Eva Cassidy - Biography

Eva CassidyEva Marie Cassidy (February 2, 1963 in Oxon Hill, Maryland – November 2, 1996 in Bowie, Maryland) was an American vocalist described by the British newspaper The Guardian as "one of the greatest voices of her generation". Although possessing a soulful voice, an extraordinary range, and a diverse repertoire of jazz, blues, folk, gospel and pop, she still remained virtually unknown outside of her native Washington, DC, when she died of melanoma in 1996. However, her posthumously released recordings have since sold in excess of four million copies, and in early 2001 the compilation album Songbird reached #1 on the UK album charts.

Eva Cassidy was the third of four children born to Hugh and Barbara Cassidy. From an early age, she displayed exceptional artistic and musical talent. When she was nine years old, her father bought her a guitar, and she began to play at family gatherings with her musical siblings.

As she entered her teens, however, Cassidy seemed to be unaware of the depth of her own talent. She did, however, sing with an amateur band, called Stonehenge, during high school and received considerable praise. Due to her extreme shyness, she struggled with performing in front of strangers.

At the age of eighteen, Cassidy began her professional career, singing and playing guitar in a Washington, D.C. area band, called Easy Street. This band performed in a variety of styles, at weddings, corporate parties, and smokey pubs. Cassidy paid her dues as a struggling young musician, working with Easy Street on Christmas night in 1982, at a neighborhood pub in Bowie, Maryland.

During the Summer of 1983, Cassidy sang and played guitar, six days per week, at the Wild World Theme Park, in Maryland. Her brother Dan was also a member of this working band, and together they developed much of the material she would later become famous for singing.

Throughout the 1980s, Cassidy worked with a number of other bands, including the soul and Motown oriented band, The Honeybees, and the techno-pop original band, Characters Without Names. Cassidy co-wrote songs, along with the other band members, and recorded them at various home studios.

During this same period, Cassidy also worked as a propagator at a plant nursery and as a furniture painter in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1986, she met (bassist and recording engineer) Chris Biondo, who encouraged her and helped her find work as a backup singer for various acts. In 1990 Cassidy formed the five piece "Eva Cassidy Band" and she began to perform in the Washington, DC, area.

In 1992 Biondo played a tape of Cassidy's for Chuck Brown. Brown, best known as a "Go-Go" singer, is also an accomplished jazz and blues vocalist. This led to the first commercial recording of Cassidy, the duet album with Chuck Brown, The Other Side; which featured performances of classic songs such as "Fever", Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" and Cassidy's signature tune "Over the Rainbow". The independently released duet CD attracted the attention of various record companies, but the offers all required Cassidy to pigeonhole herself within a single style (e.g., pop or jazz), something she adamantly refused to do.

In January 1996 Cassidy recorded the album Live at Blues Alley, about which the Washington Post later commented that "she could sing anything and make it sound like the only music that mattered". Cassidy was unhappy with the album and promptly began recording a studio album which was eventually released as Eva by Heart in 1997.

During a promotional event for this CD in July 1996, Cassidy noticed an ache in her hips, which she attributed to stiffness from painting a ceiling. The pain persisted, and a few weeks later Cassidy was diagnosed with melanoma. By the time of her diagnosis, the cancer had spread throughout her body, causing the pain in her hips.

Cassidy's health rapidly deteriorated, and her final performance was in September 1996, when, after using a walker to reach the stage, she sang "What a Wonderful World" in front of an audience of friends and admirers.

Eva was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital. A constant stream of friends kept coming, bringing her fruit and flowers. She felt badly that these were going to waste, so she asked someone to bring in paper and crayons. Often she could not see her visitors because of the regimen she had, so this way she helped her visitors to express themselves to her. When one stepped off the elevator and saw the hallways lined with people sitting on the floor colouring, talking and getting to know each other; it was a wonderful scene to behold. Eva had every picture hung on the big wall at the end of her bed so she could see them. When friends would visit later, they would find her bent over her pen, handwriting thank-you cards. She had very little energy and stamina to sit, but she used that time to thank people. Eva Cassidy died on November 2, 1996, at the age of 33.

Accompaniment

During the later part of Eva Cassidy's performing and recording career, she was accompanied by a core group of musicians:

  • Keith Grimes - guitar
  • Lenny Williams - keyboard
  • Chris Biondo - bass
  • Raice McLeod - drums

Posthumous recognition and popularity

In 1998, a compilation of tracks from Cassidy's three released recordings was assembled into the CD Songbird. This CD lingered in obscurity for a few years until being given airplay on BBC Radio Two by presenter Terry Wogan. In 2001 the album reached #1 in the UK. Sting, the songwriter for "Fields of Gold", was reportedly moved to tears when he heard Cassidy's version of his song. The Songbird CD also achieved significant chart success throughout Europe and has achieved gold status in the United States.

Since then, two further compilations have been released: Time After Time (2000) and Imagine (2002). In 2001 a book entitled Songbird was released in the UK on the life and work of Cassidy, based on interviews with close family and associates. The hardcover edition has since sold in excess of 100,000 copies. A U.S. edition (softcover, published by Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group USA) was released in late 2003 and included two additional chapters.

In March 2001, ABC's Nightline in the United States broadcast a well-received short documentary about Eva Cassidy. A similar broadcast occurred on ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald in Great Britain in May 2001.

In 2002, figure skater Michelle Kwan brought Cassidy's music to a new audience when she skated to Eva's recording of "Fields of Gold" at the Winter Olympics gala (and then later on tour during the northern summer of 2002). Eva's performance of "Kathy's Song" can be heard in the feature film Maid in Manhattan which was released in 2002 as well.

In 2003, Anglo/Georgian singer Katie Melua released her song "Faraway Voice", in memory of Cassidy.

In 2003, American Tune became Eva's third consecutive #1 album in the UK. No other recording artist in popular music history has been able to match this posthumous success, including Elvis Presley. Eva's song Songbird was featured in the feature film Love Actually which was released in the fall of 2003.

Irish singer Chris De Burgh has stated in concert that his song "Songbird" from his album The Road to Freedom was written in honor of Eva Cassidy.

A DVD of Eva performing many of her signature songs, entitled Eva Cassidy Sings, was released in 2004 in the UK. It is not currently available in region 1.

Quotes

  • "She could sing anything . . . and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered." -- Richard Harrington, The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 1996
  • "A voice as powerful and soulful as any in popular music." -- Associated Press
  • "One of the best voices to have emerged from the U.S. in years." -- The Australian
  • “Eva Cassidy’s is the most remarkable posthumous career trajectory in pop music history.” -- London Daily Telegraph - 8/16/03
  • "Cassidy did not write many original songs. Her talent lay in interpretation, in a mastery of emotional redefinition of a song and in finding her path to the heart of the song often missing from its original recording. One critic observed, "Cassidy had a voice that would silence a bar and make pool players set down their cues. She was developing a body of work that could have grown into the voice of a generation." -- Cassidy Clan site

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