Reflections: Eva Cassidy, 20 Years On

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the untimely passing of Eva Cassidy. Melodic Distraction looks back at the career of the shy musician, whose immeasurable talent only achieved global recognition after her life was tragically cut short by cancer at the tender age of 33.

Eva was born February 2nd 1963 in Maryland. Her passion for music was evident from an early age, guided by her father Hugh, who taught her the guitar and exposed her to artists such as jazz greats Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan – the unmistakeable influence of which can be heard in Cassidy’s own releases. Proving crucial to Cassidy’s early musical career, her father was responsible for putting together one of her first musical projects. Playing at a local theme park, he formed a folk band that was an all family affair; featuring Eva on guitar and vocals and her brother Danny on the fiddle. Cassidy’s desire to achieve perfection with every song, and self-critical approach to live performances, meant that she briefly fell out of love with music and went to study art at Prince George’s Community College, Maryland.

Cassidy grew disillusioned with art college, dropping out and began to work at a plant nursery. She was offered a way back into music in 1986, when David Lourim, (who was the guitarist of Cassidy’s high school band, Stonehenge) asked her to sing vocals for his new band Method Actor. Whilst recording, Cassidy met Chris Biondo, who immediately recognised her talent and agreed to help Cassidy put together a demo tape. A creative partnership blossomed, with Cassidy performing backing vocals on E.U’s Livin’ Large album (individually recording all her harmony parts to give the impression of a choir.) Under the influence of Biondo, Cassidy grew in confidence and became far more comfortable performing in front of larger crowds, and she formed her own backing band that played in local clubs, drawing a considerable local following in the process.

In 1991, Biondo introduced Cassidy to Chuck Brown, the founder behind Washington’s locally confined, yet popular, ‘go-go funk’ sound. Brown had been looking to record a jazz and blues album, and was immediately taken by Cassidy’s evocative and stylistically diverse vocals. They released a collaborative album The Other Side in 1992, and toured D.C together. This marked an important time in Cassidy’s career, as she recorded one of her signature tracks, a cover of ‘Over the Rainbow’ and was finally able to overcome the crippling insecurities that had previously blighted her attempts at performing live. Record labels began to take note of her talent, with many expressing an interest in signing her, but her eclectic mix of jazz, blues, country, gospel, folk and country, proved to be too diverse for record labels looking to pigeonhole and market a relatively unknown artist, and so none decided to sign her.

Undeterred by this, Cassidy continued to perform in the D.C. area, establishing her reputation locally as supremely sophisticated, yet emotive vocalist. In 1994, Blue Note Records signed Cassidy to perform with Philadelphia-based jazz-pop group Pieces of a Dream: recording the single ‘Good Bye Manhatten’ together and touring that summer. Cassidy left the project and returned to D.C soon after, seeking the artistic freedom that would enable her to only perform material that she had a personal connection with. Whilst she was still unable to secure a record deal, she teamed up once again with Biondo and began recording an album that they would then distribute themselves.

This would eventually become Eva at Heart, posthumously released in 1997, which many critics believe to be her best. The stripped back, minimalistic sound of the album brilliantly showcases Cassidy’s silky-smooth soprano, and the consummate ease with which she was able to interpret different genres. Compare the quintessentially jazzy ‘Wade in the Water, with her soulful cover of Christine McVie’s ‘Songbird’. Other highlights include ‘Waly Waly’, which perfectly displays the stunning four octave vocal range Cassidy possessed, and the sensitive and melancholic ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, which epitomises the emotional depth of her voice.

Whilst recording the album, Cassidy continued to perform live, and her performance at the Blues Alley in January 1996 was recorded (despite her own disappointment with her performance) and released as Live at Blues Alley. The album drew praise from local critics, and would be the only album released during her lifetime. It was at this time that Cassidy began to experience pain in her hip, with X-rays revealing that it was broken. Later tests revealed that the melanoma from a malignant mole she had removed in 1993 had spread to her lungs and bones. She began chemotherapy but it was unfortunately too late. In September, she gave a spellbinding final performance at a benefit show staged in her honour, concluding her set with  ‘What a Wonderful World’. Cassidy returned to her family home in Maryland, and died on November 2nd 1996. Following her death, Cassidy was inducted into the WAMA Hall of Fame and was honoured at the 1997 Washington Area Music Awards, winning Best Female Vocalist in four separate categories; Artist of the Year, and Album of the Year for Live At Blues Valley. In 1998 Grace Griffith, a D.C.-based folk singer drew the attention of her record label, Blix Street Records to Live at Blues Valley. The label subsequently approached Cassidy’s family about releasing a new album. In May 1998 the compilation album Songbird was released, featuring tracks from Eva by Heart, Live at Blues Alley and her recording of ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Other Side. The album was massively popular in Britain after Terry Wogan featured it on his breakfast show on BBC Radio 2. Songbird topped the UK charts, sold over one million copies.

Eva Cassidy’s legacy has been firmly cemented by the emergence of previously unreleased material, such as Time After Time (2000), a 12-track compilation. 2015 saw the release of Nightbird, an extended and remastered release of Cassidy’s live recording at the Blues Valley Club in 1996 that features 8 previously unreleased songs from that night. The posthumous fame she never lived to see is richly deserved, and stands testament to her outstanding talent as a songwriter and singer.