Laura Bligh interviewed guitarist Keith Grimes in October, 1999.
INTRODUCTION: Keith Grimes performed with Eva Cassidy for five years as lead guitarist for the Eva Cassidy Band. In this interview, he discusses what it was like working with Eva, and the history of the Eva Cassidy Band.
Question: How did you first get together with Eva Cassidy?
Grimes: I had known Chris Biondo very slightly, and I got a call from him. He invited me to his studio to hear a tape
of a singer he was working with. You know Chris, he has a kind of Sergeant Joe Friday way of talking, he said “You have to listen to this singer, she’s great.” Well, lots of people call up and say “You’ve got to hear this singer, she’s so wonderful” and she’s really not. So I went over, feeling grumpy that I had to listen to a tape and try to excuse myself in some diplomatic way. Then when he played Eva’s tape all my grumpiness was gone. I realized of course that she was a really good singer and that her musical interests lay in some areas that are similar to mine. So I said yeah, I’d really like to meet Eva and see if we can do something together. I think it was only a week after that that we played our first job.
Question: You put the band together that fast?
Grimes: Chris had recruited a couple of other people, he had Kent Wood on keyboard and Juju House on drums, but they were only doing it as a favor to Chris, they had other irons in the fire. There wasn’t much money to be made from playing with Eva. So that was already in place, they already knew some repertoire they wanted to do, they just needed another guitarist, and Chris said “We have a gig tomorrow, why don’t you come along,” so away we went. Juju and Kent fell by the wayside when it became apparent that we needed a group that had more time available for rehearsals. They were good musicians, did a great job of getting things started, and both of them continued to work with us on recordings. At that point we got Jim Campbell to play drums, but he was in another group at the time, a rock group which was more what he wanted to do.
So we got Raice McLeod who came out and played drums with us. We realized that this guy really worked out well, that was a big relief. Raice was the perfect drummer for Eva, in all the various styles of music. Most of all, he could do different volumes better than any other drummer. Eva liked the onstage volume to be very low, almost like a jazz group’s volume level, although we did some more extroverted music than a strictly jazz group would be performing. I kind of feel we had a better handle on our onstage volume level than any other group in town.
The group that went out and played the majority of professional engagements for Eva’s career was myself, Raice, Chris Biondo on bass, and Eva. She didn’t want to call it the Eva Cassidy Band, she thought we should pick a “Buffalo Springfield” sort of name. I said “You’re going to sing most of the songs, it doesn’t make sense to use anybody else’s name, if we use your name it’ll be good for you.” She reluctantly agreed. She didn’t like having the spotlight on her, but she had something valuable that was always going to attact attention to her.
Question: You say Raice was the perfect drummer for Eva, what was it that made you the perfect lead guitarist for her?
Grimes: I don’t know if I was the perfect guitarist, but one place where I was able to be helpful — Eva, if left to her own devices would do 10 ballads per set, she never picked a song to do that wasn’t a ballad. Since I had a lot of background in the same music she liked, like Ray Charles records, I’d make a tape with a lot of songs on it and I’d tell her to listen to it and pick some songs she wanted to do, with the stipulation that none of them would be ballads, we always had way more ballads than we needed. The tapes would be rhythm and blues, gospel singers, she liked those. We both loved Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Of course, Eva was devastating on ballads, her ballad singing was really special. But one time she came to me with some Elizabethan ballad about a girl who had been impregnated by the local nobleman, was shunned by everybody, there was nothing left for her but to commit suicide. I said, “I’m so glad you picked this song, it’s going to go down so good in a bar!”
Question: What were some of the engagements you’d do — the favorite places and the not-so-favorite?
Grimes: Our least favorite job, when we started out, was a country/western bar. It had a “top-40 country/western” band playing
downstairs, but there was an upstairs area that had a country clothing boutique and a room where they decided they’d have some different sorts of bands. When we performed there, we were just completely ignored, nobody was ever there, we played for a couple of weeks and we were waiting for them to say “Guys, sorry, but this is it,” but they kept asking us back. I think it was the band who finally cracked, we couldn’t stand it any more.
We did a Polynesian restaurant, where we went almost entirely unwitnessed. Eva used to like to play at this pool room in Bethesda called Shootz, it was a place where Chris used to play pool. They had bands there and for some reason Eva used to like it, she said “It’s like a rec room.” It wasn’t very high pressure, there were about 85 TV sets on while we were playing. I think the true Eva-Cassidy-heads were sort of grossed out by the context.
Question: What are some special artistic moments that you’ll always remember?
Grimes: I’d say all the Blues Alley jobs, although there weren’t all that many of those really. The Barns of Wolf Trap, with
Chuck Brown, was good. It was a different experience working with Chuck with the big band, it was never as well rehearsed as the 4-piece, we were always a tiny bit afraid everything was going to fall apart. There are some other things we did that I enjoyed a lot, we used to play at the 219 Club as a drummerless trio. Basically did the same rep but it took on a different character. The trio thing was actually getting pretty darned good, it was a better context for Eva to do some things that weren’t as hard-hitting, it was more of a jazz room. That was good because the things Eva did that had a great deal of finesse were appreciated to a greater extent.
Question: What music do you wish you had recorded?
Grimes: We never did any real recording with just the four- piece group, that has faded into the mists of time. All the recordings have a lot more musicians added, we had a cast of thousands on the “Chuck and Eva” record. I really regret that there’s no record of what the Eva Cassidy Band sounded like. There’s a song called “Say Goodbye” on EVA BY HEART that is a little more of the character, the instrumentation, of what we were doing live, although we dubbed a lot of the instruments after Eva died. A lot more guitar-oriented.
One song I wish that Eva had recorded was her version of “True Colors.” The first recording of that was Cyndi Lauper, I don’t know who wrote the song. Eva recast it, not in as dramatic a way as she redid “Over the Rainbow,” but she still had her distinctive version of it, and the band’s arrangement of it was very good. Somebody like Eva, sometimes the less she’s got around her the better off she is, but on that one, the way we did that song was very effective, it would be nice to have recorded it. I guess we thought it was something we’d get around to later.
Question: You’re a very accomplished guitarist, and you do a lot of teaching. Were there things about guitar playing that you helped Eva with?
Grimes: Not really, very little. Eva would always come in with her own guitar parts, she knew what she wanted to play. If I ever made a suggestion it was not that frequent, she had that arranger’s sense that moved her beyond the level of craft
she had on the guitar. Many people who could play more guitar than Eva didn’t have as evolved a sense of what to do with it.
She was not confident of her guitar playing, we had to kick her in the butt to get her to play, because she really played so well. There are some recordings like “Over the Rainbow” and “Autumn Leaves” where her playing is the only guitar, and her own arrangements are the perfect complement to what she was doing vocally. But when we started out she would say “We’ve gotta get a keyboard player so I don’t have to play the guitar.” Eventually she got to the point that she felt better about her playing, and I was glad we encouraged her.
She had difficulty tuning her guitar, she had a bad relationship with machines, she was like Woody Allen, she felt they were the enemy. Most musicians these days use an electronic tuner and you can tune silently even in a noisy club atmosphere. Eva could not use a tuner right, she’d plug into it, I’d see she was about to totally explode with frustration, I’d say “Eva, go sit down and have a Coke, I’ll tune your guitar!”
Question: Which of Eva’s albums show you to good advantage, that you’re proud that people all over the world are
Grimes: I thought the LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY album was probably the most accurate representation, summation, of what we did. Of course we thought of it as an ongoing thing, at the time, we didn’t know it was going to be a summation. We had a lot of problems with that record, though. Eva cried when she had to agree to release the record, there were tears streaming down her face, she was so dissatisfied with it.
We went in there to do 2 nights of recording at Blues Alley, that’s the way you do a live record, it takes some of the pressure off, so you don’t have to worry about being perfect on every single song. The first night we recorded, everything got lost due to a technical glitch. We found that out at the end of the night. We wound up having to take everything from the second night, and unfortunately that was the night where things weren’t quite happening, that whole night Eva was at 85% instead of 100%. I thought we had a much better record in us. But as it turned out, if we had discarded those sessions, we wouldn’t have had anything, which would have been too bad. I can see that the record we did make has been important to a lot of people.
That’s one of the things that’s difficult for me about Eva being gone, we were in the middle of the process, we were going to refine it and get better and better, we were in the middle of something that was already good and very promising for the future. But you never know when it’s going to be your time.
Question: How about a recording in which you personally are pleased with your own performance?
Grimes: I’d say the version of “Stormy Monday” on LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY. If you listen closely you can hear it. That’s one song where I really did what I set out to do, I felt good about that.
Question: What about “Dark End of the Street”? It was your arrangement, with a marvelous guitar solo.
Grimes: That was really an hommage to Ry Cooder. So when I hear that recording I think “I really did manage to sound a lot like Ry Cooder,” it’s not the real Keith Grimes coming through.
Question: People are always asking me what artists Eva really admired, whose recordings she would listen to again and
again. What are your thoughts about that?
Grimes: She liked Etta James, she liked a lot of Irish folk music, things like that. I remember when Ella Fitzgerald died
we dedicated a performance to Ella Fitzgerald so I know Eva really respected her. We did a lot of Ray Charles-related songs, with Chuck Brown and on the job. I remember her having read Ray’s autobiography. It’s obvious in the book that he’s not a saint, I remember she was kind of disappointed in that. She saw I was reading the book, and she said “I read it too, he’s nasty!” I said “I know sometimes our idols don’t always embody what we want them to. Maybe we’d be better off not knowing.” She was sort of crestfallen about that.
Question: Chris Biondo told me he thinks that you miss performing with Eva, more than anybody else.
Grimes: I definitely miss being able to play with Eva. Her artistic sensibility was really refined. She would approach songs differently from one time to the next, and to follow her creative process was always really enjoyable on the job. My “thing” has always been songs, I love vocal music. Since I’m not a singer myself, that puts me in the position of finding somebody to back up who can do the sorts of things that I would do myself if I had the voice to do them. With Eva, there was enough common ground that I felt I was achieving that. When Eva died, I felt that we had a lot more left to accomplish, we were in the middle of that, we had the rug pulled out from under us, that was painful professionally as well as personally.
Eva had an artistic ability to make music that came from a deep place spiritually, she was a communicator, she had a beautiful voice and the ability to communicate with great depth. I’ve heard singers who have as impressive a voice, as good an instrument, as Eva, but few have the quality of spiritual depth. Sometimes Barbara will show me letters that people sent her about Eva, it’s clear that Eva affected them in a very deep place. The same sort of quality that an Aretha Franklin or a Ray Charles had.
I really have to say, when I was playing with Eva I thought “We’re all good,” but the more I play her records, now that I have a chance to listen from a distance, I go “Wow!” I’m even more impressed by what an incredible talent she was. Eva herself always used to act like WE were the heavy musicians and she was glad she got to play with us. I do feel that everybody in the band was good, but I realize that if anybody came and offered me what Eva could do in exchange for what I have been working my whole life for, I would certainly trade.
Question: The album booklet for EVA BY HEART, said “This collection was made possible by the time and support of the following people,” and it said “Keith Grimes, whose dedication to the Eva Cassidy Band cannot be measured.”
Grimes: That was nice of Chris, it’s good to be appreciated. I was very honored to have the opportunity to work with Eva. Everything she did with music was her own expression of art. There are a lot of motives people can have for a career in music, and some of them don’t have all that much to do with music, but everything Eva did was part of her musical statement, it was very pure, it was an inspiration to be with somebody who put the music first at all times. She was a good person, an honest person. And she carried a lot more of the band’s equipment than any other female singer I ever worked with!
Question: Are there any photos of the band you’d like to share?
Grimes: There are no photos. We’d say “Hey, we really ought to have a band photograph,” but somebody else would say that getting a photograph is the kiss of death because as soon as you get the photos, somebody drops out. So we never did have any band photographs, for publicity we just used pictures of Eva, since she was the one we were trying to get people to pay attention to. We were the phantoms. So we did have a role in creating the situation where Eva was all people were aware of.
I don’t think she ever realized what a good singer she was, I hope she did, maybe there were moments. When I first met her, I knew she wasn’t all that confident of her abilities. I said “Look, you have a gift, I think you should come to grips with the fact that your gift is exceptional, and you need to recognize it for what it is, not be thinking it’s not good enough.”
Question: How did she react to that?
Grimes: Oh, minimally, as usual, she said thanks for the compliment. I just felt she should understand that she had something that was precious. To be able to put energy into recognizing, I guess that’s the word, what she was given, and deal with that appropriately, instead of only looking at inconsistencies, which is very easy to do as an artist, only seeing the things that were wrong. The people that get to be really good, get there because they really have high standards. That can work for you or against you. If it’s because you have a wish to excel, that’s one thing, but if you’re just pushing yourself and pushing yourself because nothing is ever good enough, that’s not so healthy. I felt that it would be useful for Eva to be able to see that she could do things that a lot of people try their entire lives to do and cannot. One way to describe genius is someone who can do, without apparent effort, what others cannot do even when they are straining their capacities to the utmost.
Question: Does that describe Eva?
Grimes: Yes, and that was helped by the fact that her talent was nurtured, she had that early reinforcement for her musical gift, I’m sure she did a lot of work without realizing it was work. The Cassidys are very musical, her brother Dan is a very fine violinist, she was always surrounded by music in the home.
Question: Where did you expected Eva’s career would end up, if she had lived?
Grimes: Well, we had the group together for 5 years. The thing that was really keeping us from progressing in public acceptance more quickly, was that Eva’s manager was trying to get her a big record deal and didn’t want to do a local release until that was
hammered down, and a lot of time and energy was spent trying to get that deal. It would have been a good idea if it had worked, but it didn’t. I think with the release of more local albums, in a more incremental way, less dramatic way than it turned out, there would have been a groundswell, she would have had a small commercial success. Because of her dying, a lot of attention was focused on her. Eva has become a sort of cult artist. It would have happened anyway but more slowly.
Eva was not a very public person, and the more public things became, that would have created pressures, I don’t know how she would have handled those, I don’t know what level of success she’d be comfortable with. That strikes me, when I read these letters from faroff places, that Eva Cassidy, one of the least communicative of people, is touching people worldwide with her music. A lot of people say “Doesn’t that piss you off, that things are finally happening and Eva’s dead,” and there’s that aspect, and also there was a period of frustration that for so long, we had something offer to that hadn’t come to the surface, so it’s gratifying — I do think she made some classic recordings that are going to sound just as fresh 50 years from now, a hundred years from now.
Question: You’ve read many of the articles that have been written about Eva, is there anything that was wrong, that you’d like to set the record straight about?
Grimes: From a selfish standpoint, I’ve never seen it mentioned in any article that Eva had a stable group with which she did the majority of her performances. I can understand how that happened, the story of the brilliant but unknown singer who dies young takes up all the room. But of course having been one of those guys that Eva worked with most of the time, I care about that and it doesn’t get really brought out. I can see how that happened, we were all self-effacing because Eva took up so little room for herself, so in order to push her forward, give her room to grow, we all put our own contributions in the background a little. Chris was so selfless about boosting Eva, as producer and confidante and everything else with Eva, I’m glad there’s a certain amount of acknowledgment for his part in things at least.
But as far as inaccuracies, I think the writers did a very good job of coming in after the fact and writing about somebody they didn’t know.
Question: What are you doing now? Chris Biondo said you’re playing in a wedding band and doing a lot of teaching.
Grimes: Yeah, I’m trying to put together a group with a singer named Mary Shaver, she’s a rhythm and blues singer. I’d put Eva somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin, Mary Shaver is more like between Etta James and Janis Joplin. And I teach guitar. So I’m working in music full time, but the teaching thing has been more of a mainstay these last few years.
Question: Keith, thank you very much for your time.
Copyright 1999 by Laura Bligh and Keith Grimes. If you would like to use sections of this interview for an article about
Eva, please ask for permission. The photo at the top is courtesy of Bryan McCulley.