Once there was a golden voice aimed like an arrow to the hearts of everyone who heard it. The voice belonged to Eva Cassidy: a songbird whose life ended too soon, but whose music has grown in popularity ever since her untimely death.
She was a blue eyed, blond haired Aquarian of Scotch, Irish, and German descent. Her dad, Hugh, was a musician who played bass and cello. He gave nine year old Eva a guitar and taught her some chords. Eva’s little brother Daniel joined in, and Eva’s two older sisters as well. With Hugh as maestro, the family entertained relatives and friends at social gatherings.
Eva’s teenage musical tastes were varied: Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Ella Fitzgerald, and Pete Seeger to name a few. She taught herself guitar, and then piano. While her musical gifts were obvious, Eva struggled singing publicly due to extreme shyness. She persevered, playing with local bands, and at a theme park near her birthplace of WashingtonD.C. But music was a hobby at this point. Eva dabbled in community college as well, but to make ends meet she worked in a plant nursery and as a furniture painter with a penchant for pastels.
Cassidy’s boyfriend, Chris Blondo, found Eva a string of musical projects singing back up vocals and sitting in as a session singer for a variety of musical acts. This led to Blondo and Cassidy forming the “Eve Cassidy Band” in 1990. Blondo, who was one of Eva’s first fans, played a tape of her songs for Chuck Brown, a legendary musician in the D.C. area. Brown was not easy to please, but when he heard Eva’s voice he flipped.
A convicted murderer, Brown learned guitar in prison. He did his time, reformed his life, and is credited for forming a sub-genre of black funk known as “go-go.” The “Godfather of go-go” and the shy, Irish Catholic Eva Cassidy were an odd couple visually, but musically they clicked.
In 1992 the two collaborated on “The Other Side,” an album of blues and jazz standards released on Brown’s label, Liaison records. The most enduring song from the album was Cassidy’s solo cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It is hard to believe anyone could top Judy Garland’s version, but Eva’s tour de force grew in fame, and continues to grow today.
After the album with Brown, Eva had more opportunities to perform. While she loved music, she was still shy playing and singing in public. She was more at ease painting, hiking or biking, or driving out of D.C. and into nature - often with her mother Barbara.
Barbara recalled Eva driving a beat up old pick-up truck out to the country, and swerving all over the road. An alarmed mom questioned her behavior. Eva replied, “Mom, don’t you see the caterpillars? I can’t run them over.”
It was behavior worthy of a Buddhist monk, but Eva wasn’t churchgoing. Her friend and band mate Keith Grimes remembers: “She’s one of those people who see God in everything. She had respect and appreciation for living things…she was spiritual.” She was also fond of Cheetos and Little Debbie snacks.
Perhaps it was this quiet spiritual aspect to Cassidy that made her voice and her music so compelling. In 1993 she performed “Over the Rainbow” at the Washington Area Music Association. A Washington Times review called her rendition a “showstopper.” Cassidy received a “Wammie” award in the best Vocalist Jazz/Traditional category.
But Eva’s refusal to be slotted into a particular singing genre (folk, jazz, blues) kept her commercially obscure. Unable to land a record deal, Cassidy and Blondo released a live album of Eva’s performances at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. Eva had a cold when performing and was disappointed with the results. She did not want to release the album. Eventually “Live at Blues Alley” came out, and received critical praise. A Washington Post reviewer said of Eva: "She could sing anything — folk, blues, pop, jazz, R&B, gospel — and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered."
As the album was released Eva discovered she had cancer in her lungs and bones. Aggressive chemotherapy was not enough to stop the spread of the disease. Eva’s final live performance was at a benefit concert for herself. The last song she sang in public was “What a Wonderful World”. The audience, consisting of fans, friends, and family, must have felt the poignant ache of those words.
The benefit raised $10,000. Eva gave the money to some young cancer patients she had met earlier in the hospital, and wrote over 100 thank you notes to people who attended her benefit.
Eva died at her parent’s home in Bowie Maryland in November 2 1996. She was thirty-three years old. Her body was cremated and, as she wished, her ashes were scattered in St. Mary's River Watershed Park, a nature reserve she loved to visit.
Two years later Eva’s family compiled some of her music into an album called “Songbird.” Like Eva’s other records, it remained obscure. She was unknown outside of WashingtonD.C. until, way across the ocean, English deejay Terry Wogan played a couple of Eva’s songs on his BBC Radio show.
The British audience fell in love with Eva’s renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold.” Critics and fans raved about her soprano voice, her singing range, and her perfect phrasing. It sounded like Eva’s heart was singing the songs, and people responded. Eva’s English fans included Sir Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. Songbird topped the charts in England before 2000.
More albums from Eva came out posthumously, as well as a biography in 2001 titled Songbird: Eva Cassidy: Her Story By Those Who Knew Her. The book has sold well enough to have an American edition containing extra material. Her life has also been portrayed in a musical. There is even talk of a movie.
American figure skater Michelle Kwan skated to “Fields of Gold” while performing in the 2002 Winter Olympics figure skating competition. Eva’s recording of "Autumn Leaves" was performed to by Andre and Natalie Paramonov during the finals of the International Latin Ballroom Competition. The album A Tribute to Eva Cassidy was released in 2012, the same year that another biography of Eva, Behind the Rainbow by Johan Bakker, won The People's Book Prize.
After Songbird, four CD’s of Eva’s music have been released posthumously. Time After Time in 2000, Imagine in 2002, American Tune in 2003, Somewhere in 2008, and Simply Eva in 2011.
The tributes and appreciation for the musical talents of Eva Cassidy is gratifying to her family and friends. They wish Eva was still alive to appreciate the adulation. Eva, however, never really cared for fame. She wanted to touch people’s hearts, and then go on her way. And so she has.
Eva Marie Cassidy, requiescat in pacem.