Last Tuesday, November 2nd, mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Eva Cassidy. She was only 33 years old at the time of her death and it seems like it was only yesterday. It's hard to believe that she would now be 58 years old. Still, it's hard to think of an aging Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or Cass Elliot or Jim Morrison. They are forever frozen in time as young. and brightly burning stars.
But those stars died at the height of their fame. they were enjoying the star lifestyle and fortunes made from record sales. Sadly, Eva Cassidy enjoyed none of that. All of the fame and record sales came after her death in 1996. Yes, she would eventually sell more than 10 million albums and own the charts with three albums and a great hit single. But her life didn't see that and she struggled to pay the rent.
She was only five feet 2 inches tall but she did incredibly hard work every day and was sometimes the only woman on a crew of men doing exhausting labor for as long as she could. She unloaded huge bales of peatmoss or truckloads of trees, transplanting seedlings, watering plants, and everything else that greenhouses require. That was before the medical problems started.
But unlike Hendrix or Joplin, who lived hard and fast and ultimately died from their excesses, Eva Cassidy wasn't like that. She died of melanoma. All that time in the sun, working so hard and long, had taken its toll. Not drugs. Not alcohol. Working with plants.
Remember listening to the bootleg CD over and over in my car. It was recorded at a small club in Baltimore and her banter with the crowd showed her to be a charming and lovely person. Eventually, her album Live at Blues Alley was recorded and that was something of a miracle in itself.
To pay for the cost of recording, she cashed in a small retirement pension. Even at that time, she was already undergoing medical treatment and using that money to record an album was seen as foolhardy, if not irresponsible, by her critics. Everything seemed stacked against her when, on the first night of her two-day engagement at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., technical difficulties rendered the entire recording of the first night unusable. Now, it all came down to one evening on January 3, 1996, when Eva showed up for her final chance at a live album.
On that night, Eva was suffering from a cold and began to wonder if any of the music she was about to record would be worth hearing. Still, she took the stage and gave it all she had. And that was quite a lot.
You have heard her sing, even if you don't own the album. you may have heard it on the radio are you may have heard her in movies or TV shows. If you have watched the Winter Olympics, you have watched skaters use it as background music. You have heard it in commercials.
Eva Cassidy has many, many fans now. A 21st anniversary edition of Live at Blues Alley is soon to be released and the ranks of her admirers will swell once more. She was almost a star in her lifetime but it just wasn't to be.
A friend of mine, journalist Ted Gioia, spoke with Bruce Lundvall, head of the US division of CBS records, when Lundvall retired in 2010. Ted writes, “I spoke with Lundvall around the time of his retirement in 2010, and he said that the biggest regret of his career was not signing Eva Cassidy. A friend had brought her to his office, where she sang “Amazing Grace” unaccompanied. That’s hardly the way to win a major label record contract—solo renditions of 18th century hymns simply don’t cut it—but Lundvall was stunned by what he heard. Yet others at the label were put off by her eclecticism. Michael Cuscuna, sent by Lundvall to check out Cassidy in concert, came back with the verdict of “No direction”—almost certainly due to her willingness to sing any kind of song in any setting.”
Lundvall had a final conversation with Cassidy in late 1996. He still agonized over his indecision, but by then it was too late. “It was only a short conversation,” he relates in his autobiography. “She died two or three days later.” But he knew he had made a mistake. “I should have signed her.”
In the end, she was rejected because she didn't easily fit into a specific musical genre. The recording industry had become stupid and tried to pigeonhole every recording artist that came their way. The music industry of 1996 probably would not have signed Bob Dylan or Ray Charles.
Eva Cassidy could sing any style and she liked it that way. To this day, people still try to focus on this or that skill. Some only want to hear her slow ballads while others only want to hear her Jazz numbers. Again, Ted Gioia states, “I sit in rapt admiration when I hear Cassidy sing the old folk ballad “Wayfaring Stranger”—which she turned into a soulful groove number. If you want to know how strange that decision was, listen to the way this song was originally sung. It’s one of the starkest traditional songs in the whole Anglo-American canon, and even though it has been updated, usually by country or folk singers, none of those versions even begins to prepare us for what Eva Cassidy achieves.
“I call particular attention to how she raises her ambitions and intensity with each passing chorus—and 3:40 into the performance you feel she can’t possibly lift the level of her singing any higher. But she reaches deep, deep inside and delivers something you have to hear to believe.”
You can find that song on YouTube and it will give you chills to hear it. It's actually very astonishing that no one thinks of Eva as a soul singer. Then again, no one calls her a Blues singer and yet, if you listen to the song Stormy Monday, you could envision her building an entire repertoire around music like that.
Equally amazing is how some of her cover versions go beyond the originals, even gaining the praise of the original artists. Paul Simon publicly praised her cover of Kathy’s Song. Her version of Fields of Gold is light years ahead of the original version by Sting.
But I think the song that surprises me the most is the one she sang that night at Blues Alley. It was a song that originated with Judy Garland and has been recorded by everyone from Art Tatum to Patti Labelle to Willie Nelson to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Of course, I’m talking about Over the Rainbow. In December of 2000, a clip of Eva performing the song—recorded by a camcorder at Blues Alley—was featured on the BBC2 program Top of the Pops 2. Following the premiere, it became that program's most-requested video in history.
The song was later released as a single on January 29, 2001. Recordings she had made from 1987-1991 were discovered and released. A 32-track recording double-CD called Nightbird was released in 2015. There have been many official and unofficial releases of her recordings and live performances. People who wouldn’t advance her career in 1996 are now making money off of her.
I want to give Ted the last word because he said it so eloquently when talking about her performance of Over the Rainbow. “How can you watch this poignant video, and not think of that place beyond the rainbow as the fame she never tasted, the successes she never knew about because they happened too late, or the years and decades robbed from her by illness—and just a month after the Blues Alley gig, doctors told her that the cancer was terminal.
But in a way she did achieve that somewhere over the rainbow—that place where, as the lyrics promise, “the dreams you dare to dream come true.” Her songs have given her the kind of immortality that Shakespeare and Villon and the poets have written about, and which only art confers. We benefit from it, even if she didn’t. And still do after twenty-five years. I just wish she was here to see how it all turned out.”
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.