The Never-Ending Resurrection Of Eva Cassidy
9:12 AM EST on February 15, 2023
I met my wife at a pool hall on a Friday night in late 1995. Neither of us had come to Shootz, a billiards bar in Bethesda, Md., to wield a cue. We’d both showed up to hear a local singer who performed there regularly. What became of Eva Cassidy after that night makes for a far more interesting story than our meet-cute.
Cassidy had been singing blues, jazz, and country cover tunes for various D.C. bands for several years by then. But hard work and the voice of an angel often ain’t enough in the music business. Cassidy had only a very small following in her hometown, and was essentially unknown outside the Beltway. One sign of her commercial irrelevance: I paid a $3 cover charge to get into Shootz and hear four full sets of Cassidy and her backing quartet, and I got the $3 back in pool credit.
Cassidy’s career has boomed since the Shootz show. She got huge first in England around the turn of the millennium—she made BBC Radio’s “Songs of the Century” compilation in 2000 and topped the U.K. album charts—and then across Europe and Asia. Her fame eventually reached back to the U.S. To date she has sold about 11 million albums worldwide which far as I can tell makes Cassidy the most successful singer in D.C.’s history who didn’t have to leave town to get famous. Michelle Kwan got the world to listen and much of it to cry when she skated Cassidy’s version of “Fields of Gold” at the 2002 Olympics.
Musicals about Cassidy’s life are in production in theater companies in South Africa and D.C. (the latter based on Cassidy’s friendship with local legend and go-go godfather Chuck Brown). And on March 3, Blix Street Records will release I Can Only Be Me, an album of Cassidy singing with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). That’s a band that never had to play a pool hall.
Eva Cassidy didn’t get to enjoy fame or fortune, or to actually sing with a symphony. She never even got a record deal. Mere months after that Shootz show, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died in November 1996.
Cassidy had put out just one solo album before her death, the self-released Live at Blues Alley. That project started coming together at the end of 1995, when band members and Eva devotees Lenny Williams and Chris Biondo successfully convinced her that while playing pool halls was fun, for her career's sake she really needed to get a record out.
“We always had trouble getting Eva to finish things, like a [studio] record,” Williams, Cassidy’s piano player and arranger, told me in 2015. “Chris thought doing a live album, getting it out quickly, getting her something she could sell, something for critics to write up, was the answer. And Eva said yes.”
Cassidy asked Blues Alley, a small (capacity: 124) but legendary D.C. club known mostly for jazz residencies, for a two-night run. Blues Alley management told Cassidy she could have Jan. 2 and 3, immediately after the holidays—or, as Williams said, “the two worst nights for clubs in America.” Cassidy took the dates.
I was among those at Cassidy’s Blues Alley gig, and afterward asked her about her career plans. She denied being ambitionless or fearing success; the right offer just hadn’t come yet, she said. She hoped the fresh batch of live recordings of her covering famous pop, rock, gospel, country, and R&B tunes would find some takers.
“I’ll be shopping these tapes around,” she told me.
No major label presented a deal for the Blues Alley sessions that Cassidy deemed acceptable, however. So she and her band put the record out themselves. She needed money from an aunt to pay for 1,000 CDs to be pressed.
“I remember driving with her to Virginia to go pick them up from the CD plant,” Biondo, her bass player and producer, told me in 2015. “She thought we bought too many. So the whole ride she was saying she knows she’ll have boxes and boxes of them lying around forever, really concerned that for the rest of her life she’d be seeing these things in her basement. I was telling her don’t worry about that, that it would be fine. But, I thought it would be a great thing to sell the 1,000 we had.”
By now, several million albums of Cassidy’s Blues Alley recordings have been sold. Cassidy barely lived long enough to get rid of the first 1,000.
At a gathering that summer celebrating the release of Live at Blues Alley she complained to friends about soreness in her hip. Doctors determined the hip was broken not from an injury but from the effects of melanoma, a cancer which they found had also spread to her lungs and throughout her body. She was told she’d likely be dead in a matter of months. Her last public appearance came in September 1996, when she showed up at a tribute concert that local musicians threw for her at the Bayou, a D.C. rock club. Cassidy got to the stage with the help of meds, friends and a walker, and sang “What a Wonderful World.” For the first and last time, local news broadcasts gave Eva Cassidy some coverage.
Cassidy died on Nov. 3, 1996. She was 33 years old. Soon after, Cassidy’s family agreed to let Blix Street Records, a small label based in Washington state with a stable of mainly Celtic and folk singers, control distribution of her material. Her first posthumous release, 1998’s Songbird, did not make big waves initially.
Cassidy’s big break came around the turn of the century in London, when Paul Walters, the producer of a morning show on BBC radio, heard and fell for Cassidy’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” He convinced presenter Terry Wogan to throw it on the air despite the artist’s anonymity. The reaction from listeners was so swift and positive that the BBC also added Cassidy’s Blues Alley recording of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” to its playlist.
“The phones started ringing, people were writing in saying,”Who was that?’” Walters said. Then in December 2000, BBC television aired a grainy video of Cassidy singing “Over the Rainbow” at Blues Alley on its weekly music show, Top of the Pops. Soon enough, producers were calling it the most requested tune in the decades-long history of the idol-making TV show, and Songbird topped the UK album charts. Two additional repackagings of Cassidy covers, 2002’s Imagine and 2003’s American Tune, also hit No. 1. (A sign that Cassidy remains a force across the pond: Huffington Post UK reported that only Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman are played at more British funerals than her “Over the Rainbow.”)
Cassidy’s British takeover, in turn, made her newsworthy back home. People magazine and the New York Times ran features on the dead American singer’s resurrection overseas. Nightline devoted an entire episode to her life and death story, one highlight of which was Bruce Lundvall, the president of the preeminent jazz label Blue Note Records, telling the network that he called Cassidy on her deathbed to personally apologize for not signing her.
"I asked her to forgive me," Lundvall told ABC News. Lundvall has said he signed Norah Jones, maybe the most Cassidy-like pop singer ever, as an attempt to make up for letting Eva down.
Blix Street Records has since released at least 11 more Cassidy collections, on which she covers Buddy Holly to Billie Holiday and about everybody in between. Cassidy’s Blues Alley tracks have been rehashed every which way on these compilations, and the label has even released some of her rehearsal tapes commercially.
According to Blix Street, I Can Only Be Me was made possible by state-of-the-art audio restoration technology developed by filmmaker Peter Jackson while making his epic Beatles documentary, Get Back. Jackson’s brainchild let producers pluck Cassidy’s vocal tracks from the full band mix of studio and even live recordings (including some from the 1996 Blues Alley tapes) and clean them up so her sweet soprano can be thrown on top of orchestra arrangements, which were recorded as recently as January 2021.
If you can block out the grave-robbing aura that has long pervaded any Cassidy project, I Can Only Be Me's orchestral maneuvers work fabulously. (See for yourself in this shootout of “Tall Trees in Georgia” from Blues Alley vs. “Tall Trees in Georgia” newly sanitized and paired with a symphony.) Then again, Cassidy’s voice would work in any setting, from a strip center pool hall to the toniest concert hall. As Biondo told the New York Times in 2002, ''As long as she was singing good, the rest of it doesn't matter. And she always sang good.''