People never forget the first time they heard Eva Cassidy: where they were, what they were doing, or the fact that this amazing voice made them stop everything, listen, cry, find out who the singer was, and seek out her music. A voice so pure, strong and full of emotion that it connects with everyone within earshot.
And then, at the same moment a person discovers Eva Cassidy, they have to deal with the loss of her.
It’s one of those stories that is at once beautiful and tragic, taking on a life of its own and becoming the stuff legends are made of—especially if the lead character is a petite woman so shy and unsure of her talent that she would never realize the degree of her gift during her own lifetime; who was unknown outside the D.C. area where she worked in a plant nursery during the day so she could play half-filled clubs on weeknights; or who was never able to land a record deal because labels couldn’t figure out how to market her—she just loved to sing great songs and was steadfast in her refusal to be confined to any one style of music. And then—less than six months after using her savings, a cash advance on a credit card and a $1,000 gift from her aunt to record and release her independent album—she tragically died of malignant melanoma on Nov. 2, 1996 at the age of 33.
As with all great legends, however, what seemed to be the end was only the beginning of this bittersweet tale of Eva Cassidy.
Four years after her death, a tape she had made of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” made its way into the hands of a programmer at Britain’s BBC2, who was so moved that he played it on his program—only to be overwhelmed with responses from people who, among other things, had pulled their cars over to call in and find out who this stunning voice belonged to.
If Eva were alive today she would no doubt be shocked and most likely overwhelmed at the worldwide attention, or by the praise bestowed upon her by the likes of Paul McCartney and Sting—indeed that they even know her name at all. As of 2008, her posthumously released albums have sold over eight million copies worldwide. Eva’s high school friend, Ruth Murphy, summed it up nicely during an interview on ABC News Nightline: “I have to kind of laugh because this is the way I think Eva would have loved it; everybody else does all the talking for her, and all she does is sing.”
To honor Eva, who would have turned 48 on February 2, here is the story behind her performance and recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” written by her cousin, Laura Bligh who runs the website www.evacassidy.org.
“OVER THE RAINBOW”
In the end, it was “Over the Rainbow” that made Eva Cassidy a star, but it didn’t happen until five years after her death.
Nobody seems to remember when Eva started singing it, but her producer and bassist Chris Biondo says, “Eva had been doing ‘Over the Rainbow’ for years. She had already recorded it once on a friend’s four-track when she was in high school. I remember we were driving to Ikea Furniture one day, and she pulled out a cassette and wanted me to hear the song. A couple of times I had to pull over, I was crying so hard; it was brutal. It was all her own version; there was a note she changed that was really good on the word ‘far,’ … it’s better than the way Judy Garland sang it.”
In the early ’90s, when the Eva Cassidy Band was recording The Other Side with legendary D.C. bluesman Chuck Brown, Eva and Chris spent a few days in his studio working on “Over the Rainbow.” The planned album would consist primarily of duets, but Chuck and Eva would each be featured on solos as well. Knowing that Eva’s “Over the Rainbow” was something special, all the band members urged her to record that song for it. Eva played every note on the recording herself, Biondo says. “First she went in and played acoustic guitar, and that took the longest. Then she did the lead vocal, and then the other instruments. We worked really hard on it, and I remember the day we finished it—it was July 18, 1992. We were really tired and we didn’t think it was very good.”
Whatever Eva and Chris thought of the recording, lead guitarist Keith Grimes was very much impressed. “We were really slaving on that ‘Chuck and Eva’ album, and in the midst of our grunting and straining and working very hard (laughs), Eva and Chris did this song in a couple of days. She came in with that, and I said, ‘This is the best thing on the record! You little stinker!’ I felt so admiring of Eva. It was as if somebody had done the quintuple Lutz. I felt like going up and shaking her hand, because it’s so hard to land the big fish—in terms of performance—and that’s what we were grappling with on some of these songs. And she did it. It’s like capturing something, because once you have it recorded you’ve got it forever.”
The Other Side was released by Liaison Records in 1992. With the addition of Chuck Brown, the struggling Eva Cassidy Band started to get some better engagements. They opened for the Neville Brothers Band at Wolf Trap, played at the Barns of Wolf Trap, the Kennedy Center Open House, the Columbia Arts Festival and The Birchmere. Most importantly, they played at Blues Alley, the famous Georgetown nightclub where all the great names of jazz and blues had performed. That first Blues Alley gig was a tremendous thrill for Eva, who later described the whole experience as “perfect.”
According to drummer Raice McLeod, “When we did Blues Alley with Chuck the first time, ‘Over the Rainbow’ was one of the songs that Eva chose as a solo for herself. Eva played guitar and Keith played some solo lines with her. Lenny [Williams, keyboardist], Chris and I left the stage, which meant that we walked through the crowd as they started the first few bars of the song. It was basically a Chuck crowd, a little harder crowd than would be there at a typical Eva-only show, and I remember hearing a couple of groans as she started. Boy, when she finished it, they were screaming. And I remember thinking at the time that it was a red-letter moment for Eva, even though she didn’t realize it. She basically turned some hardcore people around from thinking they were going to hear this schmaltzy old ballad they really weren’t going to want to listen to, and she moved them with that song.”
In January of 1996, the night Live at Blues Alley was recorded, Eva again sang “Over the Rainbow” at Blues Alley. This time she played all the guitar parts herself, without Keith’s backup. Knowing that it would not be used on the album since the studio version had been on The Other Side, the pressure was off and Eva played her guitar accompaniments flawlessly. The head cold that was bothering her that week gave her voice a huskier quality than usual and she cracked a note near the end. Her friend Bryan McCulley was videotaping with his hand-held camera, but when she was singing she was too deep in the song to notice.
Fast-forward. Five years after Eva’s death, her music had already reached a wider audience than she could ever have dared to dream thanks to radio airplay on BBC Radio 2. But there was more to come. On December 13, 2000, McCulley’s low-tech video of “Over the Rainbow” from Blues Alley was broadcast on the BBC’s popular music video show Top of the Pops 2. The producer, Mark Hagen, had his doubts about the video clip’s poor production values, and he was taking a risk in putting it on the program. The favorable viewer reaction, however, was astonishing: TOTP2 later characterized Eva’s “Over the Rainbow” as “the most requested video in the history of the program” when it showed the clip again on January 24, 2001. Never mind that the picture wobbled a bit when someone jostled the camera, or that someone’s head occasionally obscured the view of the singer. People who had heard the song from The Wizard of Oz so often they had ceased to listen, found themselves falling in love with Eva Cassidy’s reinvention of the classic Arlen/Harburg ballad.
Five years after she died, the shy singer from Bowie had become a star.
For the full feature on Eva Cassidy including interviews with her family and bandmembers about other Eva’s arrangements and performances of other songs including “Fields of Gold” and “Autumn Leaves”: EVA CASSIDY HI-RES PDF.
For the issue Eva Cassidy was featured in: ISSUE 66, DECEMBER 2002
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard