cassidy and her set chopped the Live astatine Blues Alley album. It was fundamentally a hail-Mary walk to get attraction and gain immoderate severely needed cash. Sadly, astir the aforesaid clip a mysterious mole connected Cassidy’s backmost began to rise concerns. Because she hadn’t seen a doc successful years, Biondo insisted she spell to his. But she delayed for six months. When she yet went, it instigated a process that became acold much invasive that was archetypal assumed. The doc had to instrumentality the tegument from the backmost of her cervix each the mode down her spine successful a three-inch-wide swath. While the surgeon thought helium caught each the cancer, it came backmost with a vengeance. “It was atrocious quality aft atrocious news,” Biondo said. “She had crab successful her lungs, her brain, her arm, her back.”

Several months of dense chemotherapy followed, to nary avail. In her dying days, Cassidy’s euphony was brought erstwhile again to assorted labels. And they inactive turned her down. “The happening that pisses maine disconnected is that determination wasn’t anybody astute capable to recognize what was there,” said Biondo. “When they heard Eva, they should person known.”

Bill Straw had heard Cassidy’s euphony by then; helium was invited by Griffith to conscionable her astatine a payment held for the vocalist 2 months earlier her death. But helium felt it would beryllium ghoulish for him to attend. Six months aft she died, however, helium met with her parents. Straw had the vantage of knowing the benignant of specialized assemblage helium assumed she could scope astatine that point. It helped that determination were nary different superior bidders. Though Cassidy had self-released conscionable 3 albums successful her beingness – including a collaboration with DC go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, a solo work, and the unrecorded Blues Alley medium – she had immoderate 127 recordings successful the can. From that heavy trove, Blix Street fashioned an perfect acceptable titled Songbird, which they issued successful 1998. A story has arisen that the medium sold thing until it was picked up by BBC Radio 2 2 years later, but, according to Straw, the American property jumped connected it quickly, with rave reviews successful publications arsenic mainstream arsenic People magazine. Once the statement convinced a Boston vigor presumption to play her music, “we sold 10,000 CDs successful that metropolis successful 2 weeks. We kept having these small explosions,” Straw said.

The Mount Vesuvius moment, however, came erstwhile Blix Street’s associated statement successful the UK, Hot Records, hired Tony Bramwell, a grounds promo feline from the 60s who had worked with the Beatles, to beforehand the music. He took it to the shaper of Terry Wogan’s immense greeting amusement connected Radio 2. “They listened due to the fact that of Tony Bramwell’s lineage,” Burley said. The effect instantly resonated with British listeners, generating snowballing sales. Just earlier Christmas 2000, aft Top of the Pops 2 played a blurry video of Cassidy singing Over the Rainbow, the medium soared to the apical of the UK chart.

Eva Cassidy
Photograph: Courtesy of Blix Records

In the years since, the request for her euphony has encouraged the merchandise of nary less than 12 consequent albums, consisting of either antecedently unheard oregon repackaged performances. This December volition spot the merchandise of yet different – a 25th day variation of Live astatine Blues Alley. Biondo, who is credited arsenic shaper connected astir of her recordings, doesn’t judge that each of that euphony deserves to beryllium heard. “I don’t deliberation Eva would privation it each out,” helium said. “She didn’t get the accidental to censor her ain worldly and I don’t deliberation that’s fair, particularly since she had specified beardown feelings astir radical not proceeding her astatine her best.”

Even Straw believes 1 merchandise shouldn’t person happened – the Nightbird acceptable from 2018. Still, helium said, unit from the nationalist dictated that release. As to what Cassidy herself would person made of the sheer standard of the attraction she has received, Biondo said, “she would person been frightened shitless.”

He believes she would person preferred a much measured, and controllable, grade of attention. “I person this time imagination astir Eva each erstwhile successful a while,” Biondo mused. “In the dream, she isn’t dormant and she’s arsenic loved arsenic she is now. I spot her singing successful this small edifice that’s down my house. Maybe 40 radical tin acceptable successful determination and she plays determination each nighttime and radical wage a batch of wealth to spot her. And they’re quiescent and they truly listen. To her, that would beryllium heaven.”