In September 1996, when it was clear that 33-year-old Eva Cassidy was dying of melanoma, her friends in the Washington, D.C., music community organized a tribute concert for the singer at a club called the Bayou. Exhausted from a transfusion and with a scarf hiding chemotherapy-induced baldness, Cassidy hobbled onstage using a walker. Wiping her runny nose, she joked, “It’s snot, you know. It isn’t like you haven’t seen it before. It’s just part of the whole package.” Then she sang “What a Wonderful World.” “There was not one dry eye in the house,” says her former producer Chris Biondo. She died that Nov. 2.
Two weeks ago, in a twist probably unprecedented in pop music, Cassidy, once barely known outside D.C., hit the No. 1 spot in Great Britain with the album Songbird. Drawn from the two independent CDs released in her lifetime and a duet album with D.C. funk star Chuck Brown, Songbird is a platinum-selling hit—largely due to word-of-mouth praise by listeners who have fallen in love with her soulful voice. “You remember when you first heard Eva,” says former Beatles promoter Tony Bramwell, who urged major British DJs to give Cassidy airplay after a colleague sent him the album in 1998. Songbird, mostly featuring Cassidy accompanying herself on guitar with no studio tricks, “goes in the face of all typical music,” says her father, Hugh Cassidy, 65, a retired public school teacher and professional bassist. “It hasn’t had all the glitz and hype.”
Painfully shy, Cassidy was incapable of self-promotion. “Most people tend to think they’re better than they are,” says Biondo, 44, who was also her boyfriend from 1989 to 1991. “Eva thought she wasn’t as good as she was.” She seemed content working at a plant nursery. “Eva hated dealing with money,” says her friend Jackie Fletcher, 49, a bookkeeper. “She worked to live—to ride bikes, take long walks, collect rocks.” No degree of success would have spoiled her, says Biondo. “If she beeped her car horn at someone, she might feel badly for days.”
Others, though, have always been willing to speak up on her behalf. Only weeks before Cassidy died, Washington-area folksinger Grace Griffith sent a letter and a tape of 13 of her friend’s songs to Bill Straw, founder of Blix Street, a small L.A.-based label. “We have this nightingale that I’m afraid we’re going to lose,” Griffith pleaded, “and you have to hear her.” Cassidy signed a contract with the label the month before she died. Songbird came more than a year later, after a visit to L.A. by Straw’s friend Martin Jennings, head of the British label Hot Records. When Straw played the tape, “I did the classic ‘Who is that?’ ” says Jennings. Once Cassidy’s estate was settled and the family’s consent obtained, Straw released Songbird in the U.S. It won a small audience among public-radio listeners. A few months later, Jennings released it in Britain. There it triggered a slow reaction, stoked by the enthusiasm of the likes of Tony Bramwell, and caught fire last year. This winter the video show Top of the Pops 2 was inundated with requests after airing an unshowy 1996 clip of Cassidy singing “Over the Rainbow.”
American interest is surging now too. Amazon.com has seen a run on her albums (including a second posthumous collection, Time After Time), and her music has turned up on TV’s Dawson’s Creek. Hundreds of fans here and abroad have written to Hugh Cassidy. “People open up about their losses,” he says. “It’s a catharsis somehow.”
Growing up outside Washington in Bowie, Md., Cassidy and her three siblings were inspired by their father’s love of folk music. Her brother Dan, 36, now a fiddler in Iceland, recalls the day Eva, 7, said, “I was looking on the back of a Buffy Sainte-Marie album and saw a picture of her singing with headphones. This is what I want to do.”
Cassidy had begun singing with her brother and other area bands by the time she finished studying art at a community college in 1982. Then, in 1986, she met Chris Biondo, an engineer and bassist, and they later fell in love. Even after their relationship ended, “I didn’t want her out of my life,” says Biondo. He encouraged her to record, and introduced her to Brown, 67, sparking a collaboration that won raves in the clubs. “As she sang,” says Brown, “you could hear Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and even Janet Jackson.”
Then, in 1993, a malignant mole was removed from her back. Three years later, seeking help for hip pain at Johns Hopkins medical center in Baltimore, she learned the cancer had returned. She lasted four months. To the end, says her mother, Barbara Cassidy, 61, “her remarkable spirit guided her. She was enveloped in a bubble of love from family and friends.” Her ashes were scattered in an area where she enjoyed hiking.
Now Eva’s voice soars anew. “I’d love to see her music known coast to coast,” says her dad. “People get a lift out of it. That makes us feel good. And,” he adds quietly, “it makes the sting of her death a little less.”
Sarajane Sparks in Washington and Caris Davis in London