Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Eva Marie Cassidy - An Anniversary Memorial

Today would have been Eva Cassidy's 47th birthday. Unfortunately she was taken from us on November 2, 1996 at the age of 33, the victim of melanoma gone wild. With the voice of an angel and an exquisite sense of musical style, the tragedy of her life was that she was an obscure laborer in the fields of the music world whose fame came posthumously.

Eva's musical material covers a wide range, but mostly she's known as one of the finest interpreters of the American Songbook, singing Gershwin and Berlin and Cole Porter and Arlen & Harburg... The list goes on. She also covered many more modern "classics", like Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time", bringing to them the same musical craftsmanship and stylistic sensitivity that she brought to the older standards.

As a talent she was beyond compare, but during her lifetime she was almost solely known from her gigs in the clubs in the Washington, DC area and two recordings, one a live album recorded at Blues Alley in DC in January of 1996, and a 1992 album with Go-Go (the DC version of Philly Funk) artist Chuck Brown. She was no stranger to the recording studio and had lots of material on tape, but she died before all but the live album were released. Soon after her death, in early 1997, the album she'd been working on - Eva By Heart - was released. After that, any music of Eva's released was recorded well before her death.

It was the 1998 release - Songbird - that led to her posthumous emergence from obscurity. It was a compilation of tunes from Eva By Heart, Live at Blues Alley, and The Other Side (the album she did with Chuck Brown), and it went pretty much nowhere (from a lack of promotion and poor distribution) until 2000, when it was discovered and promoted in Great Britain by BBC-2 DJ Terry Wogan. Especially popular was the recording of Harold Arlen's and Yip Harburg's "Over the Rainbow", which had become Eva's signature song during her performing career. After Wogan "discovered" Eva, her fame crossed the Atlantic back to the US, and in May of 2001 ABC's Nightline aired a short documantary of her life and career. From there everything really took off, and popular demand required that her musical "executors" - her family and former producer Chris Biondo - release more unreleased tapes and remastered versions of already-released material. On that scant discography Eva Cassidy became a legend. The tragedy is that Eva's no longer here to enjoy that fame, or to give us more.

As reported above, Eva did a gig at the Blues Alley in Washington, DC in January of 1996 which was recorded and released as a live album. Somebody also video-recorded the event, and the clips from that concert have become some of the most watched videos on YouTube. I'd like to share my favorites from that collection.

First is a more modern "classic", Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time". Eva brings it out of Lauper's quirky pop universe and makes a great torch song out of it:

Also in the "torch" category, but with much more swing to it, is her cover of Bill Carey's and Carl Fischer's "You've Changed". This song was performed by the immortal Lady Day (Billie Holiday), Ella Fitzgerald, and Nancy Wilson (it's Wilson's so-very-sexy version that still gives me the shivers every time I hear it) among others. Eva's version fully deserves to be included in that pantheon.

Eva could also swing like Ella or Dinah, as this version of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek", first popularized by Fred Astaire, attests.

But Eva Cassidy is probably best known, and most beloved, for her down-tempo tunes. She sings them with an emotional intensity that brings out the full potency of the lyrics. Her version of Louis Armstrong's hit "What a Wonderful World" by Thiele and Weiss is a perfect example; she never failed to leave an audience in tears with this one. What's especially poignant now about her version of this song is that she closed the set with it at her farewell concert at The Bayou in September of 1996. She and everybody in the audience of friends, family, and long-time fans knew she was dying, so closing the set with this song had a special poignancy that still closes throats and brings tears.

And last but not least, Arlen's and Harburg's showpiece for Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, "Over the Rainbow". Eva personalized it and made it her signature song, and I can think of no better way to close out this birthday tribute to her. Thank you, Eva!

Text © 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. In 2003 I was introduced to Eva by a performer while I was theatre administrator for a lovely little 300 seater. I have two CDs Blues Alley and Song Bird. I will have to find them and give them a dusting off!

    thanks for the great history lesson Roy!

  2. Yes, Eva was a class act, and no doubt about it!

  3. Eva Cassidy had an amazing, beautiful, magical voice. She now lights up heaven with her angelic voice...RIP