Thank you to Mona and Torbjörn for this translation.
Eva Cassidy died at the age of 33. Four years later – far from the small jazz clubs in Washington DC – she has reached the status of a star she never dreamed of.
Eva Cassidy had one of the best and most expressive voices of the contemporary popular music. She died too soon. During her lifetime she was not known outside Washington DC and the west of Maryland. But her voice was one of the great. She could take any song and give it a personal interpretation. And she didn’t avoid clashes of styles. When Eva Cassidy picked a song from the Classical American Songbook or a folk-song of the sixties anything could happen. She performed Oh, had I a golden thread as if it was funk of the seventies with vocal blues improvisations, suggestive rhythms and a pounding organ. But she could also sing a jazz tune as if it was written by Pete Seeger or Buffy St. Marie and to a melancholic acoustic guitar.
The clash of styles was not an end in itself. The songs provided a raw material to her brilliant and talented transformations. Eva Cassidy chose songs she liked and she drew new nuances and meanings from them. With her ardent voice of full range and accuracy she renewed even the most worn-out songs. When Eva Cassidy performed Bridge over troubled water, Let the good times roll and What a wonderful world you forgot the rubbish heap of mediocre versions which should have made them impossible. And in Over the rainbow she sent with reverence her tribute to Judy Garland and at the same time she revealed new dimensions in the song. “What a voice!” the jazz singer Shirley Horn said.
But all too few have heard her sing. The clash of styles was an artistic necessity to Eva Cassidy but a commercial curse. Many big record companies were interested but they didn’t know how to market her. Was she a jazz singer or a folk singer or even a blues singer? Eva didn’t make things easier: ” Just don’t make me sing that pop crap!”
Eva Cassidy never went far from the local club scene. She spent her short life in Washington and in its suburbs in Maryland. In her leisure time she went on bicycle rides along Chesapeake Bay. In 1996 she died of melanoma, 33 years old. Three years earlier she had an operation. At a routine checkup a doctor found a small but malign mole on her back and a three inches wide strip of skin was removed from the nape of her neck to the base of her spine. Eva joked about it: “My cancerous lesion” she said to the guys in the band. And she neglected the follow-up appointments.
Three years later her manager Al Dale forced her to see a doctor again. At that time Eva Cassidy was painting murals in an elementary school in Annapolis just outside Washington. She had pain in her hip, could hardly move and blamed it on the stepladder work. The X-rays showed cancer from head to toe. The doctors gave her 3-5 months to live. Four months later she was dead.
When she had her diagnosis Eva Cassidy had decided to fully concentrate on her musical career. Many people have witnessed of her shyness, her lack of self-esteem and ambition. Instead of going to college she began to work in a local nursery for plants. And in spite of the fact that she was a musical “Wonderchild” she never realized her talent. After high school she surprised some friends in a Rock´n roll band by singing the first part and then the second, third and forth part in one take and with absolute timing.
Shyness, persistency, implacable integrity and a diversified artistic talent, these were the traits of Eva Cassidy´s complex personality. In 1986 she met Chris Biondo who became her producer, bassist and for a while even her boyfriend. In his recording studio she carried out miracles but for a long time she was filled with panic to go on stage. Once onstage, more precisely during the live-recording of Live at Blues Alley, she kicked off her high-heeled shoes, promised never to wear them again, and carried the concert through in her stocking feet and performed divine versions of classical gospels, jazz-tunes, folk-songs and also some plagues from the singer/songwriter repertory.
Some critics have compared her to Sandy Denny, the English pioneer in folk-rock who used to start to swear and giggle on stage to overcome her shyness and then suddenly began to sing sweet and emotional songs. Sandy Denny also died too young.
When Eva didn’t sing she deepened her interests in painting, design and art handicraft. The combination of shyness and persistency may explain her music and her delayed break-through but she was never aware of her possibilities. She preferred to sing in local venues in front of a small crowd of enthusiasts. As said before, she sang the songs she loved and she ignored the market interests of the big labels. That may look like a romantic image of the uncompromising genius but it is probably true. Contributing to the romantic image is the fact that Eva Cassidy at last obtained the well-deserved break-through she never dared to dream of. Two years after her death. And in Europe.
During her lifetime Eva Cassidy had only two albums released. In 1992 an album together with the local R&B-hero Chuck Brown, The Other Side. It contains classical soul like I’ll go crazy and Dark end of the street and jazz standards like God bless the child and Gee baby, ain’t I good to you. It also includes her version of Over the rainbow . In 1996 came the album Live at Blues Alley. Eva Cassidy, typically enough, didn’t want to release it since she had a cold during these two nights in January when the live recording was done. She thought the cold limited her vocal range.
Chris Biondo had recorded many songs over the years and after her death he released the album Eva by heart. Though the material was not planned to be released, it’s a perfect album. You have a shimmering version of Wayfaring stranger, which Eva Cassidy thought was only half-finished. The albums were hard to get outside Washington DC but in 1998 the English label Hot Records released a collection of songs, Songbird.
Then things start to happen. An overwhelmingly positive review in The Guardian. An enthusiastic host on BBC Radio 2 plays a few tracks and the album enters the charts. Soon it sold better than the most heavily launched albums of the major labels and it was considered Best Album Of The Year in several English newspapers. Hot Record releases the other albums throughout Europe. Eva Cassidy becomes a big star in England. Songbird sells in over 100 000 copies, an unlikely number for a minor label like Hot Records. And when the company this springtime released a new album, Time after Time, it went directly into the national chart.
Andrew Bowles from Hot Records explains why. First, in the end music of high quality always finds its listeners. And second, Eva Cassidy’s fate. “She was the girl next door with a tremendous voice” he tells me in an interview last summer. ” We can all relate to her. We all know someone hit by cancer and we can all be stricken with it.” Andrew Bowles also tells me that Over the rainbow is commonly played on funerals in England and those who have been captured by Eva Cassidy’s magical voice, heard it for the first time just in a funeral.
In Sweden the sales are rather low. Perhaps her lack of musical distinction frightens people off. Many people are suspicious of an album with songs by Irving Berlin, Sting, T-Bone Walker, Paul Simon and Buffy St. Marie. But to me Eva Cassidy is one of the greatest singers of the last decades. With her soft elasticity, her virtuosity, her soulfulness and her Shirley-Horn-like-clarity, she managed to make every song her own. Therefore she reminds me more of earlier generations of great pop-and jazz vocalists than of the icons of her time. That’s why she remains a strange bird in the pop music of the nineties.
Magnus Eriksson is a critic on art and literature.