Beautiful Eva died in 1996, from melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Her music was little-known during her 33 years of life, but today her soul-stirring voice is reaching people all over the world. For some fans, the pleasure of listening is enough. Others want to know more: "Who was this remarkable singer? Why haven't we heard of her before?
By Sherri Dalphonse
It was the fall of 1996, and Eva Cassidy was dying. As she lay in bed in the Bowie home of her parents, musicians in a nearby studio were laying guitar, piano, and violin tracks on vocals Cassidy had recorded over the years.
"After they'd finish, they'd come in and say, 'Eva, we just finished one of your songs—would you like to hear it?' " recalls friend Jackie Fletcher. "She had left so many incredible recordings."
Her friends wanted to do something—anything—for Eva. They wanted to share with others a voice that had been little heard outside Washington. Fletcher sent tapes to local radio stations, requesting that they play Cassidy.
"If they'd tell me, 'Jackie, I'm going to play Eva in this hour,' I'd call Eva and say, 'Listen to the station—they're going to play you tonight.' It made her so happy. She had worked so hard, and finally she was getting some recognition."
No one guessed then how the voice of Eva Cassidy would spread.
Four and a half years after her death from melanoma, a posthumous album, Songbird, reached number one on the United Kingdom chart with more than a million copies sold. One Web site devoted to Cassidy—there are five and counting—has messages from fans in Australia, Poland, Hong Kong, even Vatican City. In this country, National Public Radio aired a nine-minute segment on Cassidy in December, and soon her albums occupied five of the top seven slots on Amazon's bestseller list.
What is it about Eva that has created such a sensation?
For one thing, her voice is captivating. Mary Chapin Carpenter, a gifted singer herself, says that the first time she heard Cassidy's voice she "just about fell off the couch."
When radio stations play Eva, their switchboards light up. Many callers say they were in their car when they first heard her and had to pull over to cry.
"Eva evokes that kind of reaction. Not just 'She's good' but 'Who the heck is that?' " says Keith Grimes, who was a guitarist in the Eva Cassidy Band.
Cassidy had great control, phrasing, and range. She was petite—five-foot-two—but could belt out a bluesy "People Get Ready" as easily as she could sing a delicate tune like "Autumn Leaves." Some who heard this soulful Scotch-Irish-German woman thought she was black.
It's more than Cassidy's technical skill that grabs people. It's the sense as she sang that she was reaching from her heart to her listener's.
"There are singers that have great instruments but are just singing the notes," says Grace Griffith, a friend and local chanteuse. "Other singers have emotion but not the instrument. Eva had both."
No song speaks to this expressiveness as much as her rendition of "Over the Rainbow." Cassidy, who loved the Wizard of Oz books as a child, breathed new life into an old song about hope and longing.
An amateur video of Eva shot at Blues Alley, her face full of feeling as she sings "Over the Rainbow," is largely responsible for the big sales in England. It's just about the most requested video in BBC history.
Eva's parents receive two or three letters a week that mention how soothing and uplifting Eva's music is, how it helps them through troubled times. Her mother, Barbara, recalls a letter from a woman who said that when her son died, "the doctor gave her a hug and Eva's record."
In 1998, when David Finn's mother was dying, Cassidy's voice provided comfort.
"With the diabetes, she had lost her sight and was bedridden the last six months of her life," recalls Finn, who once owned an Annapolis restaurant called Pearl's, where Cassidy performed. "We would sing along with Eva's songs. The diabetes causes a lot of pain. It was one of the things that would help ease the pain."
Some may wonder if Cassidy's death at the age of 33 accounts for some of the popularity. No doubt her life story is part of it. But articles about her haven't boosted sales as much as when her songs are played on the BBC or NPR. Hearing about Eva Cassidy isn't as powerful as hearing her.
Says her father, Hugh Cassidy: "The letters, the things I read, more and more confirm that there's something afoot here. It is kind of mysterious the effect it's having."
Eva Cassidy was happiest not in a smoky nightclub but outdoors, where she hiked and biked and basked in the beauty around her. She and her mother—her best friend—went for a walk, bike ride, or drive to the water almost every Sunday.
"She had this old pickup truck, and one time we were on this country road and she started swerving," recalls Barbara Cassidy. "I said, 'What are you doing?' And she said, 'Mom, don't you see those caterpillars? I can't run over those.' "
"She's one of those people who see God in everything," says Keith Grimes. "She had respect and appreciation for living things. She wasn't a religious person in the churchgoing sense, but she was spiritual."
Cassidy's favorite "holiday" was the first day of spring. Her birthday was in February, and she'd save one of the sugar roses off her sheet cake and stick it in the freezer. Then on the first day of spring she'd take it out and savor it.
Cassidy's favorite time was sunset, which she called "the golden time."
"When I'm working out in the shop, I wait for the golden time," says Hugh Cassidy, a retired Prince George's County teacher and a metal sculptor. "You just stop what you're doing and take it in. When I see those golden rays, every once in a while I'll say, 'It's time to put on Eva.' "