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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Best Musical Artist You May Not Know


Who is the best relatively unknown female popular vocalist of all time? I vote that honor would rest with Eva Cassidy. The story of Eva Cassidy has been told many times, but she still remains a relatively unknown artist. She was a secret slowly exposed by word of mouth from those who stumbled into her world and emerged forever fans. It explains why so many musicians sought Eva Cassidy out. Everybody felt as if she was a part of their mix. It is the same story, the world over, every time anyone hears Eva Cassidy's voice for the first time: They stop what they are doing and they listen. Then they rush out and buy her CDs. This is a brief biography of her life.


Eva Cassidy was born February 2, 1963, in Oxon Hill, Maryland on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Eva inherited a predisposition for creative expression from her parents. Her father taught special education but was also a bassist, cellist, and sculptor, and her mother, whom her dad met in Germany in 1960, came from a family of craftsmen and decorators. 

Growing up in this imaginative family, she sang as a small child and later, at age nine, she learned to play the guitar from her father Hugh. She loved folk and jazz in particular (as a girl, her favorite singer was Buffy Sainte-Marie). Even then, as a child, she had an amazing gift for perfect harmony, and on family outings, she would listen with great passion to the car radio and sing, harmonizing perfectly with the music. (
Her father Hugh once said, "One of the reasons she got so good, whenever a song was on the radio, she would always sing with it -- not the melody, always the harmony." Hugh continued, "She had a sense of harmony -- it didn't matter what part -- high, low, she could take any part. (Later) When they'd call her in to lay down tracks, she'd go in and just do it because she had an incredible ear." (Richard Harrington, Washington Post, November 17 1996)

At one point, her father put together a family folk act with her brother Danny (a highly accomplished fiddler, who now lives in Iceland and performs throughout Europe) and Eva. Eva's sensitivity eventually made performances too difficult on her. (Steve Huey, All Music Guide,  

She endured school, preferring her own company and, whenever possible, being involved with music and painting. Eva was a complex person, painfully shy, vulnerable to criticism and subject to seasonal depressions.

After graduating, Eva studied art for a short time at a community college, but soon grew dissatisfied with what she was being taught, and dropped out to work as a plant propagater at a nursery, a job that engaged her love of nature.

Throughout the 1980s, Cassidy worked with several other bands, including the techno-pop band Characters Without Names. In her free time, she explored other artistic expressions including painting, sculpting and jewelry design. (Joel E. Siegel, Eva by Heart liner notes) In 1986, longtime friend Dave Lourim persuaded Cassidy to lay down some vocals at a recording session for his soft pop/rock group Method Actor. (The results were eventually reissued in 2002.) 

Then, Eva's musical talents began to be noticed by the right people. Introduced to Cassidy at his home studio by a friend who had marveled at her voice, D.C.-area producer Chris Biondo remembers, "I didn't even pay much attention, but I remember Eva was scared to come in the door, she waited outside. It wasn't very intimidating, but she thought it was a bigger deal than it was. When Eva finally came in and sang, I knew my friend wasn't kidding." (Richard Harrington, Washington Post, November 17 1996) 

Chris Biondo was immediately struck by her voice and agreed to help her put together a demo tape she hoped would get her more backup-singing work. Cassidy became a regular presence at the studio, where she recorded a wide variety of music. (

Biondo later introduced Eva to Al Dale, who would become her manager. Dale recalls hearing Eva's voice for the first time in the studio, "I said, `Man, she's great!' I was expecting to see this black lady and out walks this little blond, blue-eyed lady and I said, `Is that Eva Cassidy?' " (Richard Harrington, Washington Post, November 17 1996)

She sang back-ups for various acts, from go-go rhythm and blues band Experience Unlimited to rapper E-40. (Jefferson Morley, The Washington Post, March 8 1998) At Biondo's urging, Cassidy formed a backing band to play local clubs, where her singing began to win a following in spite of her discomfort trying to overpower amplification.

Nicky Scarfo, who produced the gangsta rap at Biondo's studio recalled Eva's incredible talent in the studio like this: "These are guys that would shoot me if I messed their tape up. When she'd come in," Scarfo says, "I swear, it was like the principal walking into a class, I've never seen them so respectful and well behaved." Such was the respect for Cassidy's amazing talents. Scarfo related, "She could do four-part harmonies just like that -- 1,2,3,4, write it and hit it, all the harmonies, note for note, and be done in 20 or 30 minutes. It was unbelievable."

In 1992, Biondo played a tape of Cassidy's voice for Chuck Brown, the "Godfather of go-go." Brown, not a national break-out artist, had been wanting to record an album of jazz and blues standards, and found his ideal duet partner in the sophisticated yet soulful Cassidy. It resulted in the duet album The Other Side featuring performances of classic songs such as "Fever," "God Bless the Child," and what would later become Cassidy's signature song "Over the Rainbow."  

Chuck Brown recalls, "When Eva agreed to make an album with me, she gave me the inspiration and confidence to try something I used to lie in my bed dreaming about but was always afraid to do." (Joel E. Siegel, "Eva By Heart" liner notes) Brown said, "When I first heard her voice, I thought about Louis Armstrong and Peggy Lee. What a combination that was way back in the '40s and nobody'd done it since! I really felt good about it."

Cassidy and Brown began touring together in 1993 around Washington D.C., and partly helped by Brown's showmanship, Eva finally began to lose some of the insecurity and intense fear that usually kept her away from live performance. At first, she felt uncomfortable on-stage, keeping her eyes downcast to avoid making contact with the audience. But, as she came to realize how much people enjoyed the music, she gradually evolved into a more confident, outgoing performer. Cassidy and Brown also began opening for big acts like the Neville Brothers and Al Green.

Singer Mary Ann Redmond recalled, "She (Cassidy) didn't have any ego, she just wanted to sing because she loved music. She didn't even really like being onstage that much -- she'd rather sing background than be in the foreground."

Several record labels showed interest in signing Cassidy, but her recorded submissions always covered too much ground -- folk, jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, pop/rock -- for the marketing departments' taste (or limited imaginations), and the labels always wound up passing. Manager Al Dale said, "She chose songs that moved her, that allowed her to express her feelings. Record companies wanted to dictate her material, to fit her into a certain mold so they could target a specific market. But she wouldn't go along with that. She refused to compromise her music to make it more commercial."

In 1993, Cassidy was honored by the Washington Area Music Association with a Wammie award for the Vocalist Jazz/Traditional category. ("Wammie Winners," Washington Area Music Association) The next year she was invited to perform at the event and chose to sing "Over the Rainbow". A Washington Times review of the event called her performance "a show-stopper." ("Wammies Honor Area Musicians," Washington Times, November 9 1994)

In September 1993, Eva had a tumor removed from her neck and, thinking little of it, didn't follow up on her checkups.

Frustrated by the record industry, Biondo and Dale decided to showcase Eva's music on a self-produced CD, taped live at Georgetown's Blues Alley in January 1996. Unsatisfied with the results, she begged them not to release the album. A compromise was reached when Eva agreed to let them issue the live CD if she could immediately begin working on a follow-up studio album. 

Her insecurity about Live At Blues Alley was unfounded. When the album appeared in June, Washington reviewers hailed it as one of the most accomplished solo vocal debuts of the decade. The public's response was equally enthusiastic. Despite minimal advertising and limited airplay, Live at Blues Alley became one of the D.C. area's best-selling records of 1996. (Joel E. Siegel, "Eva By Heart" liner notes)

The second, "Live at Blues Alley," came out a month before she learned she had cancer. 

While working on her first studio record, eventually to be called Eva By Heart, she moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and took a job painting murals in elementary schools. Soon after, her hip began to hurt her.  She assumed that the pain was being caused by the step ladder she had stood on all day, but the pain didn't stop. When she had it checked out, she discovered that her hip bone was actually broken. Further tests revealed that the melanoma from her tumor had spread to her lung. Tests at Johns Hopkins then found that her bones were filled with cancer. She was told she had three to five months to live. (

Eva started chemotherapy immediately, though it seemed little more than rage against the storm of sickness.
"It wasn't just the music," says Biondo. "Eva fought as hard as she did because she wanted to ride her bike again, to go out and spend Sundays with her mother. She loved music, but it didn't mean as much to her as it meant to the people that were listening to her singing." (Richard Harrington, Washington Post, November 17 1996)

A constant stream of friends kept coming to see Eva at Johns Hopkins, bringing her fruit and flowers. She felt badly that these were going to waste, so she asked someone to bring in paper and crayons. "Often she could not see her visitors because of the regimen she had, so this way she helped her visitors to express themselves to her. When one stepped off the elevator and saw the hallways lined with people sitting on the floor colouring, talking and getting to know each other; it was a wonderful scene to behold. Eva had every picture hung on the big wall at the end of her bed so she could see them." (

A benefit was scheduled at the Bayou in September 1996, with dozens of bands and individual musicians volunteering their services. "Eva cared enough about it to try to get herself pumped up to get there," Al Dale said. Effects of the still-spreading cancer and the harsh side effects of chemotherapy had made Cassidy so ill that she decided to forgo chemo on the two days before the show. 

This is an account of her last performance by her manager, Al Dale as written in the Washington Post by Richard Harrington on November 17, 1996.

"When she arrived at the club -- moving slowly with a walker, a sprightly beret masking the loss of hair -- Cassidy looked frail but golden.

"Eva had such a sparkle that night -- she said, `This is like my big birthday party.' It may have been the one time in her life that she came to terms with the idea that people really do like her and think that she's a terrific talent. It filled her to know people appreciated and loved her."

Late that evening, Cassidy slowly moved down the Bayou stage steps with her walker and approached the microphone. Typically, she first thanked everyone. And then, with a fragile beauty that belied her pain, she sang "What a Wonderful World," a vision of moments and places and people that will never again seem quite as wonderful as they were that night.

Eva Cassidy's eyes may have been the only dry ones in the Bayou at that moment."

It was the last song she would ever perform. Over the next few days, Cassidy tried to send thank-you notes to the performers and those who helped put the tribute together, even if she could only do one a day. The cards bore a heart with a smiling face. 

On her Brother Danny's last visit shortly before Eva passed away, he recorded the violin track for " I know You By Heart." Later her father, brother and friends played a concert for her outside her bedroom window. (

Eva Cassidy died on November 2, 1996, at the age of 33, after spending a few months in the hospital.


It was after Eva's death that her albums became really successful. In 1997, Paul Walters, a producer for BBC Radio 2 discovered her, and it was "Over The Rainbow" that was played on Terry Wogan's  show that ultimately led to the release of the Songbird album, which by late 2000 achieved Gold and by 2001, Platinum. Eva's songs have brought solace to those who have lost loved ones, and her songs have been used for Cancer research adverts and have been used in the films Love Actually (2003) and Maid in Manhattan (2002). (Internet Movie Database)

In 2003, American Tune became Cassidy's third consecutive #1 album in the UK. No other recording artist in popular music history has been able to match this posthumous success, including Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix. (

In 2005, when released a list of its top 25 best selling musicians(in order of total units sold) in the site's ten year history, Eva Cassidy was ranked 5th, behind The Beatles, U2, Norah Jones and Diana Krall. (

In late 2007, AIR Productions acquired the rights to produce a film based on the life of Eva Cassidy which was to be produced by Amy Redford daughter of Robert Redford and Eva’s parents suggested that the role of their daughter should be played by Kirsten Dunst or Emily Watson.

Eva Cassidy was opinionated and stubborn, unyielding in her personal values and artistic principles. She loved solitude, bicycling, movies and Cheetos, hated high school, dresses, aggressive drivers and the exploitation of women in advertising and television. (Joel E. Siegel, Eva By Heart liner notes)

She was obsessive about her art projects, painting, drawing, sculpting, designing jewelry, decorating furniture and clock faces. She surrounded herself with supporting friends and was extremely self-conscious. With few possessions and a modest goal of wanting to live in a cottage by the ocean, she was also very practical. Having no sense of money, Eva didn't have a checking account until she was 30 because she worried that material success would threaten her identity.

People who knew and loved her feel that this private, stubborn, sensitive woman would not have tolerated the intrusions and inconveniences of celebrity, and probably would have pedaled away from the limelight on her bicycle.

"Eva By Heart is Cassidy's artistic testament, demonstrating the scope, versatility and depth of her talents... her pinpoint intonation... her effortless control ... her luxuriant multitracked choral backgrounds... her astonishing dynamics that range from the opalescent caress of ballads to full-throated, roof-raising blues and gospel shouts. The wonder of her sound is complemented by her fluent skills as an instrumentalist, guitar and keyboards, and the resourcefulness of her arrangements, which enfold her voice and guitar in layered harmonic textures. But even more impressive than her musicianship is the sheer, heartfelt emotion she conveys," said Joel Siegel. (Joel E. Siegel, "Eva By Heart" liner notes)

"She didn't really understand that there were categories between songs; if they were ones she happened to pick, that was her category. I don't think until the day she died she ever understood what that was all about."  Chris Biondo

The following CDs are available:
The Other Side (1992) Chuck Brown & Eva Cassidy
Live at Blues Alley (1996) Eva's first solo album
Eva By Heart (1997) Unreleased studio recordings
Songbird (1998) Compilation of first three CDs
Time After Time (2000) previously unreleased recordings
Imagine (2001) previously unreleased recordings
American Tune (2003) previously unreleased recordings

 Eva's biography is Songbird by Gotham Books available at
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