| GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
BY ELLIS WIDNER
Eva Cassidy is the best singer you’ve never heard. But don’t just take my word for it: Ask soulful singer Roberta Flack. Or rock drummer Mick Fleetwood. Or jazz great Shirley Horn. Flack describes Cassidy as “a master of her craft.” Fleetwood said she was magic and he wanted to make an album with her. “What a voice,” Horn enthused.
Cassidy, like her inspiration Ray Charles, knew no stylistic bounds. Like Charles, she wasn’t about to be pigeonholed. But that voice has been stilled since Cassidy died from cancer at age 33 on Nov. 2, 1996. In death, Cassidy’s music is finally finding a national audience. The recently issued compilation CD Songbird (Blix Street) is the first album of Cassidy’s music to be distributed outside the Washington, D.C., area she called home.
Songbird is a revelation. From Sting’s “Fields of Gold” to a swinging take on “Wade in the Water” to what one critic described as the best version of “Over the Rainbow” he’d ever heard, Cassidy’s pure, sweet voice is soulful and powerful. She could swing, capture the full-blown fervor of gospel, roll with the saucy blues and still retain that folklike purity that recalls early Joan Baez. Cassidy’s muse led her all over the musical map and she had the voice to deliver the goods.
Chris Biondo, who produced Cassidy’s albums, is passionate about her talent. “Did you ever hear anybody sing better? Anybody?” he asks, almost daring you to disagree. And the truth is, you are hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Mariah? Nah. Whitney? Nope. Aretha? Now, at least, you’re getting in the ballpark.
“The thing about Eva is she could do the full circle of music. Ray Charles was a huge influence on her, he built a career being a singer of a variety of music. That was what Eva was about.” Biondo says Cassidy knew how she wanted her songs to sound and was a gifted arranger. “Her voice could take you places. She sang songs differently every time; she changed approaches, timing, phrasing. Eva did [her music] from the heart. She was also deep in ways a lot of people didn’t know. She painted landscapes that had a touch of surrealism, she made furniture, jewelry and was getting into claymation.”
The first time Biondo heard Cassidy sing was at a recording session at his studio. “She came in with a guy to do vocals on an instrumental track. She was very shy. I figured she probably couldn’t sing a note. Was I wrong. She was incredible.” Biondo got Cassidy into the studio whenever he could and encouraged her to perform.
The two fell in love in the fall of 1991 and were in a relationship for two years before Cassidy ended it. “When we broke up, I didn’t want her out of my life,” he says. “We remained friends. We went to the movies once a week and we worked together. She never lost that childlike innocence, never allowed herself to be soiled by the evils of the world. I never heard her say anything bad about anyone. She was very humble … she didn’t think she was as good a singer that everyone else told her she was.”
Biondo says his relationship with Cassidy changed him in many ways. “She taught me that success is not the ultimate goal … it’s the love of music. That’s pretty idealistic, but that’s how she was. My own standards about music are higher, thanks to her. She made me recognize and want to work with music from a purist standpoint. I’d like to stop people from looking at music from a purely ‘oh, this is what will sell; this is what the kids will like’ viewpoint. I’d rather work with someone who says ‘I have to do this.’ That’s what Eva did for me. I never looked at music that way before.”
Cassidy’s eclectic nature made it hard for a record company to know what to do with her in a music business that bases its choices for new artists more on marketing studies than the performer’s talent. Her resistance to categorization cost her more than one opportunity for a recording contract. “They usually would ask her what she wanted to sing,” Biondo says. “She told more than one guy, ‘anything but that pop crap’.”
Blue Note, which is home to barrier-blurring artists Cassandra Wilson and Holly Cole, did release a single by Cassidy with the Philadelphia group Pieces of a Dream. But the label wouldn’t commit to an album. “I think people who buy music are smarter than record companies realize,” Biondo says. “There are a lot of people out there who respond to varieties of music, to good songs. Ray Charles proved that.”
Biondo still has his recording studio. His latest project is Chuck Brown’s Timeless (Liaison). The album of jazz and blues classics is dedicated to Cassidy. Brown, the leader of the Soul Searchers, is the godfather of the go-go music scene in Washington, D.C. He recorded an album of blues classics with Cassidy, The Other Side (Liaison), in 1992.
There are enough live and studio recordings by Cassidy to put together one, perhaps two more albums, Biondo says. “Eva is a good example of the kind of artist who can improve the pretty sorry state music is in right now. If more artists would just do their music from the heart like she did, and not compromise their music, I think American music would be a lot better.”