19 January 2016 Features
On November 2, 1996 music lovers across the world lost one of their most treasured and loved artists. Yet, the tragedy is that at the time, they were still to discover her wealth of talent. To commemorate 20 years since Eva Cassidy’s passing, Megan Gnad speaks to her family, label and admirers, about her posthumous career, the iconic Blues Alley recordings, the price of fame and the legacy the sweet songbird leaves behind.
Bill Straw remembers the life-changing phone call as vividly as if it were yesterday. The President of Blix Street Records listened carefully as singer Grace Griffith relayed with urgency how he must listen to a relatively unheard of young singer from Washington D.C.
“She said ‘you have to hear this wonderful singer. This wonderful nightingale, I’m afraid we’re going to lose.’ She sent me a tape and it was cued up to Fields Of Gold. I knew immediately, within seconds, she was extraordinary and by the time I’d heard the whole album, I knew she was one of the best ever.”
Tragically, within one month of hearing Eva Cassidy’s glorious recordings, he learned the singer had passed away at just 33 from melanoma. Family and friends mourned the loss of a loved daughter, sister, friend and talented musician, but, for an artist who would go on to have such a massive posthumous career, it now seems unfathomable that they wept in relative privacy.
The outpouring of grief from the public would follow. Once the world realised what it had lost, music lovers took Eva to their hearts. She is now recognised as one of our greatest female musicians, with an influence on almost every genre, including jazz, blues, country, gospel, folk, pop and rock.
The fact that her music even had the chance to be shared can be put down to a series of luck and good judgement, and a public desire to listen and make sure this songbird would
never be forgotten. For that we have a set of recordings to thank from one special night at the Georgetown jazz club, Blues Alley. These tracks ensured she became a superstar and have now been reproduced and packaged into a 31 track album and DVD, NIGHTBIRD, set to commemorate 20 years since her untimely death.
On the night of January 2, 1996, Eva and her band, made up of Chris Biondo (bass), Lenny Williams (piano), Keith Grimes (lead guitar) and Raice McLeod (drums) took to the Blues Alley stage, using money from the small pension Eva had cashed in at her tree nursery job.“We thought we’d get airplay, and sell a thousand copies so Eva could put some money toward a PA system,” explains Biondo.
The band was booked for two nights and with family, friends and a few members of the press in the audience, it was a resounding success. They had nailed it in one take. But as they listened to the recordings back, their hearts sank. The lighting system had somehow created a buzz throughout the entire show and they were swiftly deleted. No one has ever heard them since.
Suddenly the pressure was on. It was January 3 and Eva was suffering from a cold. While she gave it her all, she was not satisfied with the recordings and her first thought was to scrap the lot. Fortunately, once she heard the final mixes, she was persuaded by her band mates to allow the original, 12 track, LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY album to be released – with one condition. The album would end with her studio recording of Oh, Had I A Golden Thread, a performance she was particularly proud of. It was to be the only solo album Eva Cassidy released in her lifetime and helped her work become promoted to its legendary status.
Within ten months of the showcase, Eva was gone, but Bill Straw had been keeping a close eye on her wellbeing, through Eva’s friend, Grace Griffith.
“I knew that she was not long for this world, and I also knew she was most likely to be famous, and wasn’t going to be around to enjoy it,” he says. “I ran around in my car for months listening to it and it was just profoundly sad. I didn’t know how her parents would feel about it, whether they would have her music marketed, or if it would be too painful. I basically wasn’t thinking about business at all.”
Bill says he had enough experience to know he was hearing a great performer but he also knew a lot of major companies had passed on signing her.
“I knew audiences would embrace Eva immediately,” he says. “The individuals within [the industry] certainly knew what they were hearing, but they didn’t know who would buy it. They were trying to create packages that they could market using mainstream radio, and mainstream radio wouldn’t play Eva Cassidy, because it didn’t fit the formula.”
By April 1997, Bill was in Washington working on Grace’s project, when he was invited for dinner with Eva’s parents, Barbara and Hugh Cassidy. He says her death hit the artistic community in D.C. “pretty hard” as many found out about her and lost her within the same timeframe. With this in mind, there was a desire from her parents to honour this groundswell of love and, with Chris Biondo’s help, they soon put out EVA BY HEART.
By this stage, Bill had heard the original LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY, EVA BY HEART and the 1992 duet album with Chuck Brown, THE OTHER SIDE. He was soon harbouring plans to create a super album. With her parents’ support, he compiled the now-famous, SONGBIRD record, featuring a selection of songs from these previous recordings, notably Fields of Gold, Autumn Leaves and People Get Ready.
Upon its release, the album’s impact and popularity occurred in stages, and soon the press were writing favourable reviews and radio stations were playing the songs.
“We got little breakthroughs in different areas,” says Bill. “I had a promotion guy who was working in the jazz format. He emailed it to a friend of his, who booked a jazz club in Boston. SONGBIRD arrived in the mail…and he goes, ‘what’s this? It’s got this snapshot of the girl-next-door on it. And he puts it on, and it just blew him away. He made a tape copy of it and sent it to a friend of his who had just taken a job as a morning DJ on a radio station. She was new to the business and didn’t realise you had to go through a programme director. So she just put Fields Of Gold on the air and we sold 10,000 CDs in Boston in three weeks. She practically lost her job over it.”
In the UK, it received the same reaction when Sir Terry Wogan introduced it and then the Over The Rainbow video (hand-held and ‘pretty rough’) was played on TOTP2 which he says, started a “press feeding frenzy.”
“It ended up going number one in March and, at the same time, we had got national public radio in the same week in America and they did a segment on Eva. Within hours we had the top five albums on amazon.com, made up of the four albums we had out, plus THE OTHER SIDE.”
SONGBIRD became one of the best-selling albums of 2001, and was soon followed by two more number ones: IMAGINE in 2002 and AMERICAN TUNE in 2003. But, was this explosion of popularity, fuelled by the tragic story behind the soulful young singer’s songs? No, he says, the story adds to it, but it was all down to the music.
“When you add the story, it adds a certain amount of poignancy. But, if the music didn’t stop people dead in their tracks, they wouldn’t bother to listen to the story. When we first got involved people thought I was crazy. They said, ‘how are you going to market a figure that’s no longer with us?’ And I said, ‘well, you have to work with what you have, and what you have when you hear it, is an instant legend’.”
A global superstar couldn’t be further from how Dan Cassidy remembers his sister. “She was a kind, humble person, very enthusiastic about art and music, sometimes temperamental, humorous, sharing an affinity toward nature and showing compassion for the underdog. That’s how I remember her.