“One of the best singers of all time”: memory of Eva Cassidy, 25 years after her death | Music

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On late May 1996, singer Eva Cassidy and her bandmate Chris Biondo drove to a remote factory in rural Virginia to pick up copies of the recording which turned out to be the last she ever did. “We collected a total of around 1,100 cassettes and CDs,” Biondo recalls. “When we got in the car Eva opened a box and started to worry. She felt like she wasn’t going to be able to sell them all. I will never forget her comment: ‘When I’m dead and that they will find me, there will be boxes of that in my basement, “she said. Her expectations for the record couldn’t have been lower.

After all, Cassidy had been performing for almost a decade in relative obscurity, and although she had a number of meetings with record label executives during this time, they never made it past the stage. discussion. Worse yet, in the summer of 96, the 33-year-old was facing something serious. Over the next few months, she would receive increasingly grim diagnoses of cancer that had already started to accelerate in her body, depriving her of any chance to score during her time on earth. Considering this, who could have predicted that Cassidy’s music would one day generate a sustained catalog that would sell in the millions, creating hits the world over? “At the time, we were just hoping to make enough money to buy a sound system,” Biondo said.

This week will mark the 25th anniversary of Cassidy’s death from melanoma cancer, just 10 months after recording the live album that she and Biondo took to pick up that day. The story that later emerged – of a talent barely recognized during his lifetime, which was then posthumously acclaimed – has become one of the most dramatic bad news / good news in pop history. . But that would never have happened without the hard work of some dedicated supporters, as well as several connections that brought his songs to the attention of more media gatekeepers than is normally credited in the story.

The little label that set things in motion, Blix Street Records, seemed an unlikely engine to propel such success. Before making a deal with Eva’s estate, the brand had made modest sales with recordings of jazz instrumental groups and Celtic singers, whose bestseller was Mary Black. It was another singer on the label, Grace Griffith, a friend of Cassidy’s from the Washington DC club scene, who introduced her music to Blix Street boss Bill Straw. “We have this wonderful nightingale,” Griffith told him, Straw recalls. “I’m afraid we will lose her.

“As soon as his voice started, I felt it was amazing,” he said. “By the time I finished the album, I came to the conclusion that he was one of the best singers of all time.”

Although many have come to similar conclusions since, Biondo was one of the first to do so. He met Cassidy in the winter of 1986 when, on the recommendation of a mutual friend, she came to visit him in his small home recording studio. “She was afraid to come in because she had never made a recording like this before,” Biondo said.

Once she started singing, however, he was immediately won over by her natural talent. “A lot of people take classes to learn music theory and how to make harmonies,” he said. “She might just do it. I watched her come up with three or four part harmonies out of nowhere. She heard it in her head and then sang whatever she heard.

Biondo believes the skill is what freed her to bring so much emotion to the songs. “There are a lot of components for someone trying to play a song,” he said. “They have to think about the technical parts, the next note and the phrasing. But because these things were so natural to Eva, it allowed her to go straight to the next level, which was to go inside the song and feel the lyrics.

Her skill also meant that she could improvise the tunes at will, as well as bend the notes with the care of a sculptor. “She could change the tune into something the band hadn’t heard before on a gig-by-gig basis,” Biondo said.

Then there was the pure sound of his soprano, embellished with a tone as mellow as the fleece. “It was the purity of tone that struck me,” said Rob Burley, who wrote the book Songbird, of Cassidy’s life. “The unadorned quality of it shines through.”

Photography: Courtesy of Blix Records

Sometimes, however, the subtlety of his approach and the quiet intensity of it could fly over the heads of some audiences. “We never played strong which was a problem for us,” said Biondo. “We once played at this club in southern Maryland and we were doing ballads, country tunes and the crowd was Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, so people were leaving. The guy who hired us to play said, ‘What if I pay you and you go home? It’s never a good thing when someone pays you to leave.

On the flip side, Biondo said Cassidy “thought it was pretty cool,” an attitude that underscores her focus on performance rather than reception. “She just loved going out and singing,” he said. “She didn’t want someone jumping up and down.”

Cassidy has remained just as cool when it comes to meeting record labels. “Maybe half a dozen companies came to talk to him,” Biondo said. “But she’s never done the kinds of things people do who think they’re going to get a contract do, which is to act thoughtlessly and make friends quickly with the folks at A&R.” I don’t think they were too impressed with his level of enthusiasm.

Cassidy’s low-key response had two sources: her introverted character and her fear that the industry would try to put her omnivorous musical taste in a box. When a company executive asked Cassidy what kind of music she wanted to record, she said, “anything but that pop shit,” Burley said. When the prestigious Blue Note Records gave Cassidy’s band a budget of $ 3,500 to cut six songs, they covered six different genres. “You could see that business acumen and who the artist was was going to collide,” Biondo said.

At one point, Blue Note tried to pair her with a smooth jazz band on the Pieces of a Dream label for a few songs, but the singer looked down on the outcome. A nicer proposition came from Apollo Records, run by civil rights activist Percy Sutton, a label linked to the famous Harlem-based theater. “They sent her a contract which meant she could have quit her day job (at a nursery) and got an annual salary,” Biondi said. “It was a dream come true.”

Unfortunately, before Cassidy could sign, the company closed. This is the reason why Cassidy and her band recorded the album Live at Blues Alley. It was basically a hail pass to get some much needed attention and money. Sadly, around the same time, a mysterious mole on Cassidy’s back started to cause concern. Because she hadn’t seen a doctor in years, Biondo insisted she go to his house. But she delayed for six months. When she finally got there, it triggered a procedure that became much more invasive than initially assumed. The doctor had to remove the skin from her neck all the way down her spine in a strip three inches wide. While the surgeon thought he had caught all of the cancer, he came back with a vengeance. “It was bad news after bad news,” Biondo said. “She had cancer in her lungs, her brain, her arm, her back.”

Several months of intensive chemotherapy followed, to no avail. In her final days, Cassidy’s music was once again featured on various labels. And they still refused it. “What pisses me off is that there was no one smart enough to figure out what was there,” Biondo said. “When they heard Eva, they should have known.”

Bill Straw had heard Cassidy’s music before; he was invited by Griffith to meet her at a benefit organized for the singer two months before her death. But he felt it would be macabre for him to attend. Six months after his death, however, he met his parents. Straw had the advantage of understanding the kind of specialist audience he assumed she could reach at this point. It helped that there were no other serious bidders. Although Cassidy had only self-published three albums in her lifetime – including a collaboration with DC go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, a solo work, and the live album Blues Alley – she had some 127 records in the box. From this deep treasure, Blix Street crafted an ideal set called Songbird, which they released in 1998. A myth arose that the album sold nothing until it was picked up by the BBC. Radio 2 two years later, but, according to Straw, the American press quickly jumped in, with rave reviews in publications as mainstream as People magazine. After the label convinced a Boston radio station to broadcast their music, “we sold 10,000 CDs in this city in two weeks. We kept having these little explosions, ”Straw said.

The moment for Mount Vesuvius, however, came when UK Blix Street associate label Hot Records hired Tony Bramwell, a ’60s promo guy who had worked with The Beatles, to promote the music. He brought it to the producer of Terry Wogan’s huge morning show on Radio 2. “They listened because of Tony Bramwell’s lineage,” Burley said. The result immediately resonated with UK listeners, generating snowball sales. Just before Christmas 2000, after Top of the Pops 2 released a fuzzy video of Cassidy singing Over the Rainbow, the album rose to the top of the UK charts.

Eva cassidy
Photography: Courtesy of Blix Records

In the years that followed, demand for his music spurred the release of no less than 12 subsequent albums, consisting of previously unreleased or repackaged performances. This December will see the release of another – a 25th anniversary edition of Live at Blues Alley. Biondo, who is credited as a producer on most of her recordings, doesn’t believe all of this music is worth hearing. “I don’t think Eva would want to take it all out,” he said. “She hasn’t had a chance to censor her own stuff and I don’t think that’s fair, especially since she had feelings so strong people didn’t hear her at her best.”

Even Straw thinks a release shouldn’t have happened – the Nightbird ensemble of 2018. Yet, he said, public pressure dictated that release. As for what Cassidy herself would have done with the amount of attention she received, Biondo said: “she would have been scared to death.”

He thinks she would have preferred a more measured and controllable level of attention. “I dream of Eva every now and then,” thought Biondo. “In the dream, she is not dead and she is as loved as she is now. I see her singing in this little restaurant behind my house. Maybe there are 40 people who can get in there and she plays there every night and people pay a lot of money to see her. And they are silent and they really listen. For her, it would be paradise.


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