Published in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL on September 11, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.
RECORDING THIS WONDERFUL NIGHTINGALE
By Earle Hitchner
Eva Cassidy’s story is something VH1’s “Behind the Music” probably won’t touch. True, the Washington, D.C.-based vocalist died young, at age 33, in 1996. But the culprit was melanoma, not mayhem. There are no titillating incidents of debauchery, drug overdose, or hotel-room trashing tainting her memory. Besides, fame eluded her during her lifetime.
Since 1998, however, Blix Street Records, an independent label in Gig Harbor, Wash., has steadily burnished Cassidy’s posthumous profile by releasing four albums of her music: “Songbird,” “Live at Blues Alley,” “Eva by Heart” and “Time After Time.” They have sold nearly four million copies world-wide, with “Songbird” going triple platinum in England, platinum in Ireland, and gold in Australia and America.
Now this growing global fascination with Cassidy’s singing should only become stronger through Blix Street’s “Imagine,” the impressive new album of songs drawn from pop, folk, soul and jazz that she recorded between 1987 and 1996. It debuted at No. 62 in the Billboard 200 chart–the highest ever for an Eva Cassidy CD–and opened at No. 1 in Britain and No. 10 in Australia.
Cassidy’s life was like her music: honest, sensitive, straight from the heart. She loved the outdoors as much as a good song, and for a time she worked in a garden nursery by day and sang by night. Her three-octave soprano could rise to a defiant blues shout, as in T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” or drop to a confessional whisper, as in Johnny Mercer, Joseph Kozma and Jacques Prevert’s “Autumn Leaves.”
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, who owned an Alexandria, Va., club where Cassidy performed, recalled the effect she had on an audience. “She would sing ‘What a Wonderful World,’ and the next thing I knew, my customers were in tears,” he said from London. “Her most noticeable strength was the ability to interpret a song in a way where it becomes her property. She always connected.”
On the new disc, Cassidy certainly connects in her smouldering rendition of the early 1940s ballad “You’ve Changed,” and her interpretation of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” packs far more emotional punch than Judy Collins’s popular version from the late 1960s. Even “Danny Boy” sounds fresh and new through Cassidy’s multihued voice.
Two previous Cassidy interpretations that electrified audiences around the globe are on “Songbird”: Sting’s “Fields of Gold” and E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” She sings each with spare, haunting conviction, her voice in perfect pitch, her timing impeccable, her own vulnerability bubbling beneath. Taking on that latter song, forever linked to Judy Garland, would make most singers blanch, yet Cassidy’s version stands on its own. In England, the Cassidy phenomenon initially gained traction through BBC Radio broadcasts of “Over the Rainbow” in 1999, and listeners there voted her rendition one of the 20th century’s top 100 songs.
Cassidy flirted with mainstream commercial music in 1994 when she recorded two songs and toured with Pieces of a Dream. Their creamy concoction of jazz and rhythm-and-blues was not for her, however, and the opportunity to stick with Blue Note, the label for which the band recorded, sadly slipped away. “I made a terrible mistake by not signing her,” admitted Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records. “Only one thing counts for me in a vocalist, and that’s originality or singularity. Eva had it, but she wanted to sing all kinds of music, which didn’t fit with Blue Note as a jazz label.”
Ironically, Blue Note would later sign another singer hard to categorize as a jazz artist, Norah Jones. “Like Eva, Norah is eclectic in her music,” Mr. Lundvall said. “Most of the demos she recorded for us were pop songs, but I signed her anyway. I think it was partly because of what happened with Eva that I wound up signing Norah.”
After Blue Note bowed out, Blix Street bowed in. Grace Griffith, a close friend of Cassidy and a singer already signed to the indie label, sent owner Bill Straw a tape of “Live at Blues Alley,” still the most impressive recording of Eva’s singing to date. “It was about four or five weeks before she died,” Mr. Straw remembered from his Gig Harbor office, “and Grace said, ‘We have this wonderful nightingale that we’re going to lose, and you have to hear her.’ I rode around in my car for the next six weeks listening to that tape.”
Mr. Straw never met Eva, but a year after her death, he approached her parents about licensing her music. “Songbird” was the first fruit of their agreement. “It was an anthology created to introduce her to a wider audience, which it did,” he said. “After years of trying when she was alive, Eva had finally exploded the market myth that you have to be in this tight musical mold in order to have a chance at success.”
Hugh Cassidy, Eva’s father, shares Mr. Straw’s belief that her recent success stems from her undiva-like integrity. “She never sang a song publicly that did not have some core meaning for her,” he said from his Maryland home, “and it obviously has meaning for her listeners. Many write and tell me where they were when they heard certain songs by her, and how those songs got them through some tough times. My daughter made every note she sang a telling one.”
Mr. Hitchner last wrote on the Litchfield Jazz Festival for the Journal.