The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 1996
Echoes of a Voice Stilled Too Early
The Death of Eva Cassidy Haunts Friends and Fans
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 1996 Page G01
Bruce Lundvall still shakes his head over Eva Cassidy. Lundvall heads Blue Note Records, a label with a string of distinctive jazz singers. None made a first impression like this unknown singer from Bowie.
"Eva Cassidy had the most extraordinary and singular voice I had heard in a very, very long time," he says. "It was distinctive not only because of its power but because of its timbre when she sang quietly. It was so very mysterious -- it would just freeze me.
"The first time I ever heard her was in my office. She sang an a cappella `Amazing Grace' and I was just nailed to the wall. I made a very bad mistake. I should have signed her. . . . She was a kid. Who knew?"
On Nov. 2, Eva Cassidy died at the age of 33 following a three-month battle with bone cancer. She was, for sure, a diamond, no longer in the rough but not yet in the proper setting that would showcase a voice so pure, so strong, so passionate that it should have found a home just about anywhere.
Cassidy didn't have any concept of target audiences or musical distinctions. She could sing anything -- folk, blues, pop, jazz, R&B, gospel -- and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered.
But that kind of reach, that kind of embrace, is so rare that it doesn't have a regular audience. Clubs shy away from booking a voice like that. Record labels don't know how to sell it. So Cassidy released only two CDs, both on local labels. The second, "Live at Blues Alley," came out a month before she learned she had cancer.
All that helps explain why Eva Cassidy is not a familiar name, even here in her home town. She was a secret slowly exposed by word of mouth from those who stumbled into her world and emerged forever fans. It explains why so many musicians sought Eva Cassidy out. Everybody felt like she was a part of their mix.
She was shy, of course. She was neither blessed nor burdened with the aggressiveness and ambition that fuel so many singers and musicians. But there was a spiritual solidity about Cassidy. She was determined, focused, strong.
"I don't even think she knew how good she was," says Chuck Brown, the "Godfather of Go-Go," who made a much-acclaimed album of jazz and pop standards with Cassidy in 1992. "She liked the idea of possibly making a living off music, but if she never got a record deal or never became famous, she wouldn't lose any sleep over it," says Chris Biondo, Cassidy's producer and bassist. "What's sad is that people were just beginning to figure how good she was when she got sick."
Toward the end of July, Eva Cassidy started showing up for gigs with a cane. Hip pain, she said. She'd been doing murals for three days. Must have pulled something.
The pain didn't stop. X-rays. The hip was fractured. Hip replacement surgery was set for Aug. 21. A precautionary X-ray before the operation found cancer in a lung. Tests at Johns Hopkins then found that her bones were filled with cancer.
All of a sudden, she was being told that she had three months to live. She started chemotherapy immediately, though it seemed little more than rage against the storm of sickness.
"It wasn't just the music," says Biondo. "Eva fought as hard as she did because she wanted to ride her bike again, to go out and spend Sundays with her mother. She loved music, but it didn't mean as much to her as it meant to the people that were listening to her singing."
Her mother, Barbara Cassidy, says Eva "was a very private person, with a sense of vulnerability about her when she sang. I think that's what touched people's hearts about her."
When Chris Biondo first met Eva Cassidy, she was just a friend of someone recording in his home studio in Bowie. "He told me he was bringing over a really good singer. I didn't pay much attention, but I remember Eva was scared to come in the door, she waited outside. It wasn't very intimidating, but she thought it was a bigger deal than it was. When Eva finally came in and sang, I knew my friend wasn't kidding."
Biondo's recording studio would ultimately be a bridge to a number of musical opportunities that Cassidy would never have sought out. It was there that she met Al Dale, a National Park Service official who would become her manager.
"When I went to the studio, Eva was singing background parts in the vocal booth, which I couldn't see -- Chris pushed the button on the board so the music was coming out," Dale recalls. "I said, `Man, she's great!' I was expecting to see this black lady and out walks this little blond, blue-eyed lady and I said, `Is that Eva Cassidy?' "
She was raw talent.
"She hadn't, like a lot of people, hit the Holiday Inn circuit, done tours and whatever," Dale remembers. "She had never done any of that, just some singing around the house with her family and doing little gigs. She talked about how she enjoyed doing backup vocals and liked all kinds of music.
"And, when I was first trying to encourage her, she'd ask, `Why would anybody want to hear me? Why would anybody want to buy my records?' "
She came from a musical family. Her father, Hugh Cassidy, is a retired schoolteacher who played acoustic bass for many years. Her brother, Danny, is a fiddle player now living in Iceland. Eva became serious about her voice and guitar when she was 9, about the same time her brother started on the fiddle.
She sang with a couple of high-energy rock bands in high school. "It strained her voice because kids play so loud and the singer has to screech to get above them," says Hugh Cassidy. "She hated that."
Eva's first professional job was singing country music over the summer at nearby Wild World, a first taste of doing songs she didn't want to do in front of audiences who weren't there to listen.
But Cassidy herself listened with great passion -- to the radio.
"One of the reasons she got so good, whenever a song was on the radio, she would always sing with it -- not the melody, always the harmony," Hugh says. "She had a sense of harmony -- it didn't matter what part -- high, low, she could take any part. When they'd call her in to lay down tracks, she'd go in and just do it because she had an incredible ear."
Chuck Brown also discovered Eva Cassidy voice-first when he was doing some recording at Biondo's studio in 1992.
"Chris put a tape on and I heard this beautiful, honeyed voice coming out of the speakers," Brown recalls. "Her voice projected her feelings, and I could feel everything she was singing. It's a devastating blow to lose her. . . . I felt I'd been knowing her all her life."
Though widely known as the Godfather of Go-Go, the raspy-voiced Brown had long wanted to cut an album reflecting his passion for jazz and blues, but, he admits, "I never had the nerve to do it by myself. That lady, man, I've never met anybody like her. When I first heard her voice, I thought about Louis Armstrong and Peggy Lee. What a combination that was way back in the '40s and nobody'd done it since! I really felt good about it."
They recorded "The Other Side," a supple collection of standards like "Fever," "Over the Rainbow," "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," "God Bless the Child" and "You Don't Know What Love Is."
Cassidy's singing with Brown, says her friend Jackie Fletcher, was "simple and clear and gorgeous, the quiet crystal clear ballad interspersed with soulful blues tunes. It was not muddied in the water of rock-and-roll, and it made Eva work -- she had to have power in her voice to sing with Chuck."
The two did some club dates together -- the notoriously undemonstrative Cassidy got someone to teach her how to snap her fingers for "Fever" -- and introduced themselves to each other's audiences.
"When I found out she was sick, I haven't been right since," says Brown, his voice choking up with emotion. "I had to stop all of my recording sessions 'cause I just wasn't in no mood to go in the studios to do anything . . . "
In time, Cassidy began to venture out from the studio, playing small clubs and wishing they were smaller.
"She was scared to play in front of a lot of people," Biondo says, "though she became more comfortable when she realized her singing really moved people."
Singer Mary Ann Redmond, who shared some stages with Cassidy, says: "Female singers are a rare breed -- they can be insecure and a little bit catty and weird -- but Eva didn't have any of those traits. She didn't have any ego, she just wanted to sing because she loved music. She didn't even really like being onstage that much -- she'd rather sing background than be in the foreground."
Nicky Scarfo, who produced gangsta rap at Biondo's studio -- and sometimes enlisted Cassidy for backup vocals -- couldn't understand why she wasn't a big star. "Chris said she didn't care at all, she just wanted to live her life peacefully. She was just happy doing what she did. . . . There was no sense of urgency."
Like Dale and Brown, Scarfo's first reaction when meeting Cassidy was doubt. "It was: `Chris, are you jiving?' But Eva got on that mike and just destroyed it, we didn't believe what we were hearing."
At first, Scarfo didn't think Cassidy would want to work in gangsta rap. "I had her sing a hook that said `I want to thank you pimps and players' and I couldn't even imagine it -- but the way she sang it, she made it sound good, you know!"
Scarfo laughs at the memory. "She just put a feeling and a touch on words that brought them across with soulfulness and jazziness all wrapped up into one. And the way she did harmonies is unbelievable. She could do four-part harmonies just like that -- 1,2,3,4, write it and hit it, all the harmonies, note for note, and be done in 20 or 30 minutes. It was unbelievable."
So was the rappers' reaction. "These are guys that would shoot me if I messed their tape up. When she'd come in," Scarfo says, "I swear, it was like the principal walking into a class, I've never seen them so respectful and well behaved. These guys were really devastated when they found out about Eva . . . "
"Record companies want to pigeonhole you," says manager Dale. "What was really confusing about Eva is that she could sing everything."
According to Biondo, Cassidy's biggest problem with prospective labels was that when they asked her to show them what direction she wanted to go in, she would record three or four songs. "And, inevitably, one would be a gospel song, one a jazz standard, one a folk song, or some obscure Celtic song that Eva would change and arrange in ways that made it not resemble anything like it was when it was originally invented. Every song that she sang had some meaning to her.
"She didn't really understand that there were categories between songs; if they were ones she happened to pick, that was her category. I don't think until the day she died she ever understood what that was all about."
By mid-October, many in Washington's music community were aware of Cassidy's illness, though few knew its severity. Because she had no insurance, a benefit was scheduled at the Bayou, with dozens of bands and individual musicians volunteering their services.
"Eva cared enough about it to try to get herself pumped up to get there," Dale says. Effects of the still-spreading cancer and the harsh side effects of chemotherapy had made Cassidy so ill that she decided to forgo chemo on the two days before the show. When she arrived at the club -- moving slowly with a walker, a sprightly beret masking the loss of hair -- Cassidy looked frail but golden.
"Eva had such a sparkle that night -- she said, `This is like my big birthday party.' It may have been the one time in her life that she came to terms with the idea that people really do like her and think that she's a terrific talent. It filled her to know people appreciated and loved her."
Late that evening, Cassidy slowly moved down the Bayou stage steps with her walker and approached the microphone. Typically, she first thanked everyone. And then, with a fragile beauty that belied her pain, she sang "What a Wonderful World," a vision of moments and places and people that will never again seem quite as wonderful as they were that night.
Eva Cassidy's eyes may have been the only dry ones in the Bayou at that moment.
"I think that was the best day she had after she got real sick," Biondo says. "But she came home and threw up that night, she was in a lot of pain. The arm that she used to strum her guitar had cancer in it . . . "
Hours later, Cassidy was back at Johns Hopkins for chemo. According to Jackie Fletcher, "Her peak was the Bayou. She started sliding downhill that next morning. She lost so much of her strength over a short period of time and after that night, she was always in the wheelchair because of the pain and because her bones were so brittle."
Over the next few days, Cassidy tried to send thank-you notes to the performers and those who helped put the tribute together, even if she could only do one a day. The cards bore a heart with a smiling face.
The Bayou would be Cassidy's last public performance. The little bit of singing she did after that was from her bed.
"She liked songs with singable choruses," folk singer Marcy Marxer recollects. "Songs like `Give Yourself to Love' and `My Heart's in the Highlands.' Grace Griffith and I would sing, and she'd just jump in with the third part. Sometimes we'd have to sing softly to hear Eva, and she'd say, `Let's make a nest' -- and we'd circle up real close."
The last weeks were the hardest, of course. And, typically, it was Eva Cassidy who preempted others' sorrow.
"I once heard Eva say she wasn't afraid of dying," says Al Dale. "She never even had a tear in her eye. It was always, `Well, how you doing, Al?' You almost never got a chance to say `Well, Eva, how are you doing?' She never even asked for anything -- you could give her an apple and she'd think it was a diamond ring."
Barbara Cassidy remembers that earlier this year, Eva visited relatives in Nova Scotia and sat on some rocks watching meteors go by all night long. "She said it was so incredible. She loved different cloud formations, the way the sun would feel to her through the breeze, flowers. She just added so much beauty to my life . . .
"And she loved sunset, it was her favorite time. She called it the golden time of day, when the sun is going down and the yellows and reds hit the leaf tops . . . "
Hugh Cassidy sighs for a moment and says, "Eva got us all to look at the golden time."
In 1993, Eva Cassidy tried to record a song called "I Know You by Heart." The project was sidetracked. It was finished last month, with the calm, crystalline beauty of Cassidy's voice augmented by the aching, ethereal violin of her brother, Danny.
"You left in autumn, the leaves were turning
I walk down roads [of] orange and gold
I see your sweet smile, I hear your laughter
You're still here beside me every day . . .
'Cause I know you by heart . . . "
Maybe someday "I Know You by Heart" will be released, its melancholy beauty heard by audiences around the world. Then, the song's sound may well bring tears to strangers' eyes, but right now it's the silence that hurts those who knew the singer.
Copyright Richard Harrington/The Washington Post, 1996. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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